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Bring back the phone booth

It used to be that a phone call was for two people – and two people alone.

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There is a 1930s-vintage restaurant in my Maine town that has done little to update itself over the past 80 years. This is part of its charm, as is the wooden phone booth that sits neglected in this, the age of the cellphone.

Ah, the phone booth. We need it now more than ever. 

For me it symbolizes that phone calls were once private affairs, even if the information being shared was not sensitive in any way. It was simply assumed that a phone conversation was meant for two people, and two people only. In public places this meant resorting to the phone booth – a private chamber where one could converse in peace without being overheard.

Even at home, phone calls used to be regarded as proprietary. Growing up in the 1960s, we had one phone in the house – riveted to the kitchen wall. 

As a kid, I didn’t get, or make, many calls because all my friends lived within earshot and I could just yell out the window if I wanted their attention. I do, however, remember answering the phone, asking for the identity of the caller (always a mystery in the days before caller ID), and then handing the phone to my mom. She’d take it, say “Hello, Mrs. ­­­­­_____ ,” and then, “one moment please,” as she placed her hand over the receiver, turned to me, and directed, “This is for me. Why don’t you go outside and play?”

Flash-forward to what cellphones have done to this idyll. Within the space of very few years, private conversations have become public proclamations, and being overheard seems to be the point. A large part of the problem, of course, is that we now carry our phones with us, and the reflex to answer the device as soon as it rings is a response Pavlov would have appreciated.

But the information that’s divulged! Not long ago I was sitting in Boston’s South Station, waiting for my train. After purchasing a sandwich, I sat down at a table near a man who was on his cellphone. 

Let me paraphrase what the man had to say: “Yes, that’s right. The red and yellow roses. That will be a Visa.” Then he proceeded to recite his card number and expiration date before signing off.

I stared incredulously at the fellow. He glanced at me and asked, “What?”

My response was immediate: I recited his card number back to him, along with the expiration date. 

There is no more privacy, no longer a sense of personal borders or limits. The cellphone has become a megaphone, and I have been privy to details of people’s lives that I would rather be blissfully ignorant of: the woman shopping next to me in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket who was breaking up with her boyfriend while holding a box of Mrs. T’s pierogies, the man on the bus chastising his child, the woman using language I ­haven’t heard since I was in the Navy, the student bragging about cheating on an exam.

To return to phone booths: Why did they disappear? They were ubiquitous in my childhood and could readily serve as cellphone havens today. A Mr. Riley had one in his small, struggling candy store where I grew up. It was wooden, with a folding door. Even at the age of 9, before I had acquired any life experiences, I would have labeled “private,” I would sometimes detach from my friends, close the door, drop in my dime, and call home in peace and quiet. 

And should you think a phone booth has no value today, I saw one on eBay going for $4,750.

Mr. Riley would have flipped.

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