A gazetteer of the fading pay phone
By Chris Earnshaw
“Yeah, time is a fast-moving dude, man!” the deejay voice used to intone after midnight on now-vanished WINX-AM radio in Rockville. That fast-moving dude yanks the tablecloth out from under everything dear to those of us a nostalgic stripe.
In the parade of the disappearing, cute beats clunky. Who wouldn’t object to the end of Mom and Pop bakeries or corner hardware stores? There was at least a murmuring of complaint when Giant Food axed Heidi cakes and pies. But in this BlackBerry world, the coin-operated phone appears to be unmourned as it fades.
But as the throngs line up outside the new Georgetown Apple store to buy the latest iPhone, I feel the pain of loss.
This is nothing new to me. I am an emotional Luddite. I miss the clank of a milkman’s bottle on the porch and the rurr-rurr of a four-barrel-carbureted, Detroit-made engine turning over. And right now there’s no more tragic a sight than that of a gutted tel-stand in the middle of Friendship Heights Metro, or a Brassai-esque oval shadow on the wall of my neighborhood CVS, or even the plaintive stare of two eye-holes denoting severed phone cables in a concrete platform not far from Dupont Circle.
Never again can I phone my loved one from the Newark Street Giant, just to say: “Here comes the doggone bus. I’m slogging aboard as we speak.”
Now, everywhere I go, no cell equals no calls. But not very long ago, this was definitely not the case. Here are some coin telephone moments in this writer’s field of recall.
· Mid-2000s. Historic-style phone sconce at Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues, after dark. I’m on the air with radio host Lionel. He chuckles, “My screener handed me Chris, from a pay phone somewhere in Washington, D.C. So Chris, I understand you are a fellow fan of tragic guitar phenom Danny Gatton?” (Pause — we hear a short cut of Gatton’s unforgettable “Harlem Nocturne.”) “Yeah, Lionel,” I blurt. “Gatton was the greatest influence.” Lionel shouts a hurried thanks, and the phone goes dead.
· 1993. Children’s Hospital loading dock, phoning my florist boss about a severely delayed balloon delivery. “A spidery figure blowing kisses to a thousand sick kids blocked my way, sir.” The boss asks who it was. “Michael Jackson, the entertainer. What? You’ve never heard of him?” The boss’s response is unprintable.
· Mid-1970s. Leaning into the phone beside the Georgetown Booeymonger Deli, Prospect and Potomac streets. I’m in the middle of an outdoor set for the TV movie “Washington Behind Closed Doors.” My dear Dad, on the other end of the line, asks when I can return his precious bottle-green Chevy Impala. “Well, Dad ......” I’m rudely cut off by a cop grabbing my shoulder. “Get over to that extras bus or your ass will be grass!” End of conversation.
Yes, the open-air angst and mechanical aggravation is lost to us, but hold the phone. I know of a few choice sites where a Niagara of coins will still overflow from the down slot if you don’t drop ’em in fast enough.
· Connecticut Avenue and Jefferson Place NW. Opposite the ancient Guitar Shop. I’ve recently observed musicians, restaurant workers and street hustlers successfully place calls at this location.
· Hotel Harrington, 11th and E streets NW. One lonesome phone sprouts from the sidewalk by Harry’s Café and a D6 bus stop. Below ground in the hotel basement, you will find outdated directories.
· Cairo Liquors and Lottery, 17th and Q streets NW. In the shadow of the once-shabby Cairo Hotel stand a pair of beat-up phones. Left one doesn’t work, right one does.
And I recently stumbled across a dual payoff: In the McDonald’s a block from the White House, one finds a menacing phone pedestal in the back. It gleams so brightly of the Watergate era that you can wink at yourself as you punch the buttons and say, “This is Deep Throat.” And just east of the White House, the phone gods have seen fit to restore to service a single “historical” cast-iron kiosk, so now you can lean in once again and make a call just like they did 20 years ago.
| October 17, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories: D.C., history
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