The Ferry & The Bulldozer

The purpose of this project is to ferry the payphone into an afterlife of image and word before it disappears, like a tribe without a written language, under the bulldozer of modernity.*

What Kerouac said about the sadness of bus-station floors applies equally well to payphones. Their stoicism, their refusal to perish, their patient, heroic suffering, the sort we associate with saints, these are the very things that also make them beautiful. Viewed at certain times of day, they seem to glow with an unearthly light. I imagine them as aged Broadway matrons, albums full of clippings clasped to their bosoms, waiting on the corners for someone to remember them. (I am their Billy Wilder; I have come to give them their close-up.) Or as worm-eaten prostitutes, caressed as smooth as driftwood, cast up onto the streets where they used to solicit, petrified there. Or abandoned dogs tied to lampposts, waiting for their master, any master, to come with kind word, let them drink from cupped hands. Or protestors, trapped in a generation-long act of civil disobedience; when the workers come to carry them away, the steel will suddenly turn to putty. Or the Greeks at Thermopylae, making a last stand against an invading Persian modernity. In all these ways, they speak to every New Yorker, whose identity depends on the fantasy of living in that older, greater New York that directly preceded his or her arrival.

Lift the receiver; not even a dial tone. This phone is dead. But isn’t the gnawed plastic still warm from the last hand that touched it, a hand just like yours? Why do you stick your finger where a thousand other fingers have been, noodling around in there for some stray nickel like a loose tooth? And what about the beer bottles and take-out containers they wear like uneasy crowns? The smell of urine, the fingerprints of a runaway, the old calling card left by a tourist rearranging the contents of his wallet, the used condom in a mound of soiled snow, the empty baggie, the stickers and graffiti—all the traces of those who have taken advantage of a moment’s shelter afforded by that metal wimple …

And the stories, of course. Millions of stories. Most of all, payphones are like armored chaplains, open-air confessionals. They don’t demand from us any act of contrition.

Have you never told your stories to the dead silence of a broken payphone? Try it. Go ahead. Lift the receiver, cradle it on your shoulder. Listen to the silence that, unlike the silence around you, assumes the shape of a void. The wire goes nowhere and everywhere, is connected to nothing and everything, as relatively primitive as the cup-and-string you experimented as a child. There, you’re a child again. Go ahead. Whisper your deepest secrets. Your most obscure and embarrassing fantasies. The names of your secret loves. Hexes against those who caused you pain. The names of people you believe you could kill … or at least whose absence from the world would help tilt its fragile moral ledger a hair nearer the black. Caress that emptiness like the body of God; seduce it. Who knows but that somewhere in that stony metal box, in that gizzard full of coins, many of which are older than you, some fabulous organ hasn’t captured every word everyone has ever said there, its circuitry reconfigured into a hieroglyphic of aggregate terror and desire? If just one payphone could be coaxed out of its decades-long silence, what sordid marvels would it relate?

Beautiful, too, that no one sees them anymore. But then part of the purpose of this project is to suggest that we start seeing payphones, as the sticker on the bumpers of cars driven by motorcycle enthusiasts urges, and to say that, by paying attention to payphones, we are seeing more, we are seeing the vestiges of a whole multifarious city that is daily more easy to ignore. The phone is a figure for this superannuated city, for vanishing public/collective space, for the people thrust from consciousness. Forgotten city, diminished city, residue-of-a-city. For a city depends on public space and public personhood in order to be a city; without these, it is something else—call it what you like—but it is not—it is not a city.

The ostensible replacement for the payphone—I mean the cell—is not a city-friendly technology. “Cell” better describes the person than the technology: each his or her own little membrane-enclosed entity, milling about in proximity to but divided from every other. Of course, this is not a bad description of the pre-cell city, and one could argue that the cell consummates the city even as it dissolves it. One could further argue that the cell simply exacerbates the alienation that has been one consequence of distance technology, at once joining us and transforming our relationships and interactions. To argue differently, as though the cell represented some break with the past, would indicate an inability to look objectively at one’s historical moment, and to participate (ironically) in cell-induced myopia. So that when I state, for example, that with the cell phone something has been lost, it is not in the thing, but in the self: one’s sense of being at the vanguard of history, the bow of a ship scudding into the future.

But then this is precisely what I am arguing: that the cell does not simply exacerbate, but rather creates a whole new set of conditions for this alienation. For what the payphone could never do was really make us believe that we had “reach[ed] out and touch[ed] someone”—that is, give us a convincing illusion of wholeness. Historically, the city drew people with the fantasy of an achievable wholeness, which began by making them recognize, or imagine, their own incompleteness. What people found when they arrived was never that promised wholeness, but a desire that, in the multiple channels available for its fulfillment, sometimes masqueraded as wholeness … or at least enabled them to forget, for a time, their incompleteness. The important thing was the awakening and cultivating of that desire. In the city you could have it all, or die trying; one day mouthing at the ineffable, unable to bite down; the next waking up in a spent alley, at the bottom of a river, on an out-of-service train. The payphone was never more than a go-between, a pulse on a wire: the tryst, the trick, the shady deal, the drop-off, the fugitive on the lamb. If you went to the payphone to call home, it was only to be reminded of what you had lost, what you still lacked, what you could never go back to. The payphone spoke the desire to connect, the endless deferral of that connection, and the palpability of loss.

