Thursday, September 10, 2009

Recalling the Public Phone

Guest Post by Jayde Cahir

I have owned a mobile for 14 years. Even while backpacking overseas in the late 90s I carried one with me. But I’m not a mobile phone junkie constantly waiting for my next fix. My standard habit of leaving it at home or forgetting to re-charge the battery or buy credit means that I can’t be addicted to constant contact. I am the first to admit it is nice to have a mobile, just as it is sometimes nice to leave it behind and become un-contactable.

Recently, I was at my local Fish & Chip shop and wanted to phone home to see if anyone else wanted anything to eat but the battery on my mobile was flat. All was not lost—there was a public phone right outside the shop. I stepped into the booth, carefully avoiding the small clumps of dried chewing gum on the concrete floor. I then looked at the large metal contraption protruding from the right side of rippled metallic wall. The phone was surrounded by graffiti both scratched and spayed onto the wrinkled surface. On the shelf beside it were sprinkles of ash and a used match, all traces of previous occupants. I stepped closer and felt slightly claustrophobic. This feeling would have been exacerbated if it had been one of the old fashioned public phone booths, the ones with the door you had to lean on. When you stepped inside that door would spring back into place, completely enclosing you in a cocoon of privacy. I imagine that with people talking about their private lives on mobiles anywhere and everywhere Telstra thought they could cut down on costs and provide just three walls.

I picked up the receiver. It was bulky and rather heavy. The cord was twisted in such a way that when it unravelled the handset struck me in the face. Resting it between shoulder and cheek, I rubbed my nose while simultaneously trying to insert my coins. The phone would not accept them. I stood there thinking “I should know how to do this. It’s simple” but I did read the instructions just to make sure. They said: “Lift the receiver. Insert coins or card. Dial number.” I tried to insert my coins again but the mental shutter that usually closes with a ‘click’ after each coin is inserted was firmly locked in place. I hung up the receiver, cupped my hand over my stinging nose and just stood there staring at the phone… I was mesmerised by this contraption that was once so familiar but now seemed so alien. Stepping out of the booth, I looked down at my mobile phone in the palm of my hand and then gazed back at the public phone booth.

Standing in front of my local Fish & Chip shop, I could smell the fish and potatoes sizzling in their metal cages and felt a sense of irony. I empathised with the battered cod, as my nose still hurt from its unexpected encounter with the heavy plastic receiver. The stinging sensation was a reminder of how quickly communication technologies have changed. Over the past ten years convenient connection has transferred from public phones to small hand-held products. Access to “anytime, anywhere” connectivity is now a taken for granted service. But it was not that long ago when calls made while in transit relied almost entirely on public phones. A designated place to make phone calls, fixed and confined, now seems like an antiquated notion. After all, we are constantly surrounded by conversations like “Hello…Yeah…I’m on the bus”…“where are you?” or “Hi…I’m running late” … “Yeah, I’ll be there soon”. People’s everyday phone conversations often dominate shared social spaces, and, depending on the topic, can offer a sense of nostalgia for the old fashioned public phone booth. While mobile communication devices may have shrunk from walk-in cubicles to pocket-size devices, I’m grateful that commodities like fish & chips have remained the same.

Following my failed attempt to make contact I went ahead and bought extra fish & chips, which were well received when I returned home. The experience of using a public phone seemed so foreign and certainly emphasised the convenience of mobiles, but I realised something else. Mobiles limit the scope of the unexpected small things in life, like bringing home fish & chips, because easy access to everyone means that every little thing can be planned in advance. Reverting to using a public phone after 14 years of owning a mobile reminded me of a time when there was no need to announce everything!


  1. This post makes me want a couple of potato cakes crusted with salt and dripping in vinegar.

  2. Do public phone booths still exist!? This piece is a lovely little reminder of the objects we take for granted in our everyday landscapes. You never know, just as vinyl records have become nostalgic symbols of an golden, old-school musical past, so too, may the humble, gum-encrusted public phone booth find a place in our technocratic future to come.

  3. Except that vinyl records still work!

    That was exquisite, thank you.

  4. On the topic of the non-existent public phone - there is an interesting site called:
    ‘Pay Phone Memorial: Phone Portraits’ by Markuz Wernli Saito
    This link shows a series of his photos:
    And this is a film of him taking the photos:
    It’s definitely worth checking out.

  5. "... just as it is sometimes nice to leave it behind and become un-contactable." - same here! :)

    I miss the good old days which we write letters to friends. While nowadays, we SMS...

  6. Great post!

    On the topic of pay phones, long told urban legends always make me think twice about using them ;-)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.