Category Archives: Charnel House

The Ramble

The first half of “The Ramble” appeared in the journal South Loop Review in 2012. A handsome annual focusing on art and creative nonfiction produced by Columbia College Chicago, SLR was discontinued a couple of years back, and replaced by a new publishing venture from CCC called Punctuate. “The Ramble” is thus pretty much unavailable; and since only the first part appeared in the journal, and the subject and theme work rather well for that new, more roomy blog-cellar called The Charnel House, I thought to make the full essay (or whatever it is) available on The Pit Stop.

Y no hallo sino la palabra que huye,/ La iniciación melódica de la flauta fluye/ Y la barca del sueño que en el espacio boga. (Rubén Darío)

The Ramble represents a tiny fraction of the total area of Central Park: bound by the 79th Street crossing to the north, The Lake to the south and west, and the park loop road to the east. To call it a wood would hardly do justice to the word, or the place. Not the morass of old growth, creeper and bearshit stretching from Cape Cod to the Great Plains that our pioneer forebears tamed.

But this is an enchanted wood, I say. A city wood. Its geography is deceiving. Unstable. It does not hew to the immutable laws of space and time we associate with Euclid, Galileo, and Newton. It is as Blake’s universe in a grain of sand, common to all enchanted places: clown cars and mirror halls, hypercubes and wormholes, subways called Moebius, cell nuclei with their miles of DNA tightly coiled, the acres cultivated on the crenellated surfaces of the brain and intestine, fractal shorelines magnified until Zeno’s blunt arrow never reaches its mark. All measure is estimation and imposition, willful blindness to a truth that The Ramble whispers every time I enter. Will you be able to find your way out? Have you seen this path before? Are you sure you haven’t just made a circle? If you have, then why does nothing look familiar?

Mimicking the dreamwork, in The Ramble distant places come to share a border, and neighborhoods are rent apart. In dreams I have walked up the wooded hill behind the house where I grew up and into a natatorium that was eight miles and three townships away. I have fallen asleep on the 65-block jag of the A train between 125th Street and Columbus Circle and woken up in Buenos Aires, unable to convince the English-speaking conductor that this was irregular, not to say impossible. Then, in a building across from the obelisk on the Avenida Nueve de Julio, the hallways look suspiciously like those of my high school, and eventually I come upon my mathematics classroom, and my calculus teacher, to whom I am unable to explain my two-month absence or lack of preparation—except, of course, for the fact that I fell asleep on the New York City subway and ended up in Argentina.

As in the dream of my transposed mathematics classroom, the woods of The Ramble mutate as I walk them. Each footstep measures time differently. I might find the magnolias in full blossom and the pond under a foot of snow, watch the birds meeting themselves on their way back north, clasping their wings in their beaks as they turn to gaze over their scapulars. I might come upon my own footsteps (so I did make a circle), and then myself as a younger or older man, staring at the wood with a forlorn, romantic intensity. Then again in The Ramble every stranger looks, in his or her city way, just a little familiar, like distant kin. And what is true of the people is true of the place: no matter how many times I go, nothing ever looks entirely familiar, nothing ever looks utterly strange.

And if I happen to find my way out of The Ramble, I am afraid that, like the time-traveller, I might find the City changed: nothing north of the Flatiron but meadows and woodland, or one continuous high-rise development as far as the eye can see, the name changed to Trumpopolis, or Bloomberglandia, the name flashing by on endless pinball neon tickers and stenciled to the bellies of titanic, golden, cloudlike blimps; the Natural History museum shorn of its Teddy Roosevelt rotunda, or the rotunda overgrown with vegetation like some Mayan shrine, the dome caved in like a sacked cathedral’s, rats and possums nesting like the first mammals in the partly-collapsed skeletons of once-rearing Brachiosaur and crouching Allosaur. I might find new tenants in the apartment where I used to live, my key useless, or, like Cheever’s swimmer, the building condemned, or demolished, or replaced, together with the rest of my block, by a shopping mall. Wife and children gone, grown or dead, or maybe never born, and myself, unmarried or widowed, beardless or monkishly bearded. I am Israel Potter, Wakefield, Rip Van Winkle, Lovecraft’s “Outsider,” I am …

(But I was there only half an hour, I think. I never even ate the banana in my bag. Look: it’s still yellow. Not even any spots. I was supposed to be home at one.)

