Phone Booths, Pay Phones, and Bird Calls

Every day after school outside a Takoma Park, Maryland, elementary school, there is a line of kids lined up waiting to use the pay phone. Yes, a pay phone!

            The phone plays bird calls and it’s free. It even has a canary yellow receiver. In 2016, the town announced a contest to create an interactive public-art project and offered $5,000 to the winner. A fellow named David Schulman, local violinist and audio producer, won the contest. He noticed an old, abandoned phone booth nearby and, as a lover of birds and phone booths … well, the rest is history.

            Listening to a red-tailed hawk’s cry (press #9) or a woodpecker’s call (press # 7) has become the rage in Takoma Park. It even plays a rooster’s crowing in honor of the town’s late mascot Roscoe, who for many years in the ’90s avoided capture by the Animal Control officer. You can’t make this stuff up.

            Schulman was lucky to find a phone booth. There aren’t many around these days. Hawaii still has them. In fact, as recently as 2016, there was one phone booth for every 338 residents. Cell-phone coverage must be pretty bad out there in the Pacific.

            According to the FCC, there are only 100,000 pay-phone booths left in the United States. Four of them are in New York City. The city must be saving them in case Clark Kent needs a place to change. I have often wondered where Superman hid his clothes, especially his hat which would surely stick out noticeably under his cape. But I digress.

            I found an antique phone booth … no phone … on eBay for a mere $3,999 plus shipping. There is also an iconic, red British phone booth for only $11,999 plus $1,400 shipping, a good deal considering a vintage phone book is included. City unspecified.

            American artist Richard Estes is famous for his super-realistic, life-size paintings of phone booths in train stations. Many a hurried commuter has been known to try to walk into one resulting in various injuries.

            Before cell phones, pay-phone booths were big on TV and in movies. “Doctor Who,” a long-running, British science-fiction series relied on “TARDIS,” a phone booth (technically a police call box, but who cares) as a time machine to transport the “Time Lord” through … well, time. And Bill and Ted (“Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”) would have been pretty lame if they just used a cell phone to travel through history to bring back historical figures for their history class presentations.

            There was even a 2002 movie about a phone booth aptly called “Phone Booth,” where a man became trapped when he answered the ringing phone and was told he would be shot if he hung up or tried to leave. It actually pulled down $97,000,000 in profits on a budget of $13,000,000. Good call.

            Phone-booth stuffing was all the rage back in the late ’50s. College kids would try to stuff as many fools as possible into one booth. The record is still 30 people into one at Southeast Missouri University. They say kids don’t learn anything at college. I guess that proves it.

            I have fond memories of phone booths. In college I had many breakfasts of delicious donuts borrowed from the top of the phone booth where they were delivered every morning at 3:00 am to the drug store downstairs from my apartment. Mmm, mmm good!

            I courted my future bride from one that was near the post office. She lived in Boston, and I was teaching at ORR. I gave her the number so, at times, we would prearrange the call so she would call me so I wouldn’t have to keep dropping dimes in the slot. I’d stand in the booth waiting for her call pretending to talk so no one would use the phone.

            Phone booths may be making a comeback … or not. Prefabricated “phone pods” are showing up in office buildings around San Francisco. They are being promoted as places where people can make phone calls in private. Unique idea, huh? This innovation may be short lived.

            The San Francisco building codes require each pod have a safety permit, which includes “a sprinkler system, alarms and strobe lights.” Because they are “enclosed structures” they must be spaced 4 feet apart and have adequate ventilation (try opening the door a bit.) At a cost of $6,000 each, don’t expect to see many around soon.

            If you would like to hear bird calls on the phone, no need to go to Maryland. There’s an app for that.

            Editor’s note: Mattapoisett resident Dick Morgado is an artist and retired newspaper columnist whose musings are, after some years, back in The Wanderer under the subtitle “Thoughts on ….” Morgado’s opinions have also appeared for many years in daily newspapers around Boston.

By Dick Morgado

2 Responses to “Phone Booths, Pay Phones, and Bird Calls”

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  1. David Schulman says:

    Delightful article, Dick ~ and many thanks for the kind words about “BirdCalls!”

    I love the note about courting your wife from phone booths; brings back memories of all the rituals we all evolved in those pay phone days …

    With luck there will indeed be some more BirdCalls phones around before too long 🙂

    warm wishes,

    David Schulman

  2. Dick Morgado says:

    Thanks! Just curious…How is it that you are reading our little weekly paper?

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