Saturday, April 14, 2012

Superman's Dressing Room

In the dark days before cell phones, and when only the birds "tweeted", we had these wonderful structures called phone booths. Younger people may not remember these wondrous little wooden huts where pay phones were housed. Phone booths were commonly found in such lowly places as the corner candy store, and in grander surroundings like the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Most were vertical wooden rectangles that contained a wall phone with a rotary dial, an overhead light that automatically went on when the folding door was closed, and even a fan to keep you cool while you made your call. There were local residential and business phone directories mounted at the side of the booth where you could look up numbers. Some phone booths, far from common,  were elaborate affairs that befitted their surroundings.

Maybe my favorite is the well-known British phone booth familiar to Anglophiles. These red beauties were unique examples of making something utilitarian into something beautiful. The first Red Telephone Box design was introduced in 1924, and by 1968 the Post Office had introduced its eighth design for a National Telephone Kiosk. Over the last eighty years the Telephone Box has become a symbolic piece of street architecture, whether in rural villages or on  urban highways. There is something very permanent and solidly British middle-class about these boxes. Sadly, modern designs and the growth of mobile phones has relegated these wonderful kiosks to the status of "collectibles."

In our neighborhood, the candy store phone booth became the business office of the local bookie. When the phone rang, it was always for him from someone wanting to play a number or get a bet down on a horse. Phone booths were also a handy place to call home to let the folks know you had arrived safely at your destination when travelling. The trick was to call collect and ask for some mythical person. Your Mom then told the Operator that there was no such person living at that phone number, and that she would not accept a collect call. The "coded" transaction was then complete; Mom knew you had arrived safely and it didn't cost her a dime.

Another memory associated with phone booths is the silly fad that began in the 1950s. College kids with nothing better to do began vying for the world record for how many people they could stuff into a pay phone booth. There was also the famous "Mojave Phone Booth" installed and maintained by Pacific Bell in the middle of the desert 75 miles from anywhere. This lonely communications outpost was used for years by grateful travelers who ran into trouble; sadly it had to be removed due to rampant vandalism. And of course the phone booth was the secret place where meek and mild Clark Kent changed clothes to become the Man of Steel, Superman.

At some point in the 1960s, when there was a general decline in our society of respect for anything; phone booths were turned into public toilets. The phone company fought hard to keep up, but after a while just gave up. They tried these space-age, aluminum kiosks with push button dials, but the Neanderthals burglarized and vandalized them too. The arrival of the cell phone was the death knell for pay phones and the cool booths that housed them. I could never understand why people would destroy things that were useful to all of us. I'm glad I was around to see the phone booth in its heyday, and to use it to call Mom collect to let her know I was OK.


Children's Craniofacial Association

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