Kate Flora here, inspired by an article in the New York Times Sunday Style Section to think about the demise of the phone booth. The article was about a young man wandering in Europe after college, pining for the girl back home, and unable to reach her. This was back in the days before instant everything, even before answering machines, when you made the call and took your chances, standing in the dorm hallway or on a public street, listening to the unanswered ring on the other end. Four, five, six . . . perhaps you’d let it ring ten or twelve times, hoping the person on the other end was just somewhere else in the house. Then, at last, the call unanswered, you’d hang up, wondering what the party you wanted to speak to was doing. Where they were. Whether you’d ever get through.
Back when I was in college in the 1960’s, someone in the dorm was always scheduled to answer the dorm phone, and then, if a girl got a call (we were all ‘girls’ back in the days before co-ed dorms), the person would ring the floor and someone would answer and go and see if the desired party was in. There were no cell phones. No one had a phone in her room. Somewhere in the dorm there was a phone booth, for outgoing calls we wanted to make. And in addition to the sea of numbers scribbled on the wall to be remembered, there was a pushpin with a bright plastic head. Someone long before me had discovered that if you inserted the pin into the phone line, you could short-circuit the wiring and make a call without inserting coins. That poor line was riddled with holes. It looked like it had been attacked by a tiny machine gun. It didn’t always work, but it was always worth a try.
That small cube with the folding door was saturated with emotion. Romance, hope, break-ups, make-ups, the budding romances and the fading ones. The very air bore an incredible sense of urgency. Back then we left for college and really left. We didn’t call home daily, or even weekly. I think the first phone call I made, in that era when phone calls were expensive and rare, was to make arrangements to go home for Thanksgiving.
Fast forward many years, and I remember standing in a phone booth in Harvard Square. I had just come from an encounter on the street with a political organizer who had invited me to come and hear Jimmy Carter speak, saying he would be “the next president of the United States.” I had laughed her off–a missed opportunity in retrospect–to find a phone booth and make a call. Another fraught moment. As the world dashed past, heading busily in many directions, I was having a conversation that would end one relationship and clear the way for another. Yes, we conducted our business in public, but in the imaginary privacy of those public/private cubicles which sealed us off from the world while we talked, even if an impatient line sometimes formed outside.
Today I can hear people discussing the most intimate details of their lives without the partial privacy of phone booths. Without thick walls and doors that close and the shelter and illusion that the business to be conducted was private. Today I hear people in dressing rooms discussing things I wouldn’t tell to my closest friend within the hearing of dozens of strangers as well as their own small children. I bump into them just outside the doorways of buildings and stopped at the tops of escalators, unable to wait even a moment to share the details of their lives. “Should I buy brown socks or black? Peas or beans? Does Larry wear a large or an extra large? Is he going to call? Do I have to wear underwear under the dress? If Sheryl is coming to that party, I’m not, so you’d better tell that bitch . . .” Or ” . . . and he came so quick I didn’t begin to . . .”
Is it any wonder I long for phone booths?
Still, it is true, as writer, that these public confessions, revelations, and even drivel, can be the source of story and character. There is one phone booth I have been carrying around in my mind for decades, waiting for the story to emerge. I was teaching for a week at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference, which is held at an old Christian revival site, where people came and lived in tiny cottages, and went to the Tabernacle to get revved up on spirituality. It was a great place for writers to spend an intense week together, getting similarly revved up on craft and creativity. One night, walking back through the darkness, I passed a spot where a lone, doorless phone booth sat. The only spot of light in a sea of darkness. As I passed, I could hear the man in the booth say, “Well, you don’t have to cry about it.”
I’m still wondering what she did, or didn’t, have to cry about. Someday, that one sentence will be a story.