No matter how long we have lived in a great city, through a combination of occasional, serendipitous deviations from our own semi-conscious routine, and the city’s continual renewal, we are always poised to discover some heretofore-hidden nook. The Ramble makes palpable this concept of the city as a finite space infinitely subdividable. But the city wears the mask of another idea: the perfect Cartesian space, its streets, avenues and floors numbered as diligently and unequivocally as any x, y, and z axis. The Cartesian grid pretends to exhaust our knowledge of the city (I know precisely where a, b, and c are located), and the City yearns for the perfection of Cartesian space, even as The Ramble revels in an alternate, equally seductive idea that the space inside every square or cube is inexhaustible and unknowable; that the frontier is not out there but in here, shifting like the play of sunlight through branches; and if it is inside the grid, then it must be part of the grid, and so how can the grid be anything but the pretense of knowledge and order? How can I speak of knowing the city? What does it mean, finally, to know a place? I can weave my net finer and finer, but when I cast it, the littlest beasts will always slip through. Was that not the net whereby Descartes attempted to capture himself?

Thus only in The Ramble can one truly speak of “escaping the city”: not to the insipid curves of the beautiful, the gardens and lawns of nostalgia and authority, the ballfields where the slums and boroughs disport themselves, but rather, into the mood, and perhaps with some practice, the consciousness that within every measured prison of Cartesian space, there is a tunnel; there is a wrinkle, a tear, et cetera, in every square yard of that oh-so-worn metaphor of the Cartesian fabric. Who knows but that I might be walking between 87th and 88th Streets on the West side and suddenly find myself staring up at the grillwork of the Williamsburg Bridge? No matter that people never leave their neighborhoods, they are always one step from lost, from the rotten plank and the unhinged grate. Don’t blink, don’t daydream, don’t let your mind wander, because where the mind goes the body is bound to follow. Fix your gaze on the cupola on the horizon. The skyscrapers are rooted in schist, true; but how they sway!

If you happen to find your way out of The Ramble with such a new awareness—and (so many conditions!) if you happen to find the world pretty much as you left it—then you will be dimly conscious, crossing the avenue, east or west, that between this streetlight and the next there is an uncharted manhole without cover or bottom, and that every spidery crack in the sidewalk threatens to engulf you. You will learn to recognize the gaits of those who, like you, have just emerged, as you would someone who had just stepped off a carousel, or a boat after months at sea: unsteady, even wary, as if the Self could be spilled like liquid from an open container; a drunken weaving between building and curb and back to building, in a vain attempt to divine the intention of the sidewalk; and then those sudden turns, almost pirouettes, as if they were responding to an inaudible call, or to an invisible tap on the shoulder; or, perhaps, to recover something they imagined had fallen through a hole in their pocket.


Years ago, when you first started coming to The Ramble, you were confident, even to the point of arrogance. Your mother liked to say you had a built-in compass, and when your family drove out to Jersey or up to Westchester to visit some mall, they always followed you out to the car at the end of the day. That was your job: you never had to carry a shopping bag (you were too little to, anyway); you just had to locate the car in that sea of concrete and glinting metal and windshield glass. But it never occurred to you to exert these powers in The Ramble until, one August day, you made it from the east to west entrances with unexpected celerity. You turned back and stared at that weird little park-bound wood. Could you do it again? Galvanized, you made a detour (as it were) around the south end of The Lake and re-entered The Ramble from the west side. You were careful to make the same turns as before. But somehow you ended up trapped at The Lake’s north edge, watching like a manor ghost the lovers row leisurely by. You wasted another half hour finding your way back to the west entrance (at least you thought it was the west entrance; you could only really be sure coming from the other side, but you hadn’t wanted to waste time going around The Lake again, although it might have been faster than fighting your way back here, wherever that was), and tried again, careful to correct for the error. But you must have overcompensated, because you ended up at Belvedere Castle instead, looking out now over the mocking symmetry of the Great Lawn. At last, with twilight fast approaching, you found the main path again, what you believed to be the most direct east-west route. Now came the real test, for commutativity: you walked it backwards, not like you were wearing flippers, of course not, just in the opposite direction, from east to west, and you found the west exit once again. You walked the path back and forth until dark, until you were certain you had it memorized, in your muscles, in landmarks—the arched stone, the great flowering magnolia, the endowed bench—and in inherited rules of thumb (“always turn left to find the center of a labyrinth”). You were puffed up with the idea that you had outwitted the Designer. In the following days you announced your discovery to friends and family, all of whom looked at you like you were a little off. You even offered to serve as a guide to the occasional lost-looking tourist, particularly if they were young and pretty and unattended.

