Recession, proof

Is necessity no longer the mother of—hold on, gotta take this

Yes, but can pay phones take photos (like this one, shot with a Razr mobile)?

Yes, but can pay phones take photos (like this one, shot with a Razr mobile)?

Two weeks ago, some jerk stole my car, PG&E inadvertently shut off my apartment’s gas and doctors found a carcinoma on my mom’s nose. Everything’s OK—car’s totaled, hot showers are back and the surgery (phew) should be “routine"—but times are tough. That goes for a lot of people.

So bad, in fact, I often wonder how families make ends meet: like paying those juicy cell-phone bills? Incidentally, my contract with AT&T expires next week; I don’t want to renew, but am going to (duh). But the very principle—is it necessary to always be available—inspires daydreams of life pre cell-phone addiction.

It also begs a question: Will people dump phones to fill fridges? Most of us aren’t doctors, presidential candidates, Al Pacino in Heat. We don’t need to be available 24-seven. Hell, we usually don’t even answer our phones—and then we just text people back. I used an Albertsons pay phone for a couple months back in ‘04, but had to get a job—applications need call-back numbers—and got a land line. That Albertsons and the phone are long gone.

The remaining phones in Sacramento are owned by Pacific Telemanagement Services, the biggest U.S. non-major pay-phone provider. I land-lined CEO Tom Keane last week to learn more about the pay-phone genocide.

Keane, who’s worked in the telecommunications industry for more than 25 years, says that while the pay-phone business is shrinking, it has shown “characteristics that it’s recession-proof.” Then again, it’s probably easy to be recession-proof when you’ve bottomed: There were 2.5 million U.S. pay phones in 1998; now there are 800,000 (which Keane says “is a little bit overstated").

In Sac, your best bet for a phone is to head toward light rail. Pay phones are kinda hard to find, even on K Street, where they’re camouflaged (no, not as panhandlers; in vertical green tubes). It costs 50 cents for 15 minutes, and that’s cheap considering the average U.S. cell-phone bill runs $63. “Anthropologists will view now as a time in history when necessity got redefined,” Keane remarks. Yes, but more importantly, how will they call their bosses with the news?

Prank calls, that last-chance ride from school, compulsively inserting fingers into greasy slots for change—pay phones have had a lasting impression. What would Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas be without pay phones? (It’d be The Departed, actually, and its masterful use of mobiles.) And what about Superman? Are cell phones Kryptonite?

I spotted two pay phones side by side, lone trees in a field, near 29th Street last week. The sun had long set and I was alone. The phones were clean, well-maintained, even shiny. I lifted one receiver, put it to my ear and stood listening to the dueling pitches, that sonic dial-tone harmony.

Then I called my mom, just to say hi.