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Grieving the Last Pay Phone in New York
Why does this story make my heart crack like a dropped iPhone?
The last pay phone in New York City disappeared from Times Square this morning. When I saw the video of its removal, I felt a dip in my chest.
The block of metal is hoisted up, the two phones set like jewelry, their chords dangling in a silver loop. The booth falters for a moment off the ground, as if it’s not sure it’s ready to go, a diva taking one last look at her audience. Then the crane ushers it upward, picking up the pace to fit on the back of a flatbed. In the background, you hear an orchestra of cameras clicking over a quieter-than-usual Times Square. Perhaps there was a moment of silence.
I keep thinking of all the calls that went through there. Runaway teenagers, late night drunk dials, collect calls with a quick hang-up to signal that you’re ready to get picked up from school. (OK, maybe that last one is just me from 1998.) Either way, it was a bummer to watch, and I wasn’t sure exactly why.
A few minutes later, on the same app, I saw a roundup of popular musicians being coerced to post lo-fi videos on TikTok (a phrase I hear myself use every day during my day job) to promote an album; they begrudgingly do so. (The exception is Adele because, well, she’s Adele.) It’s hilarious, and it’s bleak. (My favorite is CharliXCX in enormous hair openly bubbling over that didn’t “really want to be here” and the whole not-song-just-dance is a “big inconvenience for me.”)
Charli, I get it. Everything is a moment to capture and everything is a race. Our value is tied to that ever-present c- word, content. As with capitalism, content has no ceiling, no limit. Everything is urgent and nothing is ever enough. That includes creating the work, sharing it, and for those of us on the receiving end, taking the time to absorb it.
I get the irony of writing this and hoping people read it. And that I work in big-C Content (it’s literally in my day job title) which allows me the ability to publish a newsletter to 31 of my biggest fans, just for fun. But today – meaning, literally today — in a very online day of interacting not with people, but with digital meetings and a computer and a second larger screen and a phone (personal) and a phone (work) – I was struck by the funeral for this family’s predecessor.
There’s something appealing about picking up a pay phone, putting in a solid quarter – cash! – and dialing a number that is sketched onto your notebook. Perhaps the person answers; perhaps they don’t. If they do, you have a conversation, your ears tethered to a plastic handle looped to a block of metal stuck in concrete. You hope the street noise stays low, that the construction doesn’t pick up. Perhaps you tell the person you love them. Maybe you give them the update you wanted to share or ask them the question of the thing you need. Or maybe you’re just calling to let them know where you are and that you’re OK.
And then, you hang up. You go about your day. You walk away, empty from anything else connecting you to the world other than the shoes on your feet. You likely have a job, or deadlines, or things that you want to do. But perhaps, rather than looking at a screen and thinking about what you have to share, you do something else; you go out there and create for yourself.