Old-fashioned telephone booths are quickly becoming obsolete

ORLANDO, Fla. — Clyde Lee didn't have an office, and Lord knows, he couldn't work at home.

Lee was a bookie, running a numbers game that prospered as an open secret in pre-Lotto Orlando. His headquarters was a phone booth outside an Enco gas station.

The location worked out fine for him until mid-conversation on a balmy June day in 1971, when Lee looked out the glass-paneled booth at the sight of a gunman pumping seven .45-caliber slugs straight at him.

We are gathered today to pay tribute to a departed friend. Not Clyde Lee. He's fine. Doctors saved him, and the state attorney put away his underworld boss, notorious mob kingpin Harlan Blackburn, for ordering the gangland hit.

It is the pay telephone we have come here to commemorate. It's not dead yet, but you can hear the bell tolling.

Once, every pay phone had its own little booth, and every little booth was a stage for solitary dramas. Telephone booths were the original chat rooms, back in a time when real life was all that there was.

Underworld characters slinked into the booths to smoke Lucky Strikes and rat on one another. Reporters in dapper hats phoned in scoops from them. Lovers held their receivers close to murmur across the wires.

Phone booths held the crowd at bay, providing a sliver of privacy for one thin dime. It was the greatest time-share bargain in history.

Naturally, it didn't last.

Born of necessity

Phone booths all but disappeared 30 years ago, and pay phones have declined from 2.6 million in 1996 to fewer than 2 million today. The pay phones are disappearing like dinosaurs, mainly because cellphones are multiplying like a retrovirus.

In 1993, there were 13 million cellphones in the United States. Today there are 143 million. William Gray certainly could have used one.

Gray needed to find a phone to call a doctor for his ailing wife. This was not an easy thing to do in 1888. The telephone was only 12 years old, still exotic enough that Mark Twain was wondering how people could be expected to have an intelligent conversation over long distances: In his experience, they had a hard enough time doing it in person.

Public phones were available in a few hotels and banks, where they were watched by attendants who collected payment when patrons finished their calls. But the elegant, carpeted wooden booths were few and far between.

Gray eventually tracked down a phone in a factory near his home in Hartford, Conn., and coaxed the foreman into allowing him to use it to summon the doctor.

But the experience made him wonder if there wasn't a market for a coin-operated public telephone. He collaborated with another inventor and installed the first attendant-free public phone in a Hartford bank in 1889.

It caught on fast. By 1902, there were 81,000 pay telephones in the United States, most of them stationed inside restaurants, grocery stores and hotels. For the next four decades, they served as a community magnet in neighborhoods and small towns. Not until 1946 did more than half of American homes have telephones in them.

Up until then, says Sheldon Hochheiser, corporate historian for AT&T, "The pay telephone down at the grocery store was an important part of the neighborhood, a focal point of the community."

In larger cities, the pay telephone was a haven for traveling salesmen. Famed New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling watched hordes of fly-by-night entrepreneurs working the long banks of phone booths in Manhattan's hotel lobbies and called them "Telephone Booth Indians."

"In their lives," Liebling wrote, "the telephone booth furnishes sustenance as well as shelter, as the buffalo did for the Arapahoe and Sioux."

An icon in the making

Pay telephones eventually became so deeply ingrained in American life that even the government catered to them: When the U.S. Treasury changed the composition of coins, they checked with the telephone company to make sure the coins were compatible with pay phones.

Outdoor booths began appearing on military bases during World War II and became prevalent in the '50s. Soon the booths were attracting the attention of college students and the occasional moose.

The college students made a loony competition of cramming as many kids into the booths as possible: The North American record, set at St. Mary's College in Morega, Calif., was 22.

The moose came calling soon after phone booths were installed in national parks: Several of the animals charged into the booths and destroyed them, having mistaken their reflections in the glass for a rival horning in on their area code.

Cheaters abused pay phones in a different way, using everything from bells to whistles to make free calls.

The first generation of telephones was monitored by operators who had to listen, over the wires, for the sounds coins would make as patrons slipped them into the slots. One bell, with a deeper pitch, was beneath the quarter slot; another, higher-pitched bell would register nickels and dimes.

Deceptive callers tricked the system by using coins on strings to fish for free calls. The telephone company came up with a new design, featuring a small blade that cut the string.

In later years, thieves learned to peel away the plastic phone cord and rub the bundled wires inside together, creating a short-circuit and a free connection. The phone company wrapped the cord in metal armor.

Then came the flakiest pay-phone scam of all. In 1972, John Draper, a bearded, gangly student at the University of California's Berkeley campus, discovered that a toy whistle included as a promotion in Cap'n Crunch cereal could be used to trick the telephone system into allowing free long-distance calls. The whistle, by chance, was the same pitch as the electronic tones that steered calls into open trunk lines. All Draper had to do to make free long-distance calls was to pucker up and blow.

Eventually the phone company changed its internal trunking mechanism, and the police caught up to Draper, who forever after had the nickname "Cap'n Crunch" and the distinction of being one of the world's charter hackers.

