Journal of Writing & Environment

Web Rove: The Passing of Payphones

By Liz Giorgi

I always feel a sense of wistfulness when, at hotels and airports, I pass the booths that used to house pay phones. The phones themselves are gone, but the smooth metal banks that housed them remain—left to provide privacy for cell phone calls, but feeling more like memorials to a former way of life.

Today’s web rove features stories that reflect on the passing of payphones and landlines, and on the strange mix of intimacy and anonymity, of connection and disconnection, that went with them. If cell phones and social media remind us of the interconnectedness of human societies, landlines were a reminder of the opposite: of the tenuousness of human connection, the fickleness of affection, the joy of reconnection. These are eulogies: to lost modes of communication, to lost youths, to lost visions of the world.

Serial by Sarah Koenig (from NPR)

I was reminded of the culture of landlines and public payphones while listening to Serial this winter. In case you are one of the few people who haven’t yet heard it, NPR’s wildly popular and highly addictive podcast—a spinoff of This American Life—explores a 1999 murder in 12 in-depth installments. Producer Sarah Koenig features Adnan Syed, who was a high school senior in Baltimore when he was accused and convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Much of the evidence in the case rests on cell phone tower records—a new and difficult-to-understand technology at the time—and the presence of payphones at a local Best Buy, long since removed from the store with little record that they ever existed at all. 

“Landlines” by Lisa Nikolidakis (from Brevity)

“His voice was warm and low, breathy as a runner’s, and we’d smash our ears against the receiver to hear him.”

Nikolidakis’ haunting flash nonfiction piece recounts the author’s experience as a teenage girl receiving “dirty calls” at a public pay phone in a mall with her friends. Nikolidakis captures the thrill of the illicit, the sense of possibility and hint of danger in anonymous communication.

Time and Distance Overcome by Eula Biss (via NPR)

Biss’ rightfully-lauded lyric essay merges the early history of the telephone with the almost-immediate appropriation of telephone poles as tools for lynchings, exploring the dichotomy between the need for human connection, and the cruelty of which humans are capable when they do come together.

“Funeral for a Friend” by Virginia Heffernan (from the New York Times)

“A conversation could last hours upon dazed hours, as you sat on your parents’ bed, twirling the curly cord, or hauled the house phone into the bathroom, the better to monopolize family telecommunications. Chortling, gasping, sighing, sobbing, throats catching or forming word after idle or impassioned word: you made every sound that humans make and thus joined your solitudes.”

Heffernan’s short piece for the New York Times remember and eulogizes the physicality of landlines, the pleasures of receivers that could be hung up—softly, angrily—and the lost sensory experiences of landlines.


One response to “Web Rove: The Passing of Payphones”

  1. FlywayJournal says:

    What technologies do you miss? Maybe it’s that tape deck or CD player… Tell us in your comments!