STORIES

A Hunt to Find the Last Payphone Users

By Justin Caffier on March 6, 2019

Payphones are a tenacious endangered species, refusing to die despite technology's best efforts. Though its numbers are dwindling, the humble payphone is somehow far from extinct. I see them all over my home city of Los Angeles, collecting band stickers and acting as urinals.

Though I'm the furthest thing from a Luddite, and usually happy to let obsolete technology rot without so much as a moment of silence, I've always had a soft spot for the payphone. To be such an integral part of society for nearly a century, only to be unceremoniously tossed aside when the shiny better option comes along: Who among us can't relate to the feeling of being discarded for an upgrade? And yet, where we might sulk, the payphone stoically carries on, ready to serve the public at a moment's notice, like that faithful Akita, Hachiko.

But who is actually still making calls on these things? Someone must be, right? Otherwise they wouldn't exist anymore. I decided to find out.

Though I was certain I'd seen payphones all around me in passing the last few years, finding one when I actually needed it proved a trickier feat than expected. There are online directories run by payphone enthusiasts that list the locations of payphones. But, unsurprisingly, they're not up to date. At the first few phones I drove to, I arrived to find no dial tone, or a severed payphone trunk.
Finally, with the help of social media, I tracked one down.

In the bustling heart of Downtown LA at Pershing Square, with a metro stop beneath me and a bus stop beside me, there was plenty of foot traffic to keep this payphone buried in quarters. Unfortunately, there were a few obstacles preventing all the passers-by from calling collect or whatever it is one does there. 

First, there was the stagnant puddle of urine at the base—routine 'round these parts. Second, and certainly more of a wildcard, was the maybe homeless scruffy young guy sitting on an overturned shopping cart next to it. After a few uneventful hours of waiting, no one had placed or received a call, and the heat and bodily fluid odors were starting to get to me, so it was time to mosey on.

I made it to my next spot, the historic Farmers Market at The Grove, one of LA's 5,000 opulent outdoor shopping plazas. Amidst the hip eateries and no-frills produce stands were two working payphones along a back pathway to its restrooms. These were shockingly clean—dare I say polished—phones, with fresh instructional stickers about how to dial Mexico on them, so I was liking my chances of catching a caller in the act here.

Despite my optimism, I spent the lunch rush loitering by the unused payphones of this retro establishment like some sad, aging greaser while staff rolled trash cans by me, eyeballing me with confusion. For the second time that day, inactivity and bathroom smells forced me to change locations.

My final attempt of the day took me to The Valley where a Burbank Chinese restaurant boasted not just a payphone, but also a red British-style booth housing it.

Inside the booth were a painting of Charlie Chaplin and an accompanying placard cautioning me to "conduct [my]self at all times as would a lady or gentleman" while within this hallowed space.

I made it almost an hour before remembering to check if this was indeed a working phone. The lack of dial tone that greeted me when I lifted the receiver to my ear was the slap in the face I needed to reconsider my strategy for this project.

After so many failures at finding working phones, let alone finding people interacting with them, I was ready to write off these relics as the world's worst money laundering scheme. As far as I was concerned, payphones very well might just be demonstrating a mechanism of quantum mechanics where the mere act of observing them alters their behavior and guarantees I'll never witness a call.

I knew in my heart that my hero's journey for this project could not truly be considered complete until I caught someone in the act. I'd just have to stay vigilant. 

Weeks passed and I kept my eyes peeled. The quest was weighing around my neck like an un-invoice-able millstone. Then, one morning, while driving to work, I caught my Moby Dick.

I pulled off the road, parked illegally and ran across traffic to talk to this woman. And of course, after all my efforts, this scene was unfolding just one goddamn block from my own apartment.

When the woman finished her call, I informed her I was a journalist and tried to ask her about the nature of her convo in the least creepy way possible.While she astonishingly wasn't too skeeved out by a stranger accosting her on the street, there was a language barrier between us that prevented a full interrogation. What I was able to piece together using my broken Spanish and her broken English was that she was calling family there because her cell phone plan had just run out of minutes. She took off in a rush before I could ask more questions and get her name, likely because she was starting to pick up on just how deliriously giddy I was to have found her.

When the high of the find wore off, I realized that my field research had yielded barely any fruit so I decided to dig deeper into the reporting of better journalists and try to make sense of this whole calling card racket.

It turns out that this woman was a fair representation of the payphone industry's present-day lifeblood. Last year, the LA Times reported that California's 27,000+ (!) still operational payphones are essentially kept afloat by a combination of Spanish-speakers calling abroad and the dirt-cheap operational and upkeep costs of the phones themselves.

The article half breaks down the numbers and suggests that boxes collecting an average of $1.50 a day are somehow a profitable and worthwhile business venture. I get that it's just a crab trap but for quarters, but, based on what I'd seen, it still wasn't adding up for me.

I reached out to Karim Zaman, president of The Payphone Company, a business with phones all around LA, including seven airport locations, to see if an actual payphone businessman could explain how any profit could be generated from these relics.

"I actually just removed my last revenue-generating phone as it stopped being able to pay for itself," Zaman told me. "Those in bus and train stations, along with airports, used to be goldmines, but they don't do much of anything anymore."

Zaman went on to explain that he and the few other remaining payphone magnates—who all know each other, of course—make their money today from "convenience fees" paid by companies that are mandated to have a hard line at a specific location.

"People still skate around the rules to save money," says Zaman. "They use Wi-Fi and various gizmos and gadgets, but it's not a stable hard line, and, in the event of a natural disaster, those phones would go out just like your cell."

"Today, the few remaining customers tend to be immigrant and homeless people, but even they aren't using the phones all that much," Zaman told me, confirming the LA Times' reporting and my firsthand experiences with a single sentence that could've saved me days of work.

Still, as Sisyphean as the whole task had been, I'd finally accomplished what I'd set out to do. All that mattered was that I'd seen the modern face of payphone usage. And as I'd just learned from Zaman, thanks to all the regulation-skirting tomfoolery, even an apocalyptic event isn't likely to give them a swan song. Sadly, it seems the once ubiquitous device's legacy will be nothing more than the symbol on your smartphone's "phone" app and a Lady Gaga song.

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.

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