Where, oh where have the pay phones gone?

Communications technology has come a long way, baby

One sunny Saturday when I was a little kid my big sister took me to the beach. She picked up a sea shell and put it next to my ear.

“Listen,” she said.  “You can hear the ocean.”

I thought it was a miracle. I took that shell home and put it on my dresser. Every once in a while I’d pick it up and listen to the faraway ocean waves.

My first long-distance call.

It was good practice for the telephone on our kitchen wall.  I couldn’t hear waves but if I breathed through my nose and remembered not to cough I could listen to Old Missus Paton gossip with Old Missus Chapman (we had a rural party line).

My next technological lurch forward was the pay telephone — specifically the pay phone in the hallway of a flophouse I lived in for a summer in Montreal.  Leo, the saxophone-noodling, pot-smoking landlord had a bent piece of coat hanger dangling from a string attached to the phone. When you stuck the wire into the coin return slot and twisted it just so, you had free long distance. Feed a coin into the phone and it registered as a deposit, but came right back to you through the return slot. You just fed it back into the phone as many times as necessary.

Using a pay phone was never easier. Certainly not in Britain, where you dialled your number and got connected, whereupon a tony robot voice asked you to “Please deposit sixpence.” By the time you did the party you were calling had often hung up.

I was nudged into this telephonic reverie by something I saw during the recent World Series — team manager Tony La Russa in the St. Louis Cardinals’ dugout, yakking away … on a pay phone. They still use them in big league baseball dugouts. Which is heart-warming, because the North America pay telephone is so endangered it might as well be extinct.

You used to find them everywhere. Now, outside pay phones are rarer than Sasquatch sightings. Mobile phones did that.

In Canada, cell phone usage is nudging 80 per cent  of the market.

It’s a trend that’s unlikely to be reversed.

People used to appreciate the convenience of a public telephone but I doubt anyone ever fell in love with them — not like cellphones.

Love is not too strong a word to use — particularly for the unseemly bond that unites many iPhone owners with their devices. An American branding consultant by the name of Martin Lindstrom recently conducted an experiment in which he studied the brain wave patterns of 16 subjects interacting with their iPhones.

“When the subjects saw or heard their iPhones ringing,” he writes, “their brain scans displayed activity in the insular cortex of the brain which is associated with love and compassion. It was as if they were in the presence of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member,” writes Lindstrom. “These people actually loved their iPhones.”

I don’t get it. But then, I’m a geezer. I remember when you didn’t need a fifty-dollar-a-month contract and a pricey piece of plastic in your pocket. All you needed was a pay phone and a 10-cent piece.

For that you’d even get the assistance of a helpful, actually human operator to flirt with as she walked you through the call.

I wonder what happened to all those wonderful operators.  I know there are jobs out there waiting if they want them.   Why, Aegis Communications Limited just put out a call for 10,000 employees to work in their nine new call centres fielding customer service problems.

Aegis is an Indian corporation based in Mumbai, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to move. The company plans to outsource those 10,000 jobs to the U.S.A., to take advantage of cheap labour.


Hey, you know those Americans. They’ll work almost for nothing.



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