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Enjoy the Silence

Just because no one uses payphones doesn’t mean the phone booth needs to go the way of the dodo. One man’s plea for preserving society’s greatest unused invention.

Credit: Julia Heglund

Thomas Watson was a respectful man. He was working as an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 when his name became the first to be uttered into Bell’s new invention, the telephone. “Mr. Watson, come here,” Bell famously said. “I want to see you.” Even before this monumental moment, however, Watson had proved his worth—and his neighborliness. While working out the telephone’s kinks with Bell from his apartment, Watson initially had to shout to be heard over the early equipment, prompting complaints from the neighbors. So Watson, ever the courteous gent, wrapped himself inside blankets during these initial telephone trials, creating a tunnel, and, thus, the world’s first phone booth: society’s great unused invention.

As was the case with the telephone, for which acclaim is primarily bestowed upon Alexander Graham Bell, Watson never received credit for his phone booth. Instead, the title of booth inventor goes to William Gray, who oddly enough didn’t conceive the booth, but rather patented and installed the first pay phone inside one, which made the booth practical, and hence popular. The first pay phone booth was installed inside the Hartford Bank in Harford, Conn., in 1889. Previously, without Gray’s attached coin box, telephones had attendants on hand to collect money for calls. The first booths also had desks with pens, ink, and paper, and were on wheels so they could be rolled to a quiet place. What a quaint idea, to search for a calm spot to talk on the telephone, rather than bellow from your restaurant table or theater seat. What an odd notion, to want to avoid raising your voice louder than the volume of your surroundings. Watson would most certainly agree that any such behavior is far from respectful.

Even more fanciful is the fact that when Gray’s telephone booth was initially installed outdoors for the first time, in 1905 on a Cincinnati street by Bell Systems, it failed to catch on because people were reluctant to talk of their private lives in a public space. Today, we have no such problem.

Before proceeding, I must confess a few things. First, I almost never answer my phone, not in public or even at home. In addition, I may also be the only adult alive to have nearly been involved in a fistfight at a public library. I was seated at a table reading, as a young man nearby talked on his cell phone. When he initially answered, instead of politely excusing himself, or at the very least quickly alerting the caller of his whereabouts and saying he needed to call back, the dude just talked. And talked. I was incensed. The library was my last refuge. At the time, I had three kids under the age of seven at home, and I’d rotate through area libraries, looking to get some work done undisturbed. If silence could not be found there, then where? I contemplated grabbing the large world atlas from the corner of the room and knocking the device from his hand. I ditched the idea of the atlas in favor of something denser, perhaps an encyclopedia or a periodical index, and then it just happened—the words escaped my lips—“Hey, asshole,” my sentence began. And before I knew it, he and I were filling the hallowed chambers with expletives. Ultimately, no punches were traded. He eventually left, and in beautiful silence I pondered the situation. He was obviously of no relation to the great Thomas Watson, but had I overreacted? In the end, I brushed the episode aside. I was sure it was one of those things I’d never have to worry about again, a mere outlier.

But in the weeks and months after my outburst, I was forced to reconsider. In some sort of karmic reaction, perhaps, it kept happening. The public library had been overrun. The disturbances followed no rhyme or reason. Incoming calls were answered, outgoing calls were made, young people, old people, male, female—the list of offenses and offenders ran the gamut. I was forced to give audience to a middle-age woman as she informed a friend of the gastrointestinal distress caused by her misguided decision to finish her lunch with a king-sized Snickers bar. “But at least I’m eating,” she pleaded to her faceless associate.

With cell phones, we only hear half the conversation, and so we fill in the other half almost subconsciously.

Then, not so long ago, my temper once again got the best of me. This time, the cell phone user was a young lady in her early twenties whom I confronted after witnessing—and listening to—a series of three outgoing calls. Why would she think this was the place to make those calls? Why was she turning the library into her office, as people quietly worked all around her? She granted me no answers, only silent contempt, and once again I was left wondering how I had became so cranky at only age 38.

