Last call for the phone booth

The boxy bastion of privacy amid the bustle of public life has disappeared -- and now there's no telling what you might hear

Observations

January 02, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

You want to make a phone call and you don't want the world listening in. You want some privacy. You want a phone booth. But where to find one?

Sure, there are phones everywhere. Banks of them are set into the walls of hotel lobbies and bank towers. Three-sided stands with steel bars across the phones to prevent theft are anchored outside liquor stores and drugstores.

But there are no real phone booths. They're gone, and with them went a place where you could step outside the world and have a bit of privacy. "There were two places in public where you could go and take a deep breath -- one of those was a phone booth," says Robert Thompson, president of the Popular Culture Association and professor at Syracuse University. "It was a little oasis."

Once they were commonplace. College pranksters stuffed themselves into phone booths. Hollywood reporters, and a few real-life reporters, called in their stories from phone booths. Where would Superman have been without one? The phone booth was his cocoon. He went in as mild-mannered Clark Kent and came out ready to save the world.

At their best, phone booths were snug roomettes of privacy. At their worst, exposed on a city street or in a bus station on the drunken side of downtown, they were signs of another era's insensitivity and our era's social unraveling. People in wheelchairs couldn't get inside. Bums and vagrants turned booths into impromptu bathrooms. Those graffiti-marred cubicles could stink to high heaven. If you went in, it was on tip-toes, and you dreaded putting your mouth on the receiver. Ah, but at their best, they were great. Calling from a phone booth was almost like dialing from home. You could say what you wanted. No one was listening in. And that was important. Not so nowadays, it seems.

Instead of phone booths, we have cell phones. And everyone is on stage. "With some of the convenience and acceleration of the late 20th century and early 21st century, America has had the price to pay of not only a lack of privacy, but of decorum," says Thompson. "You have these people who are sitting in a lounge on the phone, talking awfully loud, and clearly enjoying the fact that everyone around them is hearing them having this important conversation."

People aren't looking for little hideaways. We're in touch with the world and we want everyone to know. Joseph Dorinson, a history professor at Long Island University and self-professed "technological conservative," finds this all very disturbing. "There is a lack of civility that seems to go along with the use of these cellular phones, and there's also a bravado," he says.

Using a cell phone in public signals importance. A walk downtown is no idle stroll through the concrete canyon. It's a power walk, cell phone in one hand, briefcase in the other, double-breasted sports coat billowing out like a sail during the headlong rush to somewhere. A walk is a chance to hold a meeting, make a deal, call in a take-out order. The best do it with a flair that would have been lost in a phone booth. "I think we all have a touch of ham," says Dorinson, who once sported a pipe for the "professorial" look it gave him.

Ninety million Americans now own cell phones. There's no escaping them. Everyone is walking around with a palm-sized phone. Soon babies will get them as farewell gifts from the maternity ward: "Something to remember us by."

The market just keeps expanding. The biggest growth in America is from parents who want their teen-age children on a leash and from a group market insiders call "just-in-casers," people who want a phone "just in case" there's an emergency.

We have tried to adapt to this new gadgetry. But it has overtaken us. We're amazed and thrilled by the convenience, by what these phones can do. We don't dare leave them at home, or check them with our coats. We might miss a call. Dorinson says we're acting like lemmings. "Other people are doing it. So, let's do it. Let's fall in love with technology."

Along with the exponential rise in cell-phone use has come a slight etiquette problem, a lack of "mobile manners," says Rosemary Ravinal, spokesman for Ericsson Mobile Phones, one of the multinational giants in the mobile-cellular world. "People need to understand discretion issues, intrusion," she says. "You don't want to answer your phone in the theater. You don't want your private life overheard in a restaurant."

Miss Manners would concur. It's impolite to eavesdrop, but it's hard to close your ears when someone is making a point of giving you an earful of their lives. "That's less their problem, but our problem," says Thompson. "It's the invasion of our personal space. We keep being forced into hearing these conversations."

Where it all began

With the phone booth, it was different; the first ones appeared around 1878. Pay phones hadn't been invented. You paid an attendant after making the call. Some attendants even locked callers in to keep them from skipping out on the bill.

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