A young professional's take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in New York City.
By Nina Pajak
Back when I used to use pay phones regularly (like an eon ago) they cost twenty-five cents.
Twelve years later, I found myself in the middle of western Massachusetts attempting to meet my father "halfway between New York and Boston" in the middle of a rainstorm which caused significant highway damage. I wandered around the small town of Lee, holding my phone aloft and cursing under my breath every time my one little bar of service would flicker on and off. There probably wasn't a cell tower for a hundred miles, I decided (in a fit of hasty rage).
What was I going to do? My dad was over an hour late, and I'd probably missed my chance to warn him about the route detour. We hadn't settled on a firm meeting spot, what with this being the age of cell phones and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants planning. I had no idea whether I should pack it in and head back to Boston or wait it out a while longer. But then, through the sheets of rain came a vision—across the street, wet metal gleaming, stood a solitary pay phone.
A pay phone! Oh yeah, those things! I ran to it and dug into my pockets for change, dialing the number and dumping in coins until I heard that familiar click that meant my call was being placed. Only, it never came. I kept feeding the machine until my wallet weighed several pounds less, and still I hadn't put in enough. How much change could a person possibly be expected to carry around? Are you supposed to go to the bank and get rolls of quarters and dimes in order to pay $10 to place a 2-minute call? Evidently, yes.
Also one time my friend picked up a pay phone at a Metro North train station and wound up with an earful of chocolate pudding. True story.
And thus concludes all of my pay phone-related anecdotes.
Now,the city of New York is launching a pilot program to replace public phones with free public iPad-ish smart screen thingies. First they'll roll out 250, then . . . the world! You know, just in case we were wondering whether future generations would have to dig up and dust off their parents' World Book Encyclopedias to figure out what a so-called "pay phone" is.
The screens will be used to view maps, look up restaurants, find nearby sales, and dial your friends via Skype so that everyone can say, "Dude! Guess where I'm calling you from!" And your friends will guess right away, because there will be a neighborhood lunatic standing over your shoulder and grinning and/or stealing your wallet. And then they'll be like, "um, that's cool and all, but don't you have a phone?"
Okay, okay, it's kind of cool. It sort of fits in with that 1980s idea of a future in which people in apocalyptic clothing video conference from gritty street corners. And apparently the screens will be dust and waterproof, making them easy to clean and "more sanitary than an ATM," which is disturbing for me to read because I'd never really thought about how filthy an ATM must be.
Anyway, I've been stooping under the immense weight of the pressure to cave and get an iPhone recently, and this just adds another ten pounds. When "public phones" are more advanced than your own personal one, it's possible you've been officially left in the dust.
However, all you Apple store squatters take notice: the public screens will be protected against personal use and abuse. So don't give up that prime spot at a new Macbook on display just yet.
Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I'm always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.
Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.
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