In America, the march of progress is relentless, and what once was casually assumed be a permanent thing can be wiped clean by new technology or new approaches and vanish without a trace. The latest evidence of that classic aspect of the American Way is that the last freestanding public pay phone booth has been removed from New York City. The phone booth, which was located in Times Square, had become a kind of kitschy tourist attraction before it was hoisted away last month.
According to the Bloomberg article linked above, New York City once had 8,000 freestanding public phone booths. They were a familiar feature on Manhattan street corners. Phone booths were used by superheroes to change clothes, and figured prominently in countless spy dramas and action movies. Bad guys who were planning to commit bad acts used the booths to place anonymous phone calls demanding ransom payments, and spies used the booths as dead drops or meeting places. How many films over the years featured a star rushing to make it to a particular phone booth on a busy street in time to answer a call?
Now New York City is a phone booth-free zone. I’m not sure if there are any phone booths left in Columbus, and I frankly can’t remember the last time I saw a phone booth anywhere. They have been so rare for so long that I wrote about an unexpected sighting of a phone booth in upstate New York in 2011. Of course, screenwriters long ago adapted to the demise of the phone booth by using burner phones as the new anonymous device to move plots along.
In short, phone booths have officially joined the horse and buggy, television static, and Blockbuster stores as relics of a bygone era. That’s the American Way.