I turned to Sharon Kleinman, a professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, to help me understand my annoyance. For instance, why don’t I get angry when two people are simply talking beside me? She explained that with cell phones, we only hear half the conversation, and so we fill in the other half almost subconsciously. “It’s like cognitive work,” she said, “whereas it’s background noise if two people are having a real conversation that you’re overhearing: It’s the whole thing.” To top it off, she added, “People do talk louder on phones for some reason.”

Unfortunately, Kleinman noted, with each passing day the boundaries change for cell phone manners. The etiquette for private conversations has gone out the window. “I think our whole notion of privacy has changed and of our ability to keep things personal has changed—that’s one thing—and the other thing is I think people are kind of egotistical: ‘I can talk as loud as I want about whatever I want on the train and nobody is going to say anything to me. Nobody dares say anything to me.’”

At some point, without my knowledge, the public library lost its reputation as a quiet place. After my second dustup, I asked a librarian at my local Indiana, Pa., library about the issue. He told me that he and his colleagues make no effort to curb cell phone use; no signs, no shushes, nothing. My jaw dropped. Shills. Why can’t we ask people to remove themselves or, dare I say, respect those around them when talking on the phone?

I went on to speak to other librarians, in a sort of informal survey, and to my surprise and dismay, the majority said that despite written policies discouraging cell phone use, enforcement is mostly left to the discretion of the staff. In a revealing twist, many of the librarians, clearly uncomfortable with discussing their cell phone enabling, as well as their lack of an iron fist to enforce their own rules, asked not to be named.

At the Boston Public Library, a librarian told me, “There is something at the entrance saying turn off your cell phones, but the reality is that a certain level of use is allowed.” At the Free Library of Philadelphia, Donald Root, the chief of central public services, said that despite a sign at the main checkout desk that states, “We can’t serve you while you’re talking on your phone,” the library as a whole “hasn’t actually addressed it in official policy at this point. I think we’re less strict than we might have been at the beginning. We used to have signs on the all the tables. Finally, we landed on the notion to let people use them in the hallways, in the lobby, in alcoves, anywhere where they weren’t bothering our other patrons.”

In Pittsburgh, a staffer at the Carnegie Library told me that despite encountering cell phone use on a daily basis, the librarians there also mostly take a hands-off stance, although the results haven’t been what they had hoped. “This notion of sending people out into the hallway,” the staff member said. “I don’t want to say it backfired a little bit, but it’s backfired—to where they now engage in a conversation out in the hallway that’s not quite in conversational tone; they talk louder, so it’s worse. You’ve now taken the problem and moved it out of your realm and implied that it’s permissible.” The result of this course has been that Carnegie Library staffers are spending more time confronting cell phone abusers out in the hallways than they’re telling people to quiet down inside: The classic example of trying accommodate everyone and accommodating nobody in the end. Which leads me back to the phone booth.

Gray’s U.S. Patent No. 408,709 was a huge success. By 1902, there were 81,000 phone booths in use in the United States. Granted, it was the phone that made it so popular upon its inception, but I say: Don’t sleep on the booth. The phone booth was a great invention. And these were not just metal boxes in Gray’s day; they were comfortable, high on craftsmanship, and pimped out with silk curtains, plush carpet, and heavy mahogany. By 1925, there were more than 25,000 telephone booths in New York City alone. In 1960, Bell Systems installed its millionth booth.

Carnegie Library staffers are spending more time confronting cell phone abusers out in the hallways than they’re telling people to quiet down inside.

Today, with cell phones having taken over, booths are no longer used. More to the point, phone booths are becoming harder and harder to find at all, with the sturdy wood models long gone and even Christopher Reeve’s metallic Superman-era enclosures on the endangered list. In fact, according to the aptly named website The Payphone Project, at last count there were only four phone booths left in all of Manhattan. Even the mention of booths nowadays conjures up the image of garbage strewn and oddly scented entrapments. Which is a shame, because it’s not as if public establishments couldn’t benefit from them. Just ask Evan Hatfield, front of house manager at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.

