PHONE HOMES - Public pay phones are a vanishing breed in an age of constant cell contact
PHONE HOMES - Public pay phones are a vanishing breed in an age of constant cell contact

I spend many days doing this: Dialing numbers and hoping somebody answers so I can interview them.

It's part of my job, but on this day it has taken on a twist. Always before, I have known who I am calling, and what I want to talk to them about.

Today I do not.

Today I am dialing random pay phone numbers across Montana, hoping someone - anyone - picks up. But from West Glacier to Miles City, the phones either ring endlessly without an answer, or a recording comes on the line to announce that this number is no longer in service.

It was not my idea to do a feature on an industry that, were it an animal, would probably qualify for the endangered species list. As cell phones have been killing off once-familiar pay phones by the millions worldwide, Missoulian photographer Linda Thompson came up with the notion.

"And I certainly don't think I'm the first photographer to document pay phones," Thompson says. "I've seen it done before. But I was interested because they seem to be disappearing so fast. There was an urge to document something that might not be there anymore in a few years."

And so, since 2006, Thompson has been capturing images of pay phones and telephone booths that she spies while on other assignments for the newspaper. I happened to be along for the first one she photographed, a booth sitting amid a cluster of what appeared to be small rental houses outside Eureka.

"When I saw that one in Eureka I thought it was a sign" to embark on the project she'd been kicking around for a while, Thompson says. "What interests me about pay phones is what their locations say about the people they're intended for, and the environment around them."

A young woman was inside the Eureka telephone booth when we passed by on U.S. Highway 93 in 2006, but by the time we had turned around, gone back and ducked down into the little neighborhood, driving slowly among children playing outside, she was gone.

As Thompson snapped pictures of the booth she says she wondered: Why did the woman who had been using it not have a landline in her home, or a cell phone in her purse? Was it just a matter of an unpaid bill, or a dead battery? Or was she largely without a means of communication most of us take for granted, save for that old phone booth?

West Broadway, downtown Missoula

The idea of a story about pay phones is just one of many I can't lay claim to.

Calling random pay phones in an attempt to launch conversations with complete strangers is another.

It takes very little Internet research to discover many people interested - obsessed, even - with the vanishing icon. One of the most prominent may be a New York City concert pianist.

In 1995, Mark Thomas started a Web site called the Pay Phone Project (www.payphone-project.com). It began, in some ways, with Thomas watching talk show host David Letterman call a pay phone located outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York during his show and seeing which passer-by would pick up the receiver.

Letterman would engage them in a conversation, sometimes even invite them inside and on stage. The randomness of it all, the idea that you could be walking past a ringing pay phone one minute, and be on national television in front of several million people the next, tickled Thomas.

So he started walking around Manhattan, jotting down the numbers and locations of pay phones he came across, and publishing them on the Web site. He invited others to do the same in their neighborhoods and communities.

And, Thomas invited everyone to pick out a random pay phone number in a random location, dial it up, and see who answered.

Today on the Web site you can find numbers for more than three-quarters of a million pay phones worldwide, including hundreds in Montana. I'm using his list to dial number after number.

"I've always been fascinated by (pay phones') ability to connect people," Thomas told the BBC in an interview you can listen to at the Web site.

While growing up in Florida, during middle school, Thomas explained, he was taking piano lessons at the University of Tampa. On TV one night he heard a report about prostitution problems on a street, Kennedy Boulevard, which runs past the Tampa campus.

"So I went over there and wrote down the number of a pay phone and I just started calling it at night, when I imagined all these prostitutes and such came out," Thomas told the BBC. "Honestly, at the time, I probably didn't even know what a prostitute was exactly. I just knew it was dark and interesting."

Thomas said he called the number a lot.

"I never really had the nerve to say anything in particular," he said. "But what I started to do was I played a cassette tape of myself playing the piano, and held it up to the phone, and I felt I was making my contact that way. I probably had a grandiose notion of bringing some culture to the dark side of society."

People answered, he said. And they seldom hung up after the music started floating out of the receiver.

Even if all they did was drop the receiver and leave it swinging in the air, Thomas said he had this notion of his classical music wafting up and reaching the ears of nearby prostitutes.

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The first pay phones came along not long after the invention of the telephone, in the 1870s. Perhaps not surprisingly, they required attendants to collect money from the people using them.

The first pay phone you deposited coins into was installed in a bank in Hartford, Conn., in 1889 by inventor William Gray. Gray's initial idea, that a nickel would unlock a box covering a regular phone made available to the public, was deemed impractical by telephone company executives, who noted an unlimited number of calls could be placed once a single nickel had opened the box.

Gray solved that by having the coins deposited directly into the phones, eliminating the need for a box. As they were dropped in, the coins hit on bells, alerting the operator that the necessary money was coming in.

By 1905 the first pay phone located outside a building was installed, in Cincinnati. It took a while to catch on. People were initially wary - all you cell phone users will get a kick out of this - of conducting private conversations on a public street.

But demand for public access to telephones outside the home fueled the pay phone industry, just as the same demand has fueled the cell phone industry that has decimated it.

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Few expect pay phones to disappear entirely. "There will always be a segment of the population that cannot afford private phone service, and which relies on public telephony as a point of contact with the world," Thomas says.

And, he notes, there are still places without cell phone service. Consider Hot Springs, population 500, which has none. Not only is there still a pay phone on Main Street - the local phone book isn't hanging by a chain next to it, but is painted on a sign and screwed into the wall above the phone.

Florence Hotel, Missoula

In just 14 years, though, the reason for Thomas' Pay Phone Project - to promote random contact between random strangers - has all but vanished. With it goes the idea I had borrowed for this story.

Dig deep enough into his Web site - which I do while placing about 30 unsuccessful calls - and you'll learn that most pay phones don't accept incoming calls any more.

Thomas keeps the site active because, despite its whimsical original purpose, he found that other people used it for more important needs.

Phone companies, he explains, refuse to make public the numbers and locations of their pay phones.

"Why should it require a subpoena or a private investigator to trace a pay phone location, when Caller ID and even Global Positioning Systems are so common in other phone devices?" Thomas writes on his Web site. He recounts some of the stories he's heard since starting the Pay Phone Project, like the frantic mother whose missing and pregnant teenage daughter had called her from a pay phone, crying, before someone took the receiver from the girl and hung up in mid-sentence.

The mother scribbled down the number of the incoming call, and used payphone-project.com to track her daughter's location.

"I remember in school, being given a quarter by my parents and told I had to keep it, I couldn't spend it on candy or anything else," Linda Thompson says. "I was only to use it for a pay phone, if I ever needed to call."

Now, even some kids in grade school have cell phones, and those who don't could be hard-pressed to find a pay phone in an emergency.

"I think it's interesting that with pay phones, anyone with a quarter, or 50 cents, can make a call," Thompson says. "To have a cell phone, you need a lot more money. If they pull all the pay phones, it really limits who can communicate."

Mark Thomas may be right: Just as the VCR did not eliminate movie theaters, as some predicted, perhaps the cell phone will not kill the pay phone.

But try to find enough of the remaining ones to make a photo-feature, and you'll find - as Thompson did - you're in a project measured not in weeks, but years.

"It's the sign of a time," she says, "that's going away."

Reach reporter Vince Devlin at 1-800-366-7186 or by e-mail at vdevlin@missoulian.com. Reach photographer Linda Thompson at

(406) 523-5270 or a lthompson@missoulian.com.

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