by Lee Gulyas and Brenda Miller
Payphones have fallen out of favor, though I suppose they’ll never be able to do away with them completely. I used to love the long banks of payphones in airports; looked forward to catching up with old friends during a long layover. I used a long-distance calling card that required punching in long strings of numbers in order to connect, and even then, you were never sure if it would work.
I called girlfriends I hadn’t seen in person for years, or old boyfriends who had remained friends. I leaned into the half-booths, with their inadequate privacy shields, and scrunched the phone between ear and shoulder as I held my address book to dial the numbers. Sometimes I thought to wipe down the receiver and the little metal shelf with a Handiwipe and sometimes I didn’t bother, just let the cards fall where they may. I said, I’m calling you from _____airport, wherever that might be: Denver, Chicago, Atlanta. We could talk for hours and never run out of things to say.
Often there’d be another person or two using the phones, usually businessmen checking in with the home office. They spoke in a language too specialized to make out, but I could ascertain the tone well enough, know if they were pissed or happy or simply weary. We all knew payphone etiquette without having a sign to tell us: avoid eye contact, pretend you can’t hear the private conversation of the person next to you. I pressed the receiver tight to my ear—sometimes the voices were loud and sometimes they were soft—and the vibrations of those voices entering my body to make me feel whole again. I fiddled with the cord that connected me to those people far away.
I know that we can now call anyone we like, anywhere we like, with a few taps on a cell, but I miss those banks of airport phone booths. They always smelled faintly of cigarettes, though smoking hadn’t been allowed in airports in years. Sometimes there were scribbled notes left behind, a few pennies, a Lifesaver or two. They spoke of effort: a deliberate intention to connect.
You needed to take yourself out of the stream of everyday time; you needed to enter a container, like Clark Kent did to change his clothes, or like Captain Kirk in his transporter, commanding “Beam me up!” I wanted to be transported, linked with my fellow travelers in space.
My favorite payphone was under a set of stairs in Ghirardelli Square. The only people who used that phone were employees. No one else could find it. It only cost a dime, long after Pacific Bell changed other payphones to a quarter a call. I would pop up to the restroom and on the way back, call a friend to see what was going on, just because I could.
In those days before cellphones, there were long periods of silence, of introspective thought—not that constant ping of texts and snaps and emails—no Find Your Friends or GPS locator. When I was on the road—to Big Sur, Mendocino, Bodega Bay, or camping in the Southwest, I made it a point to call my mom from a payphone, just to say hi and let her know where I was. (I always called collect.)
Even now I am singing the Ma Bell commercial from the 80s—Reach out, reach out and touch someone, Reach out, call up and just say hi. The attempt of being close to those you love even though you are far away, a song echoing in my head.
About the Authors
Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books,2016). She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop.
Lee Gulyas’s work has appeared in journals such as The Common, Prime Number, Barn Owl Review, Event, The Malahat Review, Kahini Magazine, Tinderbox, Literary Mama, Sweet, and Full Grown People. She received a 2014 Washington State Artist Trust Grant, teaches at WWU in Bellingham, and has twice participated as faculty in WWU’s Service-Learning Study Abroad Program to Rwanda.
Together, their collaborative work has appeared in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Los Angeles Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Passages North, Aquifer, Jet Fuel Review, Barrelhouse, and reDIVIDer.