Getting into the act

"Phone Booth," the current film starring Colin Farrell as an unprincipled media consultant trapped in a New York City phone booth by a sniper, is just the latest movie to use the phone booth as a prop.

In the '30s and '40s, countless celluloid gangsters made the mistake of calling from phone booths. This was generally a cue for the gangsters to be Tommy-gunned by drive-by colleagues, all of whom were much better shots than whoever tried to gun down Clyde Lee.

A phone booth provided a bit more protection for Tippi Hedren in 1963, when she ducked inside one to find refuge from murderous crows in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."

In comics, a phone booth provided a place for Clark Kent to change into Superman.

In the theater, a phone booth was a key part of the set in "Sweet Charity."

A single, old-fashioned seaside booth became a nostalgic symbol in "Local Hero," a small-budget 1981 movie about a harried American businessman who escapes the jangle of office phones and finds nirvana in a magical Scottish town.

In real life, phone booths had begun to disappear. Vandals had made the booths hard to maintain, so they were replaced by an abbreviated, less vulnerable, eye-level metal box.

Soon, even those were in danger — not from vandalism, but from something industry insiders feared even more: deregulation.

In 1984, the FCC issued the first of several rulings that would break up the Bell telephone monopoly. Soon, hundreds of competitors flooded into the pay-phone business. Maintenance and service fragmented.

The emergence of the cellphone made it even harder to justify the upkeep of a pay phone, particularly in a remote location. In 1996, the average pay phone registered 700 calls a month. Today it's half that.

"The bottom line is that most conventional pay phones are not bringing in enough cash each month to cover the cost of the phone line," says David Massey, an Atlanta Bell South technician who operates a Web site tribute to telephone history at www.telephonetribute.com.

Not too long ago, on an isolated stretch of North Carolina road that rendered his cellphone useless, Massey and his wife searched for miles to find a pay phone.

"We finally found two pay phones next to each other, owned by some generic company we never heard of. One didn't work at all, and the other had such a bad connection we couldn't understand the other person."

Bell South is getting out of the pay-phone business. The company plans to unload its 143,000 pay phones by the end of the year.

Pay phones are likely to remain available indefinitely in shops, hotels and airports. But they will share many of those locations with the latest high-tech challenger: Wi-fi, a wireless system that allows laptop users to check in via e-mail rather than phoning home.

Industry analysts predict that by 2007, wi-fi will generate $1.63 billion in revenue.

Wi-fi consists of "hot" zones in hotels, coffee shops and airports. Inside the zones, laptop users can access a wireless link that allows them to log onto the Internet for a small hourly fee, or about $10 a day.

The "hot" zones are the ultimate in electronic downsizing: They're practically invisible. You could walk right through one without even noticing it.

Calling the Mojave

There have been no Save the Pay Phone crusades. But a quirky assemblage of collectors and Web site fans has emerged during the past few years.

A few of the collectors met recently at the Maitland (Fla.) Civic Center, indulging in shop talk about the relative merits of the Western Electric models versus the Gray. Many of them are like collector Paul Mikula, who's attracted to the old pay phones partly out of nostalgia and partly because of their sturdy inventiveness.

"A lot of work went into them. For their time, they were pretty efficient devices," he says.

Mark Thomas, a classical pianist in New York, runs a Web site called the Payphone Project (www.payphone-project.com). It lists stories about the demise of the pay phone and hundreds of pay phone numbers from all over the world. There are features on "Pay Phones of Africa" and "Pay Phones of Copenhagen."

There is a list of pay-phone numbers — the pay phone at the Eiffel Tower, the pay phone in the basement of the Vatican Museum. Sometimes, Thomas says, he calls the phone, just to hear a polite man at the other end of the line pick it up and say, "Vatican Museum."

It sounds a little weird and a little lonely. So does the story of the Mojave Desert phone booth.

The booth was installed at the end of a winding, nearly impassable dirt road in a California desert in 1948. Most of the people who used it — and at first, there weren't many — were workers from a volcanic cinder mine a few miles away.

Then, a few years ago, a picture of the lonely booth, located in what is now the Mojave National Preserve, was mentioned as an oddity on an offbeat Web site. College students started calling the booth on the off chance that someone would answer. Then they started visiting the booth on the off chance that someone would call.

Soon, hundreds of travelers and callers were making a connection. It was a party line, a pay-phone Woodstock, an offbeat throwback to the good old days when a public telephone connected a community.

Naturally, it didn't last. The National Park Service, concerned about the delicate desert environment being overrun by trash and traffic, asked the phone company to remove the booth. In 2000, it did.

Numbers, please

• 81,000 — The number of pay telephones in the United States in 1902.

• 100,000 — The number of pay telephones in New York City in 1969.

• 25,000 — The average number of pay telephones in New York City in 1969 that were out of order on any given day.

• 712 — The average number of monthly calls from a single pay telephone in 1996.

• 500 — The average number of monthly calls from a single pay telephone in 2001.

Source: AT&T