We have been out of town the past couple of weekends, once to Reno and once to visit my parents in the Central Valley. From the vantage point of a New Yorker who transplanted himself to California 20 years ago, the distinguishing factor of the Golden State is that it has no distinguishing factor.
Even after two decades on the west coast, many notice a trace of a New York accent that lingers in my speech. When I admit to my roots, I am typically asked where exactly in New York I am from. It seems that I disappoint them when I don’t announce that I hail from Batavia, Binghamton or Buffalo.
“I was born in Manhattan,” I tell them, and they seem suitably impressed. I don’t bother mentioning about starting out sharing a single bedroom with two sisters in a roach-infested walk-up in the Bronx. Nor do I get into my parents’ flight to the leafy suburbs in the mid-sixties.
“Things must be really different back there,” is the usual reaction. I disappoint once again when I say that, no, they’re not. I’ve long resigned myself to the increasing homogeneity of America. So much of California reminds me of New Jersey. The grubby suburbs of Sacramento and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles are not that different than Passaic and Essex Counties in the Garden States. Newark, California has a lot in common with Newark, New Jersey.
We travel the interstates, taking an exit periodically to fill the gas tank, fill our bellies, use the rest rooms. Whether we’re in Oregon or Nevada or right here in northern California, the one thing that every convenience store, strip mall and restaurant seems to have in common is the bones.
I refer to the skeletal remains of the once ubiquitous pay phone.
I remember it well. It was the summer before I went off to college, and my father and I were hitting balls on a tennis court at the local junior high. I had never been away from home before, was quite immature at the age of 17 and began fretting about how I’d keep in touch.
“There are pay phones everywhere,” my father offered.
Oh, so true during the Carter administration. In my freshman year, I lived in a dormitory that had one pay phone on each floor, in the elbow that separated the men’s wing from the women’s. It was considered proper etiquette to answer it if you were nearby when it rang, and then to leave the receiver dangling while you went to bang on the door of whomever the caller requested. I remember being tickled the day I heard it ring just as I walked by and it was actually for me!
Later, I transferred to a giant state university that was bursting at the seams with baby boomers. Despite a veritable city of dormitories, there was no room at the inn and I ended up with a couple hundred other students in a decrepit single room occupancy hotel downtown. There was an old cast iron black telephone in each room. The phone had no dial (this was before the age of push button phones), as it received incoming calls only. To place an outgoing call, one would use the pay phone in the lobby. Alternatively, up on campus one could descend into the basement of the university library, where in a room near the huge bound volumes of obscure academic journals, was a bank of pay phones, complete with little stools on which to perch during one’s phone call. For some reason, Sunday night seemed to be the time when everyone wanted to call home to Long Island. After all, everyone was far too busy bar hopping on Friday and Saturday nights.
Somewhere in a dusty album there is a photo of my sister and her young ex-husband, newlyweds on their honeymoon, hugging each other while squeezed into the narrow doorway of a phone booth.
Phone booths! Remember those? Clark Kent relied on them to make his transformation into Superman. The red ones I found throughout London when I visited in the mid-1980s were highly photogenic, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to use them to make a phone call. “You can dial that yourself,” one operator unhelpfully informed me. HOW??!!
My parents typically spend their evenings watching television, a habit I have studiously avoided for years. To make matters worse, they don’t have cable or a satellite dish. Thus, they receive only a few over-the-air stations from a nearby city. The trash that they serve up to the public makes me roll my eyes.
And so, on Saturday night, after sitting on folding chairs in the driveway to watch the stars for an hour, my wife and I found ourselves sitting on my parents’ couch, watching the first Terminator movie (1984) with my mother. My father was in the office watching documentaries about murders on another TV. As a Californian who endured a term of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, I could not but guffaw at seeing him as a cyborg. But it was his repeated visits to phone booths that really caused me to belly laugh. Phone booths that not only had fully functioning phones in them, but also had phone books present (remember those?), so convenient for Arnold to look up the addresses of his next victims.
Pay phones went through slow stages of disrepair and dilapidation before they disappeared altogether. There were a number of years during which the phone probably still worked, but nothing dangled at the end of the cord where a phone book was supposed to be. Most pay phones seemed to be of the outdoor variety; where an actual booth still existed, the little shelf beneath the phone that was supposed to house the phone book was always empty.
When I worked as a manager in the court system, I remember making a sign and posting it on the wall of the courthouse lobby to inform visitors that the pay phone did not work and that no money should be inserted therein. People tried anyway and lost their dimes and quarters. I don’t know how long it had been since that particular pay phone had ceased functioning, but I do know that picking up the receiver yielded an incessant beeping and nothing more. It took quite a lot of research, probing and pleading before I was finally able to get that pay phone removed and the empty hole in the wall plastered over. The challenge was finding out who actually owned the phone. None of the phone companies who I contacted were willing to take responsibility for it. Little did I know that there were businesses that actually purchased and serviced pay phones. I always had a vague idea that “the phone company” took care of it. Perhaps this was true in the halcyon days before the breakup of Ma Bell.
The advent of the cell phone relegated pay phones to be just another remnant of American social history, along with the vinyl 33⅓ RPM record and the manual typewriter.
But still, like ghosts of the past, the bones remain.