Then the misgivings began. Not that you were lost. The very fact that you were not lost troubled you. To what extent could this straight east-west path you discovered be called The Ramble? Could it be that you were only sure you were in The Ramble when you were lost? You tried leaving the path. But every sidetrack led you immediately back to the main route. Your first thought was that all that stuff about infinite complexity, clown cars and funny walks, spatial paradoxes and universes in grains of sand, was nonsense. But try as you might, you could not shrug it off. You grew frustrated, then desperate. Depressed by the wretched pittance of mystery the modern world had left for you, for your age; nostalgic for the cold tickle at the nape of your neck when you used to wander these paths without knowing east from west, when The Ramble was as sublime as the open ocean or outer space, oh, world-weary traveller, nothing more to see, nothing commensurate, as Fitzgerald once wrote, to his capacity for wonder! Reason, logic, analysis, mystery-murdering curses of the human mind, dragging Beauty, those lost tourists, damsels in distress, into the cruel light of Inquisition, and then to the gallows!

Then another thought: that The Ramble was really just hiding, that your original desire to discover the most direct east-west route had forced it to withdraw. The coy Ramble hides, veiled by the nearest thicket, a stone’s throw from where you walk!* Now you were faced with a different task, one which, compared to the first, seemed infinitely more difficult: You had to make yourself lost again. How to proceed? Where to begin? You walked twenty paces with your eyes closed, opened them to make sure you were not about to run into a tree, did the same thing again, ten times. As you walked you swung your arms wildly, like a Hollywood monster. But when you opened your eyes again, you were still on the silk road. Too mechanical; all those multiples of ten. Try prime numbers instead. When you had exhausted every prime up to twenty-nine (to go any further would have been dangerous, you thought), you opted for walking with your head down, only looking at the concrete a few inches in front of your shoes. If you ran up against dirt or branch, you veered one way or the other to make sure you stayed on a path, whatever path it might be. Sometimes voices overtook and passed you. In time you stopped hearing them. The ever-identical strip of concrete scrolling by helped to clear your mind. You tried to stop thinking entirely. But every time you looked up (and you did so, you thought, too often), you still were not lost.

And then you came upon one of those rusty green signs like you see in malls and sports complexes, pretending to tell visitors that they are HERE: here, a scrimmage of white lines with a ludicrously pointing arrow. As helpful as that mysterious sentence you still remembered from the first computer adventure game: You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. With each movement—east, west, north, south—the machine would spit back the same message, until you either ran out of food and died, or found your way out.

A blue blob on the map, representing the fish pond: the center of The Ramble, or perhaps better, its heart. For the moment you forgot your desire to become lost, put one finger on the arrow and the other on the blob, your eyes tracking back and forth between them, until you were sure you had memorized the proper series of turns. And off you went, in full explorer mode once again. Right, left, right, left …

Pattern exhausted, the pond should have been directly in front of you. Only there was no pond. The magnolia you could see across the clearing was not the great magnolia of the east-west crossing—or, if it was the same magnolia, you were seeing it from a new angle. None of the benches here were benches you recognized. In fact, nothing at all looked familiar.

Eventually you do arrive at the pond. If you have not already, you will. According to your watch, a half hour has elapsed, but it might as well be half a day, half a life. Jays frolic in the creek. Dragonflies conjugate on leaves. Blurry orange and grey fish glide by, tracing the figures of numbers yet to be discovered. Quiet, gloom pervade here, no matter the season, the declination or relative brightness of the sun. There is mystery barely contained in the trembling leaves and sobbing water, the rustle of the birds, the squat insects that hover before your nose and the logs resigned to rot. And in the men who always occupy the benches: tourists who forgot to bring their guidebooks along, sleeping drunks, dog-walkers with empty leashes, shirtless men with soft expressions and one strap of their overalls undone, familiar strangers all of them, lost souls, you. And if some errant boat from The Lake were to pass rowing through the sky, or a swan were to suddenly flap down through the trees and land in the water, scattering the fish and smaller birds until a new silence had been established, a silence such as only a swan can preside over, you imagine none of these men would raise an eyebrow. And neither (you think, taking your place now on a bench beside them) would you. Your head is a carousel, and a dark current drags at your thoughts. You realize that you may never find your way back. You realize that you are not waiting for anything.


* Only it is not the foliage that makes The Ramble The Ramble; winter is no less mysterious. As the bare trees open one path to another, the effect is of wandering in a hall of mirrors, always able to see the people on the adjancent paths, but never able to meet up with them.


magic 3
magic 2
magic 1

Voila! The mysterious reproductive habits of the to-go cup, at last caught on film.

