Another icon is fading away…

Sad as it may seem, the pay phone – that great American symbol of convenient and economical communication – is slowly but surely disappearing from our landscape.Once a vital part of daily life from Wenatchee to Wapello, the old phones are being phased out by multinational telephone companies faced with costly pay-phone maintenance while just about everybody is packing inexpensive little cell phones that work pretty good most of the time in some places.

How I’m going to miss those venerable old phone booths and wall-mounted cubicles that at one time seemed to dot every street corner, public building and saloon in the nation.

As a young reporter (shortly after the Spanish-American War), I quickly learned that all I needed to keep the news moving was a pocketful of dimes – later quarters – and a handy pay phone.

In those days, hardworking news dogs all relied on pay phones to file stories, browbeat sources and order Chicken Delight.

We always knew where to find the best pay phones for the job, too. One of my favorites – this is on the level, amigos – was located in a grove of eucalyptus trees beside an abandoned rock quarry about 20 feet off Parrish Road near Cordelia. Apparently long forgotten, the dusty phone booth was always ready for service whenever I had to phone in a story about an overturned poultry truck or wrong-way driver ruining everyone’s daily commute along Interstate 680.

Another great phone was to be found in a smoky corner of the old Peanut Patch Saloon in downtown Fairfield. When the nearby newspaper office for which I worked was undergoing a major – and noisy – renovation, I simply moved my 80-pound manual typewriter to a battered cocktail table conveniently located beneath the tavern’s pay phone and set up my own news bureau. Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

During tense, breaking news situations, even the greenest rookies knew that he who controls the pay phone controls the news. Slower-moving competitors could send smoke signals if they didn’t like it.

This, unfortunately, led some of us to step over the line of journalistic cordiality by removing the speaker diaphragm from the receiver of first pay phone we located at a news scene. Pocketing that little speaker, we could then secure the scoop and stroll masterfully back to “our phone” to file whatever story we’d been chasing, leaving our frustrated competitors in the dust. (“Hey, dis phone’s all screwy. I can hear, but when I talk at the people what is listenin’ to me not say any’ting, the can’t hear. What gives, huh?”)

Those old pay phones were tough, too. If, for example, another reporter took offense at your monopolization of the only pay phone in six blocks, you could firmly smack the offending fellow one upside the head with the receiver and incur virtually no damage to the phone.

Try that with one of today’s flyweight cell phones. You’ll wind up with a handful of shattered plastic and some red-faced Chronicle reporter named Spud choking the life out of you…

Originally published April 23, 2006

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