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

Getting belted at the courthouse

Newspaper reporters who cover the courts are constantly bombarded with hundreds of felony cases – robberies, assaults, drug deals and a profusion of sex offenses that would make the Marquis de Sade blush – and that’s just in the parking lot…

It’s tough to decide which cases to cover immediately and which cases to put on the back burner for awhile.

The toughest decision courthouse reporters have to make on a daily basis, though, is which belt to wear.

You see, these days almost all courthouses in California are equipped with some type of electronic security system to scan visitors for knives, guns and the occasional Stinger missile.

They also warn of car keys, steel-toed boots, wristwatches and, more often than not, metal belt buckles. Not all metal belt buckles, mind you, just some of them.

And you never know which belt buckle is going to set off alarms until you’re halfway through the metal detector.

Let’s face it, there are few things more bothersome that becoming the center of attention because your belt buckle has triggered a terrorist alert.

Depending upon which courthouse you were foolish enough to enter, setting off the alarm usually necessitates a quick about-face for removal of the offending item of clothing as you desperately try to keep your trousers from falling to the floor.

And since everybody’s already staring at you, the last thing you need to do is step into the spotlight with your pants at half mast.

This entire procedure, of course, slows down the line for the metal detector and can seriously annoy your fellow courthouse visitors (particularly the big guy named Sledge who’s standing behind you in line with what appears to be a machete strapped to his waist).

Thus it stands to reason that we courthouse reporters – who may have to enter the building five or six times a day – spend a lot of our free time shopping for just the right belt to wear when we enter the hallowed halls of justice.

It’s a quest of sorts.

A newspaper colleague of mine from the strategically unimportant beer-brewing community of Fairfield recently told me he’s found one belt that never sets off the metal detector, but that he’s always looking for just one more for a little variety. Since he can’t take the courthouse metal detector to the mall with him, though, he’s found himself repeatedly purchasing belts that trigger security systems from Vallejo to Venice.

Being the understanding kind of guy I am, I initially wrote the poor fellow off as a hopeless nitwit.

No longer. I now own a dozen belts myself, of which only two have proven to be non-metallic enough to get past courthouse security. The rest of them I wear with giddy abandon on weekends, holidays and while visiting regional department stores to purchase more belts.

There is, of course, an upside to our dilemma. Eventually, all of the reporters who cover the courthouse on a daily basis will be able to band together and open their own “World O’ Belts” discount store in Cordelia. We should have an outstanding selection for discriminating Solano County belt buyers – as long as they’re not going to court anytime soon…

Originally published February 2, 2003