Payphones form part of that reef of obsolescence that defines the modern city. The cups, deposited as planulae, grow upon them like coral polyps.

Pedestrians (fig. 2) are the drifting milt of the city. Payphone-reefs accrete their detritus (fig. 3).


I think of the phones we made as children by tying a string between two paper cups. I don’t remember what I said into them. Maybe, if I could find the cup, it would still be there, like in the cartoons, where you scream into a paper bag and then hand it to somebody. Aaaaah, like that, right out of the bag.

Each cup has a residue and a story: the bite radius of the lipstick along the edge of the top, the chewed end of a straw, the grease smudging a logo.

And maybe, if I could pry the phones open, and all the coins spilled out like from a slot machine, each coin, like each cup, would tell a story, would speak a desire, like the coins thrown into a well, or its aftermath, like the ones dropped into a beggar’s cup.


IMG_0114IMG_0115Here are a couple of payphones on Madison Avenue, somewhere in the upper thirties. Note the residue of the scrubbed-off graffiti tags on their scuffed foreheads, and the paint streaks, maybe from when the phones were originally tagged.

There is a twofold irony in this desperate and unfulfillable desire to erase the graffiti. One: these phones almost certainly don’t work. They probably didn’t work when they were tagged. So why the effort? Better to persuade me that graffiti equals blight, and tear them out.

But if you tore them out … where would you put the ads? IMG_0113This is Madison Avenue! Irony number two: surfaces must be scoured (though never cleaned) only to provide a substrate for an exponentially more audacious act of vandalism. Only ads may compete for our attention with other ads!

The payphone is one of a number of post-useful objects resurrected to a life-in-death of bearing a corporate message. But then we have all found a measure of purpose (read: utility) in carrying such messages. Hiveless bees pollenating our beloved corporate flowers, we are reborn in/as ads. They guarantee a continued, albeit mitigated, existence.

Two eras, two myth-images of the City, are superimposed in these two views of the payphone: the graffiti-festooned City of the ‘70s, and the ad-festooned City of today. Peel the ads away, examine them with X-rays, and you’ll find traces of graffiti underneath, the ad-urge just the graffiti-urge appropriated, corporatized and capitalized.

Dare I dream a third image? A next phase in the City, where the ads are not ripped down or scoured off, but grown over? Dont subtract; add! Why not, when New York has always been a glorious palimpsest? And if phones have nothing but aesthetic value now, perhaps we should turn to them for our next big beautification project. Paint them outlandish colors, bedeck them with flowers and climbing vines, make them the shrines they already aspire to be. Imagine an arbor and a mural on every corner! What a city this would be!


IMG_0054Look at these beauts. Their fine metal livery polished, a bevy of butlers awaiting your handful of change to connect you with anywhere in the world for four solid minutes.

The nuclear family: junior on the far left, his mostly-grown sister beside him. Mother has to wear heels just to look her in the eye.

The urinals in the men’s room: all but one at standard hip height, the last at the level of your knees. (Ah, Democracy! Who says that Capital has throttled thee?)

Here is the most remarkable thing: they work. Not just hung on the wall to be admired. No sir.

Why? Why? Why the working phones, the gleaming chrome?

Because you are in Grand Central Station, and Grand Central is supposed to evoke the New York of another time. Saved by landmark status, Grand Central is at once impressively functional and a museum of itself. Although the design dates from the early part of last century, to most visitors the station probably evokes a slightly later New York: the fast-talking, highball-downing, fedora-and-trenchcoat-wearing ‘40s. The classic photo, where light streams in through cathedral-tall windows, and the little people with long shadows make their halting, hunched way toward the gates. The eternal soundtrack of the City, bebop.

When you step inside Grand Central, you partake of the myth of Grand Central, and the myth of New York, and everything around you needs to be interpreted with this in mind. Tourists will stare at you like you are part of the diorama. But everyone in Grand Central is both inside and outside the diorama, exhibit and patron.

Like the rest of the station, the payphones serve the two masters on whose marriage Grand Central prides itself: function and ornament. But the payphones are unique in that their functionality completes their ornamental status. If they were not required as ornaments—part of the Grand Central museum, the myth-projection of another New York—they would be allowed to perish, as everywhere else in the City. For what would Grand Central, the culmination and glory and celebration of the golden age of rail travel, be, without payphones?

Commuter rail may be alive and well, but trains—like payphones—are objects of nostalgia. Behemoths are always pitiable in their defeat: Kong swaying from the cupola of the Empire State Building, Godzilla’s denuded skeleton sinking in the ocean.

