Tag Archives: payphones


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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.