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Phone Booths

Why resist change? Sometimes age influences the decision to accept or reject the unknown; the older we get, the greater the resistance. There are times when the city, as a living entity that feeds on human customs, also resists change and New York, the most dynamic city in the world, is no stranger to this reality. You can still find in the streets objects that resist being discarded, giving a sensual historical feeling to hectic urban life. "The Scent of Time" as Byung Chul Han would say. On the subway, the Metrocard will soon be replaced by the OMNY system. The Metrocard in its time, eliminated tokens, tokens eliminated conis and coins replaced (thousands of years ago) salt as a primitive form of payment. Newspapers are walking corpses. All over the world publishers are closing down, leaving thousands of journalists lining up at the Unemployment Office. Printers suffer with them, too. I can imagine the anxious faces of the scribes who first heard the gossip of the machine invented by a certain Gutenberg.

The world keeps turning and I don’t want to fall off.

That’s why I want to tell you something I discovered during my work around Manhattan: pay phones. First it was on 13th Street and Broadway. I had passed by that place many times, but that afternoon I felt more curious or less tired than other times. Since that day I have been recording in the little notebook I keep in my pocket every new phone booth I discover in the city. They are not difficult to find. There are thousands of them in Manhattan. In the first three months I recorded over a hundred booths just within the blocks from 1st Ave to Lexington and 14th St to 80th St.

It's a startling fact that no New Yorker should take for granted.

—But there are no pay phones in Manhattan! —interjects Marcia Elbaz during our reading in Spanish workshop. Marcia participates actively in my workshop since day one. She only misses when she is away on vacation. She embodies a New York of other times, with a rebellious and social spirit. So I reach for my notebook and show her on the computer screen my exhaustive list of booths.

—Ahh, I didn't realize they still existed —She retracts with a delightful smile, but then replies — And, do they work? — Her question is like being shot point-blank.

I pretend not to hear and try to evade answering because I have never tried to find out. Pepe Grillo warned me: "Don’t even think of touching them, they are dirty with... poop, even!" And it must be true, because the booths always smell bad. Sometimes they have receivers hanging with their wires frayed or their electronics torn out. They are completely useless objects. But yes, I would love to have the balls to go into one of those booths, lift the receiver and listen for a moment to the sound of other times.

—I don't think they work —I replied to cut the matter short and continue with our reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude. But I was left with this serious concern nagging me. The challenge was given.

The next day I went out with the idea of entering a booth and it was not difficult, very close to my apartment on 34th and 2nd there was a young man talking and I thought: "I know this one works!" I kept waiting for him to finish, watching the movement of his head nodding, then denying, looking up and then down, all while talking. But my disappointment was immediate when he hung up the receiver and left the booth, talking to himself, raving down 34th St toward Lexington. What a city full of crazies. I approached the booth but it smelled like a septic tank. The next day, while walking to Union Square, I tried to enter another booth that was completely tagged with graffiti and covered with garbage bags. Another week went by and I still couldn't get into any of them.

Manhattan's first pay phones were installed in 1911 and are now being replaced by LinkNYC kiosks with touch screens, WiFi connection and lots of things to keep us isolated. The biggest beneficiaries are the homeless who in summer settle in with their beach chairs and a beer to watch their TV series or charge their phones during the steamy New York City nights. Curious fact: the first telephone hubs were operated by men until they realized that women were better at answering the phones, not only because of their friendliness but also because they were very skilled at making the intricate connections of the calls. Their voices are responsible for the appearance one hundred and forty years later of Alexa. Another curious fact. When I was in college, I played the electric guitar in a punk rock band (the band Q.I.E.N) and when I needed to tune my instrument, I would pick up the telephone receiver and listen to the tone. The reason? It was the note "La" (“A”), that we tuned the band's instruments with.

I know, I know, I am evading the issue.

A few weeks later, in the Monday workshop, Marcia asked me if I had found anything out. I lied shamelessly and told her I hadn't had time and quickly began to analyze the García Márquez novel we were reading. But curiosity consumed me, especially once I knew the booths could disappear at any moment. In May of 2019 the press announced that in 2020 all public telephones would be removed. City Council President Corey Johnson noted, "the phones present public safety and quality of life issues." But we are now in the middle of 2021 and they are still there, facing the firing squad. During this time I have thought a lot about the booths and have come to the conclusion that replacing them with LinkNYC kiosks is not a sign of modernity or cleanliness, but of absolute decadence. Their disappearance will continue to foster the apathy, the hysteria, the intolerance to waiting, that tension generated by the madness of always wanting to be connected. Their disappearance will continue to separate us from the charms of the city and its people. The cult of the immediate instead of the exquisite aroma of time. Telephone booths are definitely a symbol of resistance to predatory technology and the extinction of memory.

I remember one night in late October 2020, while wandering down Lexington Avenue near 29th Street, amidst the evocative aromas of curry and other spices from far away India, I saw a couple of lighted booths and decided enough was enough and went inside. I recorded that event in my diary:

"It is 7 PM. I am in front of a phone booth on Lexington and 30th. The aroma from the restaurants make me crave a chicken Tikka Masala. Now it seems like a bad idea. The booth looks clean, but as I get closer I discover the same old thing and I'm thinking of looking for another one when I hear an overwhelming sound. Ring Ring, Ring Ring! Damn, is it real? I look in bewilderment towards Lexington and then towards Third where I see, in the distance, a human figure. Ring Ring! Ring Ring! Then the human figure transforms into a lady who gives me a "Why don't you just answer? look and goes on her way. Is this real? I don't want to pick up the receiver, it's dirty and smelly but I have to do it. I hold my breath and pick it up, barely touching it with just two fingers and that's when I hear the voice:

  • Hello?... Hello?... Can you hear me?.... Is anyone there?— it’s a woman's voice. A strange sensation immobilizes me.

  • Sí.., Yes..." I answer timidly.

I feel the woman's breathing and then she starts talking. I don't understand much of what she says, but she continues with her laughing voice as if we were old friends, perhaps telling me a funny anecdote of the day and I begin to enjoy her voice, while my body relaxes and I am surprised when I let out a complicit smile. Then, a silence. She takes her time and I grow impatient. I press the receiver to my ear. She inhales and then exhales and tells me a secret. She tells it to me slowly between laughs, like a naughty girl and I laugh out loud and I lean my back on the booth observing from inside a beautiful city of unreal lights, then I say Okay, Señorita! and she says It’s funny! and I am surprised to see between my hands this smelly and dirty receiver very close to my mouth and the booth doesn't seem smelly anymore. "You are a silly lady", I tell her. I don't know how long we were together, but at one point she says: Thank you! Good night! I feel a sudden dryness in my throat. A bolt of lightning from the god Indra strikes out of one of Lexington's restaurants to pierce my back. I gulp, Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! I hit the switch, Hello! Please, silly lady! ¡Señorita! ¡Señorita! and stand for a few minutes waiting while I look at a city full of anguished urban sounds, until that monotonous “A” tone appears.

Sometimes I have returned to my phone booth and waited for her call. Sometimes I bring a book, a coffee to accompany my reading. But it has never rung again. Nor have I told Marcia that pay phones do work.

That is my secret.

Manhattan, June 10, 2021

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