Go ahead and leave that nickel for the homeless man shuffling past like a cop on a beat, sticking his well-practiced finger in each coin-return slot. Like the bit of crop the Bible says you’re supposed to leave the beggar. Or the traveler.

As long as Grand Central is here—that is, as long as there is any value in trussing up the past and decorating it with a FOR SALE sign—I know I can depend on these phones. And they will be polished, for they are the mirrors into which we look in order to see the New York of our dreams.


Near the start of his perfect little book about New York, Colson Whitehead writes the following: “You are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge” (3).* Here, Whitehead captures not only the way one’s sense of place is constructed through feelings of nostalgia and loss, but also the City’s pace of change and its relentless assimilation of newcomers.




This is the bulletin board inside the Housing Works Used Bookstore Café. It used to be a payphone.

I discovered the UBC in 1997, when I worked in Tribeca. I would get off work and walk up to the Village or to midtown, and then grab a train home to Astoria. I would walk a different way every day, charting the uncharted far east and west sides. Our mental maps of the City tend to be full of blank spaces between subway stops, like those unstudied, unloved swathes of time between the periods we all read about in history classes. Biking and walking force us to account for the what happens in the spaces between the patches of the known. We come to understand much better how the City relates to itself.

I can barely remember what the old UBC looked like, back when my partner used to volunteer there, before they punched out the back wall and created that whole sitting area in the rear.

But I remember that payphone. I’m sure it was there until quite recently. The other day, I asked the volunteer at the cashier, and she claimed not to remember. Why would she? Then she humored me by saying she had a vague recollection. We constructed a whole story together around that absent payphone, like police entrapping some would-be serial killer: And then you cut the body up with a saw, right? And then you buried it in the sandbox in your neighbor’s yard, right? Yes, that’s where it was, sir. Where the bulletin board is now. I’m sure of it. How many kooks does she have to humor in this way every day? But then they are all do-gooders here, and this madness for absent payphones is harmless, mostly.




These are the trash and recycling receptacles at the Harlem 125th Street station of Metro North. Isn’t their blue newness ravishing? They used to be payphones, too. A whole bank of ‘em, at least four. Six? Possibly my nostalgia multiplies them. Not a single one of them worked. One day when I missed my train, I tried to use every phone, and every one was defective in its own special way. When I got to the last phone, and it ate my last dearly-collected dollar of quarters, I went apeshit, beat the receiver against the cradle, and left it hanging. Like Robert DeNiro does in Goodfellas when he finds out Joe Pesci got whacked. (Something about phone receivers makes them particularly well-suited to beating: snug grip, concealable-weapon size, hard plastic, all of the above?) I probably shouted “fuck,” too. Good thing there weren’t any cops around. Possibly they wouldn’t have blinked. Probably they see this sort of thing every day. The station is a hive for such mini-meltdowns. A place where high-strung commuters and the indigent mingle. The pathos of 125th Street, epic.


In Whitehead’s formulation: I reaffirm being a New Yorker when I say, There used to be a payphone at the Housing Works Used Bookstore Café, or, There used to be payphones at the Harlem 125th Street train station. For it is not just the first time that matters, but all the times thereafter: a ritual through which we construct and renew our sense of place and belonging. As for the payphone, it is more than a particular instance of a broader phenomenon, or an individual marker of identity, or a reference point for a number of individuals. It is representative of that vanishing City; it extends Colson’s idea from an “I” to a “we”: Here was New York, we might say, invoking E. B. White. It is through this collective act of nostalgia that we create and affirm that dream-City against which the present is measured. We might even expand Whitehead’s claim to the City as a whole: that New York became itself the moment it began to consume itself in order to become something newer, and reaffirms itself through its relentless change. Yes, this is true of every place; but it is truer of towns than villages, truer of cities than towns, and truer of New York than any other city. Partly it is a matter of size, partly age, and partly geography (e.g., New York can’t grow out, so it has to grow in, like a nail or hair).**


* The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. New York: Doubleday, 2003. This is a book that deserves to be on your shelf next to E. B. White’s Here Is New York. It is a perfect lyrical evocation of the City.

** Here as elsewhere on this blog, I have capitalized the word “City” to refer to New York. I do this not only to abbreviate New York City (the way we say “America” for “United States of America”), but to affirm that New York is the essence of city-ness, the ideal city, the city all other cities aspire to. If this has the same jingoistic ring that “America” has to, say, a South American (“We are all Americans,” my uncle, Argentinian, incensed, once said to me), it should.

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.