The phones are sticky, beat up and scarred; some don't work at all. A child's change purse is stuffed on one phone ledge, along with a large wad of wrapping plastic. On a nearby ledge, an empty bottle of tequila sits in front of a hole that once held a phone. Empty cans of malt liquor sheathed in brown paper bags are a frequent sight.
With rising cell phone use and vandalism and neglect taking their toll, pay phones are disappearing around the nation. Consumer activists and advocates for the poor have protested the drop in numbers — saying that public phones are necessary in emergencies and represent a lifeline for those who can't afford a cell phone or even a landline.
"If you have a cell phone, you hardly look for the pay phones," said 25-year-old Sayed Mizan, listening to his iPod on a subway platform. "Besides, most of the time if you see the pay phones, they're either out of order or they're too filthy to touch."
Public phone operators insist that the bad reputation of pay phones is undeserved — though they do concede that they have removed many stands in recent years due to falling use.
Nationwide, the number of pay phones has dropped by half, to approximately 1 million, over the last nine years, according to an estimate by the American Public Communications Council, a trade association for independent pay phone operators.