Before Cell Phones

Posted June 3rd, 2012 by June O'Hara and filed in Technology

How the fuck did we navigate the world without cell phones? Really, how? Do you know how many of my spirit-squelching calamities would have been averted if I’d had one fifteen, twenty years ago? Many. I’d have been spared many. In fact, one of my fiascoes was so involved, and so extreme, that it merits a post of its own. 4,000 words, at least. (Take cover. I feel a series coming on.)

The fact is, I didn’t get along with pay phones any better than I do with umbrellas. Worse, even. And given my history with umbrellas, that’s a serious statement.

Regardless your position on technology, you have to admit, pay phones were disgusting. I know what my cell phone looks like by the end of the day, and I use super-industrial wooden stick Q Tips you have to order online from Sweden, and of which my boyfriend is terrified. (Some shit about brain injury, he says. Please.) I recall all too vividly the quarter-inch layer of wax on each pay phone receiver, shaped to the contours of the last ear it was pressed to. And my queasiness when it touched my own.

I doubt that I’m alone in this.

Another thing. I lost so many quarters, so many times, that no single incident stands out in my mind. Which is highly unusual; I thrive on memories of personal victimization and persecution. All I know is, the phone company was built on the backs of deluded suckers like me, who kept hoping that the insertion of one more quarter would finally bring success.

An aside: I’m intoxicated with the fertility of this topic.

Here’s one of my many pre-cell phone debacles.

I’m in graduate school, between classes, and have to make a semi-important call. I look for a pay phone, but see nothing. Then, finally, I spot one across the quad. As I rush toward it, it begins to ring.

What would you do?

“Please deposit $3.35 cents,” the operator tells me.

“But,” I say impatiently, “I wasn’t on the phone.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, miss. You have to pay the $3.35 before I can place your call.”

“Are you kidding me?” I cry. “I’m not the one who was on the phone!” My head whips right and left, eyes scanning for the perpetrator. There are only a few people around, and each gives off an annoying aura of innocence. “Whoever it was,” I tell the operator, “he got away!”

The operator is unconcerned. She doesn’t get that I really don’t have $3.35 — not just for this phone call, but for anything.

“Please,” I say, aware that I’m starting to whine. “I’m broke, late for class, and really need to make this call.” I take a deep breath and exhale. “Can’t you give me a break?”

“I’m sorry, miss, but. . .”

I hang up the phone. Two minutes later, I pick it back up.

An automated voice says, “Please deposit $3.35.”

The final score in this scenario? Operator: 1.  June: 0.


On Doing Therapy | Anna’s Curse

22 Responses to “Before Cell Phones”

  1. Nancy L. says:

    I remember my mom telling me she picked the receiver of a pay phone and smelled mayonnaise. Realized, too late, that someone had smeared the phone with mayo. It was all over her hair and face. Lovely, right?

  2. June O'Hara says:

    Nancy, How disgusting! Who does that?

    Maybe your mom should blog about it. :)

  3. RYCJ says:

    I figured this one would be funny. And it was. But what’s really funny are the operators you describe. They sound so much like the prerecorded automatic voice recordings heard today. Thank goodness you weren’t required to press a series of buttons, and then be charged for the time it took you to press them.

    I so enjoyed this laugh. Loved the way you put it. Hilarious writing. Back in the day when I recall pay phones, mostly the street guys was hanging on them.

    • June O'Hara says:

      RYCJ, You’re right! Thank God I wasn’t put on hold and told I should pay for the call! I can’t begin to imagine what I’d have said or done.

      I’m so happy you found humor in this post. I’m smiling ear to ear. I hope you’ll drop by again!

  4. Astra says:

    Too funny… keep it going!
    Just yesterday I said to my cellphone-less 11-yo: “If you can’t find me call my cell from a payphone”. I’m about to talk away, when I turn around and add, “You DO know what a payphone is, right?” She had no idea. Needless to say, we decided on Plan B.

  5. June O'Hara says:

    Astra, wow! Didn’t know what a pay phone was. I shouldn’t be, but I’m a little stunned.

    Yeah, this one’s gonna be a series…

  6. Annie says:

    Love this, June. Very funny. To be honest, I haven’t seen a pay phone in years. I no longer think they exist in my neck of the woods. Gone the way of the buffalo. Thanks so much for the laugh!

  7. June O'Hara says:

    You’re funny, Annie. Gone the way of the buffaloes (if that’s how it’s spelled). I guess, with the passing of years, I lost sight of them. Both the phones and the buffaloes.

  8. As a recent owner of a cell phone, I was astonished to see how easily I could rack up $70/month on doing essentially nothing. I long for the day to get an opportunity to pay $3.35 because I don’t make $70 worth of calle per month.


  9. June O'Hara says:

    Mike, it’s true. It’s amazing how fast and easily charges add up. I think pretty much everyone feels your pain.

    Thanks so much for stopping by. Hopefully I’ll see you again.

  10. Quarters? Oh, girlfriend, now I really feel old. I remember when they were just a dime. At least back then we actually spoke to people. Now the best I can hope for from most is a damn text.

  11. June O'Hara says:

    Actually, Jane, I do remember when it cost a dime. I’m closing in on you!

    I know what you mean about calling, but if texts aren’t abused, they can have their place. Still, when my clients tell me whole conversations they’ve had in text — and feel the need to read them all to me — I just can’t believe how long and involved they are.

  12. BenEllard says:

    A dime? I remember when us juvenile delinquents (what we were called at the time) carried safety pins around. You could poke one through the wire from the handset to the phone box and touch it to metal. The short would give you a dial tone and you could make your call — sans dime. That’s why later generations of pay phones had a metal coated wire between handset and box.

  13. Lauren says:

    This was soooooo true and funny. I’m sad to say that I also remember the pay phone days. That’s when I lived in NYC. So, you can imagine the various germ types lurking in those mouthpieces. I wonder how much change Mabelle stole from me. What a bitch!

    I could have used a cell phone one late evening when I was stranded in my car in the middle of a road flooded with water.

    I also have umbrella issues. Never found the right way to pull one inside a car without getting wet. What’s with that?

    • June O'Hara says:

      Lauren! I’m so excited that you have umbrella issues too! I always feel so alone in it. But I got so wet with one once trying to get into my car, it felt like a bucket of water had been poured over my head. Absolutely: what’s with that??

      I’m imagining your next post. “Stranded. . .”

  14. June O'Hara says:

    Ben, that’s really something! Both the fact of your juvenile delinquency and that you could make a call that way! Even though the rest of us suffered the effects.

  15. Mina Lobo says:

    You do still see some payphones in Manhattan. Like, in Grand Central Terminal, for example, which is super handy when I’ve dorked out and left my mobile at home but need to reach my kid. Mind you, what it now costs to make a call on a payphone for even the shortest length of time makes the spiraling cell costs positively affordable, surprise fees and charges notwithstanding.
    Some Dark Romantic

  16. June O'Hara says:

    Mina, you had me at “dorked out.” I’m so glad you stopped by! Hope to see you again.

  17. Babs says:

    When I was really young we had pay phones that had 2 buttons – Button A and button B. You put in your coins and pressed button ‘A’. The coins dropped and you got a dialing tone to make your call. If the number was engaged, you pressed button ‘B’ and your money dropped out in the tray.
    We often went into the telephone boxes and pressed button ‘B’ for a little windfall. It was surprising how many people forgot to get their coins back.

  18. The last pay phone I saw was in an antique store about a month ago in Massachusetts. I wanted to buy it for the nostalgia.

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