“Cell phones are a chronic bane for theaters,” Hatfield says. “We have this live experience going on. It’s often a very quiet experience and to have, for example, this poignant death scene where the entire family is gathered around, and we have this father’s dying words, and people’s hearts are breaking—to have this cell phone go off with that obnoxious ring tone—just completely shatters that.”

Texting is not an encouraged alternative at the theater, either. “Text messaging or checking phones during the performance creates that distracting glow for both their neighbors and the actors,” Hatfield says.

Would a cell phone booth help? The mere sight of one might alert people that phone use is not accepted inside. Hatfield remains unsure. “We are dealing with a certain element of human nature that is unknown how to deal with.”

About five years ago, there was some movement in favor of cell phone booths. Media outlets like USA Today, CBS News, and Wired magazine all reported on their possibilities. But the push quickly faded. A couple of restaurants did have booths put in, notably Boka Restaurant and Bar in Chicago, a 2011 Michelin star recipient. The booth, which has two seats, has been at the restaurant for eight years. Former manager Matt Schneider, who spoke to me last year before he left Boka for Duchamp Restaurant, told me it was a pay phone nook repurposed to accommodate cell phone users. The booth is around six feet by three feet, decked out with velvet cushions, and has padding that works to soundproof it from the busy bar. It also gives Boka employees a unique way to deal with the cell phone issue. Boka employees don’t have to utter those delicate and tricky words “Please get off of your phone,” but can instead direct their customers to the cell phone booth.

Overall it helps, said Schneider. “I would say maybe 15 percent of our patrons would pick up their cell phones in the dining room, but the large, large majority would just head to the front of the restaurant, and often enough to the booth. I think most patrons would prefer that people not use their cell phones.”

A 2011 Zagat survey echoes Schneider’s sentiments, showing that 62 percent of 41,604 New Yorkers surveyed think it’s “rude and inappropriate” for diners to text, email, tweet, or talk on their mobile phone during their meals.

Kleinman thinks cell phone booths would be beneficial, although she says that in the end, the problem just might be rooted in people’s inability to live in the moment.

“What’s happened is that texting is very popular, so you don’t have to go to a cell phone booth to be in contact with somebody: You can do it right at the dinner table,” she says. “I see that at every restaurant—people texting while they’re at the table with other people. Not being where they are. I sound like a broken record to myself,when I say the most important people are the people right in front of you, the most important thing to be paying attention to is now. People are always distracted by what else is out there: ‘Maybe I should just look at that text; it might be important. It might be someone more interesting than I’m talking to now.’ It’s kind of a sad commentary.”

In reality, it may turn out that despite the sense of security they provide, cell phones might be isolating their users, encouraging them to eschew a meeting with an unknown new person, real flesh and blood, in favor of the safety of the people they already know. Kleinman says many of her students seem to feel false self-importance, an attribute common in public places these days. People have become so infatuated with their cell phones that they treat the checkout clerk or the bartender like machines, refusing to acknowledge their humanness. In the classroom, Kleinman says, she’s noticed students lack the initiative to reach out and talk to someone new, choosing to instead rely on existing relationships with family and friends.

“I’ve noticed this in long seminar classes when we have a break, the first thing students do is check their emails on their laptop, or check their voicemail on their cell phones, or check their text messages… they don’t talk to each other. They might have 15 minutes where they could make a new friend or talk about the assignment, or talk about what they’re doing for dinner that night, they could talk about anything—they don’t do that. They immediately shift their attention to their electronic devices to find out what’s next, what’s out there.”

But an old guy like me surely does not have to worry about making new friends. My simple plea is for society to take advantage of a forgotten invention. Bring back the phone booth.