Q: I was taking a road trip with my family down to the beach and I saw a bunch of rest stops along the way with pay phones. I tried explaining to my kids what pay phones were — because in our suburban neighborhood, they’re few and far between. I remember when phone booths used to be on every street corner, every public building, lobbies of buildings — they were everywhere! But then I got to wondering. Since so many pay phones have become obsolete over the last 15 years with the creation of cell phones, what happens to decommissioned pay phones when they die? Do they go to pay phone heaven?


A: Interesting question, my friend. Can’t say I ever thought about that one, though it does bring to mind some fond memories.

Remember the good ol’ days of pay phones? I remember calling my parents from a pay phone to let them know my plane had landed, or that I was ready to be picked up from the mall. Cell phones were just a speck in the distance then. I remember the first cell phone I ever saw — it belonged to my uncle from Los Angeles. It was about as big and unwieldy as a Costco-sized pack of batteries. (Can’t imagine losing that in your purse, can you?)

Nowadays though, everyone has a cell phone. One thing I'm thankful for? With the introduction of the cell phone, I no longer have to hold that germy telephone receiver with a tissue instead of my hand. I mean, just think about the number of germs on a public pay phone. Imagine people picking up the handset having just coughed into their hand, then breathing into the receiver — ugh. It makes me shudder just thinking about it.

But you are absolutely correct. Pay phones, invented by a man named William Gray in 1889, had a terrific run for about a century but have become increasingly obsolete with the invention and convenience of the cell phone. You know what’s funny though? I remember clear as day on Sept. 11, 2001, when the only working phones on the streets of New York City were — you got it — pay phones. On every corner, distraught New Yorkers lined up to use them. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a working one these days, pay phones are sometimes more reliable than cell phones. Cell phone batteries can die, reception can be lost, or the satellites can be jammed as was the case on 9/11.

According to CNN, the Federal Communications Commission reported that the number of working pay phones decreased by more than half between 2007 and 2008. So what happens to all these pay phones no longer in use? Some phones are left exactly where they were originally installed, serving as a freestanding relic of the past, a monument to simpler, less hectic days. Some phones find their way to antiques dealers. That’s right — the pay phone is considered an antique! If you want, you can even buy a complete telephone booth to satisfy your Superman fetish. But sadly, many pay phones, and in fact entire phone booths, do end up in junkyards.

In my opinion, the award for the most innovative use for a pay phone goes to Spain. In Spain, where the government is heavily pushing the use of electric cars, obsolete pay phone booths will be used as electric car-charging stations because they are close to the street and are powered with electricity.

I’ll leave you with this thought. Though it can be sad thinking about how new technology can totally phase out what once was a regular part of our lives, we can be happy knowing that somewhere, someone is taking these old items and turning them into something wonderful and new. Next article on my list? “101 uses for cassette tapes.”

— Chanie

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What happens to pay phones when they die?
Chanie Kirschner remembers a time long ago when no one had cell phones.