DOOM TOWN? More like Boom Town.
The old, gloomy nickname for Portland seems positively antiquated in these current condo-crazy days, with the influx of new residents, the continual buzz of new construction, and the evolution of our city’s straining infrastructure. And it’s come at a cost, according to many longtime residents: the disappearance of local businesses, old-growth trees, and much of that intangible Portland flavor that can’t be readily quantified.
Even the most devout old-schooler will be forgiven, though, for not lamenting the disappearance of another once-widespread element of the city: pay phones.
After all, who needs ’em? Almost everybody’s got a phone in their pocket or purse nowadays. It might take a dead battery or a stumble near an open sewer grate for you to even look up from your tiny, handheld screen and notice that the pay phones are practically all gone. Once you actually start looking for them, though, you’ll realize how hard they are to find.
I went on a modest quest to seek out Portland’s remaining pay phones—and had a surprising amount of trouble. There are a few different, easily Googleable web pages that claim to catalog the locations of pay phones throughout the city, but I quickly discovered every one of them was significantly out of date. For each listed address that pointed me to a working phone, 10 more led me to either no phone at all or a smashed wreck that hadn’t taken a call since the Bush Jr. years. Few things are more depressing than a defunct pay phone, I’ve decided.
For example, there’s the former AT&T phone outside a Burger King at SE 100th and Stark. The coin box has been ripped out, and small graffiti letters cover the sticker that reads, “Best Deal, 10¢ per Minute.” An aura of tragedy surrounds the thing, a ghostly air of uselessness. Here lies a once-functional tool that used to connect people with each other—sons to mothers, wives to husbands, workers to bosses. But it’s no longer needed or even noticed. It’s a husk, an ugly totem to conversations that have vanished in the air.
This dearth of functional pay phones isn’t a localized phenomenon, of course. In the United States, the number of pay phones, which reached its peak in the mid-’90s at approximately 2.6 million nationwide, has dwindled to around six percent of that—a 2014 Federal Communications Commission report indicated there were just over 150,000 still operational in the nation. A mere 1,859 of those were located in Oregon, but determining the actual number of pay phones in Portland itself seems to verge on impossible. The city itself doesn’t keep track, and the number of independent contractors with coin-operated phones in the city is too large to survey one by one. Following the deregulation of telephone service in the US, the pay phones you do manage to stumble across are privately owned by a bunch of smaller companies, since the big boys like AT&T and Verizon left the market years ago.
Is the lack of easy-to-find pay phones a problem, though? That China-made brick in your pocket is probably saying, “Nah, relax! I got you.” But there are currently millions of Americans without cell phones, so pay phones provide a needed out-of-home alternative for those who can’t afford a monthly contract, let alone the little rectangle of cellular technology that goes along with it.
In fact, many of the pay phones I was able to locate in Portland appear to be specifically targeted at recent immigrants. The phones operated by Northwest company Communication Management Services, for instance, offer the same rate for international calls—50 cents for five minutes—as they do for local calls. The beacon-like colors of the Mexican flag appear above the handset, with instructions for placing a call provided in Spanish.
Pay phones are also valuable in an emergency. I lived in downtown New York City during 2001, and when the towers went down on September 11, it was impossible to get a signal on my primitive Sprint mobile—the network was overloaded with other people who were also trying to call their families.
You can use a pay phone to dial 911 without sticking any change into it. Similar to how many colleges and universities have dedicated stand-alone phones throughout campus for students to use in case of emergencies—assaults, primarily—our last remaining pay phones can be thought of as off-campus versions of these emergency hot spots. If someone were in distress and without a cell phone, a pay phone would be a godsend.
Therefore, the busted phones that still linger around the cityscape absolutely need to be removed, particularly the ones that still look like working phones from afar. If someone, god forbid, were in dire need of 911, these corpse-phones would beckon to them but offer no aid—a particularly dangerous situation if one were being pursued by an attacker.
Sadly, these shells of former phones seem to be more common than actual working phones, particularly in Portland’s eastern stretches, where most coin-operated phones have been decommissioned but not removed outright.
This made the few working phones I located all the more miraculous. Picking up the handset and hearing the ready, rumbling hum of a dial tone became surprisingly exciting. Think: When was the last time you, in this age of cell phones and internet phone service (voice over internet protocol, or VOIP), actually heard a dial tone? I bet it’s been a while. It’s a wonderful sound, a two-tone chord of 350Hz and 440Hz that’s pregnant with the possibility of connection and communication. “You can call anyone,” the dial tone seems to be singing. “You are about to be having the most important conversation of your life.”
I heard this sweet noise specifically at three different pay phones throughout the city: near the Mercury office by Skidmore Fountain; at a Dollar Tree store at SE 68th and Foster; and, perhaps most strangely, next to a nondescript building at SE 13th and Clinton, around the corner—but not visible from—the new MAX Orange Line stop at SE 12th. (This last phone is operated by Futel, a unique, gee-only-in-Portland telephone service whose mission is to provide the public with free US phone calls, no coins necessary. If you dial 0, you will get one of the two dudes who run Futel on the other end.)
I did stakeouts of these three working phones to see if anybody wandered up and used them. (I should state that I mean “stakeout” in the most cursory sense, usually spending just under an hour waiting near each kiosk, trying—and largely failing—to not look suspicious or creepy.) Who would come up? I wondered. Who still used pay phones in the year 2016? A drug runner calling to re-up? A cheating husband making clandestine arrangements? A crooked politician placing an off-the-books call to the union leader?
Granted, my brief stakeouts were half-hearted at best. But at all three locations, I did not witness a single person touch any of the phones—or even pay attention to them.
This may not matter. According to an April article in the LA Times, three 50-cent calls per day are just enough to make a coin-operated phone profitable. That’s an operating cost of around $45 a month, which is less than what many people pay for their cell phone plans.
Evidence suggests, however, that the pay phone is destined to go the way of the telegraph and the party line. Computer technology has changed every facet of our interactions with one another, and the shift from telephone landlines to cellular networks and VOIP is the most visible evidence of that.
Like all technology, though, cell service and internet access can be fallible, disappearing when you most need them. Telephone landlines have historically been surprisingly resilient to all kinds of emergencies and outages, even if they’re mostly neglected nowadays. (I rolled the dice and got rid of my landline more than 10 years ago.)
If you’re the type of person who has already spent hours putting together a home emergency kit, you’ll also want to learn where the nearest working pay phone is. You’ll probably never need it, but I’d hate to think of you not being able to find one. Or, worse, running up in desperation, picking up the handset, and listening to the sound of silence.