I’m Sorry Mr Kent I Dont Know Where You Can Change
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when, aware of an impending calamity in the good city of Metropolis that could only be avoided by the intervention of an otherworldly force, the mild-mannered Clark Kent could duck into a phone booth, remove his business suit and emerge as . . . Superman.
So a while back I’m attending a lawyers’ seminar in the Business School at Quinnipiac University when I look over and realize that I’m looking at an anachronism. There, carefully recessed into a curve in the wall is –get this– a phone booth. A phone booth. When was the last time I used a phone booth? Why I wondered, surrounded by a bevy of young lawyers all on cellular phones, would I ever again have to use a phone booth?
Phone booths and pay phones were once a major part of every courtroom lawyer’s life. Never, never ever, go to court without a dime for the pay phone. You could call back and get the file you had left behind; locate the client who had gone to the wrong courtroom; or find out from your secretary when those crucial papers would get to the courthouse and be able to figure out how much time you had to stall for until they arrived. Or call during the break to find out where- Oh please God, where- that witness was who said she wouldn’t need a subpoena. If you were lucky the firm had a billing number to cover you when you ran out of dimes or had to go long distance. If not, you were SOL.
Cell phones have changed all that. Now we can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime, all the time. Outside. Inside. In the Judge’s Chamber. There is no escape. Even if you want to keep your number secret those demons who invented Donkey Kong and the Bowmar Brain have now devised a system of Caller Identification which immediately gives the person you’re calling the very private number you never wanted to give out. And so, now, when the phone vibrates in your pocket, you can pick up to hear the dulcet tones of your loved one or, more likely, the voice of someone returning a call to your number which they did not recognize on their caller ID. It usually begins with a belligerent “Who’s this?” and quickly becomes a frustrating dialogue that soon devolves into the telephonic equivalent of a game of Marco Polo.
For me, telephones growing up were heavy, black metal things with cloth-covered cords. You shared your line with others-a party line-and you didn’t listen in on the other party. You waited for them to finish to make your call. And when you did, you asked the operator to place the number for you. Gradually phones changed from metal to plastic. Black at first and then pastels–white, beige or sky blue, especially for the Princess version. There were dials and then, later, buttons you used as weapons to launch against the barricades of voicemail systems. The cords became lengthy curlicues you could walk around with while you talked.
There was a constant, however: long distance. Long distance calls, we were taught, cost money. When you called long distance you made it quick. Sometimes you called collect. And sometimes-“Operator could you please place a collect call to Ahlby Bakon Sunday at number…”-you spoke in code so the recipient would get the message, refuse to accept, and no one would have to pay. Pretty crafty. Pay phones and phone booths were essential parts of that scam. With long distance the byword was always, always: talk quick; time is money.
We now live in a new age. We have cellular phones attached to our extremities. We have wires coming out of our ears extending across our chests and by our mouths. We are always “in touch.” With everyone. Always. We can store numbers. We can do long division, calculate child support payments or determine square footage. We can send messages. We can receive them. We can take photos. And we can actually send them.
We have lost the concept of long distance. Time is no longer money. Time is just an indicator of peak and off-peak, nights and weekends. Nothing is long distance anymore. When I was in the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties, the only conversations I had with my parents for 20 months was a phone call at Christmas for 5 and ½ minutes from Barranquilla, Colombia, to Stony Creek, Connecticut. Just last night I picked up the phone and spoke to my daughter, Becky, who was in Florence, Italy. She sounded like she was next door and could have talked forever. When I represent Yale students they never give me a local number for their rooms. They don’t have phones there any more. The have their own phones. Now, when I want to remind my young client of his new court date I find myself calling Seattle or Boise or San Diego to reach a dormitory three blocks away from my office.
The phone booth, alas, is a thing of the past. Look elsewhere Mr. Kent.