Listening In on a Pay Phone in Queens

The three men used the same curbside pay phone on a busy block of Queens Boulevard last week. So did Carlos Luciano, who lent his cellphone to his wife. And Alex Santana, who bought a banana to get change. And Marvin McCain, a subway conductor trying to call in sick, and two men uninterested in giving their names or explaining why, at midnight on a neon-lit stretch of Kew Gardens, Queens, they had to make a call.

Everybody knows the public pay phone is dying, but nobody inclined to watch this one would believe it. It sits across the street from Queens Criminal Court, on a patch of sidewalk facing Fast & Fresh Supermarket Deli & Grocery. In the age of the iPhone and the BlackBerry, in a city where cellphones are cheaper and more plentiful than toasters, the pay phone outside Fast & Fresh is outdated, outnumbered, outperformed.

Yet this grimy phone — in a silvery booth that Superman would have skipped over, for it is doorless and not fully enclosed — survives and, in its own nickel-and-dime way, thrives.

In seven days last week, more than 100 people deposited a total of $52 in the phone, at 25 cents per call. Last month, hundreds of people put in a total of $210 worth of coins. Those who stepped into the booth last Thursday and Friday provided a snapshot of New York’s pay phone user, an elusive, rather anonymous demographic sometimes viewed with suspicion.

They were mostly men, as young as 18 and as old as 62. They were Hispanic, black, white, Arab. Several said they were unemployed and could not afford a cellphone. Others owned a cellphone, but did not have it for one reason or another. For many, there was nothing suspicious about whom they dialed and why: They called their mothers. The machine served not so much as a lifeline, but as a simple landline, with life.

THURSDAY, FEB. 4, 9:07 A.M.

Mr. Patir, 59, pulled a quarter from a pocket. He happened to be walking by the phone booth when he decided to call his son. He has been out of work for five years, ever since his stroke, and he said he ran out of money to pay his cellphone bill two weeks ago. Asked why he called from that phone at that moment, he replied, “Loneliness, loneliness, loneliness.”

Mr. Patir’s son did not answer. He left a message. “I just asked him why nobody think about me,” he said. “Nobody calls me.”

11:17 A.M.

The booth provides something more than advertising space or shelter from the elements. It offers anonymity. And deniability.

“Nah,” one young man who made a call insisted, “you didn’t see me use that phone.”

12:54 P.M.

Frank Federico, 34, stepped into the booth. He had just been released from custody from the criminal courthouse. His cellphone was not as lucky. It was still back at the police precinct, where he was processed after being arrested the day before for heroin possession. “I do drugs,” Mr. Federico said frankly. “I got caught with them.”

While Mr. Federico talked with his mother, standing behind him was Jishan Alam, 18, waiting to call his brother after also being released from custody. Mr. Alam, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, said he was stopped by the police for walking between subway cars and then arrested because he had failed to appear for a previous traffic ticket.

Mr. Federico asked Mr. Alam for a quarter. Mr. Alam had none, but he handed him a dollar and told him to keep it, and the two of them walked to Fast & Fresh to get change and use the phone.

Queens Criminal Court is the booth’s biggest customer. It sits with its back to the courthouse at the edge of the curb — “Phone” in blue letters across the top —between 82nd Road and 83rd Avenue. People rush out of their arraignments, head down the courthouse steps, cross Queens Boulevard, hop the fence on the traffic median and call their relatives or friends, repeating one basic message over and over again: Come pick me up, I’m out.

No one lingers very long, because no incoming calls are accepted. The recently released from jail were a population that was easy to spot in the frigid cold last week. Many appeared to have been arrested without their coats or had had their jackets confiscated, because they emerged from the courthouse dressed in thin shirts, and they shivered as they stood in the booth.

The Queens Boulevard pay phone is one of 16,358 on the city’s sidewalks, according to the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, the city agency that regulates them. The total has steadily decreased as cellphone usage has proliferated — 33,335 in 2000, 28,971 in 2004, 16,358 today. There are thousands more inside bars, restaurants and private buildings that the city does not regulate.

Verizon, which owns many, though not all, of the city’s pay phones, operates about 7,000 on the sidewalks and another 18,000 in subway stations and buildings.

This is a cute story. Not too many Pay Phones on Hawaii Island, not sure of we even have one in Waimea.

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