The cell trades on a similar fantasy, but addreses it differently. On our fabulous little pocket phalluses, people appear like djinns from lamps, spirits from sorcerers’ fires. There is no reason to reach out and touch someone; they are all right here, in our pockets or in our hands. (More often than not in our hands. Pockets have a way of making you feel alone; you are never quite sure what you will fish out of your pocket, what you have forgotten there.) We smile and coo at our little screen-mirrors, wandering about holding them before us like strange divining rods to ourselves, blocking the tops of subway stairs, narrowly avoiding collisions with like others in our eagerness to be nowhere.

The payphone could never provide such gratification, not just because the voice was never present—it always somehow invoked its own distance, absence and transience—but because we could never take it with us. If the payphone was the tenuous bridge, the deferred fulfillment, the cell is unreal fulfillment. The payphone retains the material object but defers it; the cell phone dematerializes the object and presents a fantasy of it. With the payphone, the other is substantial but unknowable; with the cell, insubstantial and knowable, or rather, knowable because insubstantial. With the payphone we reach out and “touch” someone; in cell space, the idea of reaching out (and touching) holds no meaning. With the payphone the megalodon-City cradles us in its maw, like an alligator does its brood; with the cell phone, the city fits in our palms. The cell replaces the city, making the whole world into a single, fantastic un-city. Unlike the public phone, the cell has no inside; it is pure membrane; images adhere to this surface without passing through, drift across it like projections on a bubble. It is this spectacle of unembodied others passing endlessly over our surface that makes us feel connected, feel whole.

Objection: people use cell phones for finding other actual people more efficiently and fluidly than payphones allowed—say, at a protest to defend my beloved public space and fetishized “public” phone. Two responses. First, position is no longer defined by the actual, individual physical space—the city—but by the persons traveling through it. All space is alike, because its only function is to provide coordinates for finding the other; it has no value as such; it is as abstract as degrees longitude and latitude. (Ironically, the payphone, an entity which once signified a certain rootlessness, has become the last vestige of place.) Second, this is a subsidiary function of the cell phone, the residue of an earlier age—the payphone age, the city age. Look at Manhattan over the last twenty years, the agribusiness-like pursuit of a profitable monoculture. “Independent” businesses have become identical, because their clientele seem to have identically-constructed expectations and desires. Chains have come to have a nostalgic appeal, a resilient, corporate individuality, while the idea, chain, has penetrated to the level of culture.


So, the project. Think of it as an ethnography of sorts, one where the subjects refuse to speak, and this forces you to observe them more minutely than you might otherwise, had you been able to depend on their words. When they do not speak, you are forced to. This way, something of them will remain, preserved in image and word, refracted onto the world’s retina. I accrete them as I write; their edges seem to grow blurry as I do. Were I a renegade, I would take a sledgehammer and a torch to each one as soon as I was finished with them.

As I was beginning this project, I thought to see whether it is being done in other cities, even in my own city. The blessing of the internet is also its curse. It is like the damned condition of Borges’s librarian-pilgrims, wandering through a world in which all has been written. The novelist Christine Brook-Rose once said that since Joyce wrote Ulysses, the novel had become a relay-race in innovation. Ugh. Maybe the task of our century is to dismantle such a notion; maybe postmodernism’s promiscuous imagination, including Brook-Rose’s, has already succeeded in doing so. (One should always take more stock in what fiction writers write than what they say.) The dissolution of history, brought to us by the same people who brought us the cell phone, produces a whole new paralysis: History is no longer the nightmare from which we are trying to awake, but rather is folded into an eternal, plenitudinous [?!] present which holds us in its thrall. We are up to our eyes in it; when we open our mouths to speak, all we can do is swallow. If we stare too long at leviathan’s ocean, do we become wise fools or babbling idiots? Sometimes, we have to close our eyes to best participate.

A bit about materials and methodology. All pictures of payphones will be taken on a “phone.” By “phone” I refer to an old iPhone my brother-in-law wiped and mailed to me. It is not set up to be used as a phone, but it has this capability. I have received conflicting answers about whether this means I have a phone. Whole schools of philosophy scuttle themselves against such questions. Hence the scare quotes. Anyway, I do hope this amounts to more than a cheap irony, or an act of peurile resistance. I hope to suggest something about the way the technology (and culture) of the present consumes and represents that of the past.

I think it was somebody in PETA who said something to the effect that they knew chickens who had more personality than most people. As with chickens, so with payphones. Another way of thinking of what follows: as a pageant in honor of the beauty of a disappearing city. A long, slow parade; allow for two to three weeks between marchers. Wave your little flag as they go by. Hoist the nearest child onto your shoulders. Buy a pretzel. Let the dog bark. Emote.

And if you happen to see me go by? Don’t be afraid to wave. I, too, am part of this parade. I AM this parade. I haunt the city, even though I no longer live here, or even feel that I belong here. (Even when I lived here I was something of a ghost.) I walk and walk and walk. I take a table here, a bench there, always alone. I refuse to die. I don’t need a cell to make myself what I’ve always been, what the city made me. Yes, Mrs. Rowlandson, all is vanity, a blast, a bubble, and blogs are blasts and bubbles, too, all about you even when they claim to be about something else. By telling people to look at phones, am I not telling them to notice me? All ethnography is auto-ethnography, and all scholarship is the scholarship of desire. But enough generalization and abstraction: the parade is a celebration of the particular and peculiar, at best the representative.


* For the payphone is a relic, vestige of an earlier age of communication. Unlike some older technologies, it requires an entire technological, and even more, a cultural infrastructure, to support it. Meanwhile, in the underdeveloped nations of the world, communication leapfrogs directly into the cellular age. What do they make of our quaint, primitive payphones, these wide-eyed and hungry children of the new world? They (the payphones) must appear like ornate drums did to the nineteenth-century European traveler in Africa.

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