Hello? ... Hel-looo?

My media radar almost missed the story of the loneliest phone booth in the world. By chance, I learned about it while watching the last few minutes of a recent TV newscast, and then did some quick research to get up to speed on the offbeat details.

In case you hadn't heard about this special dialing destination, it was located deep in the Mojave National Preserve in southern California, and was installed back in the 1960s for use by local miners. Several years ago it got publicized on the World Wide Web and developed a cult following. People from all over the planet began ringing up the number, and other ambitious fans started driving out to the remote site so they could answer the incoming calls, which sometimes totaled several hundred per day.

However, the Park Service and phone company were apparently not pleased by the visitors and growing popularity of the site, so last month the loneliest phone booth in the world was abruptly dismantled. This decision outraged booth enthusiasts, and tweaked the interest of numerous news organizations. Reporters across the country shifted into metaphor-overdrive in their efforts to bring symbolic significance to the notion of a solitary public telephone doomed by unexpected stardom.

As much as I'd like to find a larger message here, some kind of societal wake-up call, I'm afraid the demise of the loneliest booth is simply one more confirmation of a trend that's already well known: Pay phones are in trouble, driven into decline by the same cultural and technological changes that have decimated the population of pinball games, penny parking meters, and gumball machines. With more and more Americans using cellular devices, revenues from pay phones are heading downward, and companies don't hesitate to yank their equipment from unprofitable or troublesome locations.

Certainly the loneliest phone booth was not an electronic El Dorado.

One article offered the opinion that people who decided to call the number were seeking "the quirky potential of a connection to the middle of nowhere." I think that's a fancy way of describing this type of exchange: "Gee, I can't believe someone answered!" and "Wow, you're really far away!"

Anyone who is truly compelled by the idea of making such random attempts to reach out and touch someone should find a Web site that lists numbers for pay phones (I have read that such sites really do exist) and aim for targets that offer a better chance for meaningful conversation. My top suggestions are (1) truck stops, (2) laundromats, (3) every hotel lobby on the Las Vegas strip.

The first choice offers instant access to the 18-wheeling adventure of highway travel ("Where you been? Where you going? What's in the trailer?") The second option would provide welcome relief, especially late at night, to bored patrons who are desperately wishing for any form of human contact while their clothes spin and tumble endlessly (I speak from personal experience). No. 3 is pretty much self-explanatory.

My most memorable encounter with a lonely phone booth happened at a grimy, abandoned gas station. I heard the ringing from across the parking lot and, to be honest, I immediately speculated on exotic outcomes. Perhaps the person on the other end was calling for lifesaving help and dialed the number by accident. Maybe it was an eccentric millionaire trying to give away money to some lucky citizen. I ran to the battered booth, stepped around the broken glass to grab the receiver, and was rewarded with - a recorded sales message.

Sometimes my whole life seems like a quirky connection to nowhere.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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