No Phoning Home

The public telephone goes the way of the rotary dial

Marjorie Rolland doesn't own a dishwasher. She drives a '77 Volkswagen that has broken down twice in the last month alone. For years she refused to buy a dryer, resisting that seemingly benign technological advance in favor of drying the family's clothes in the back yard of their Windom home.

"She's only about 20 years behind everyone else," notes her 15-year-old daughter Rachel. "I whine to my friends, 'God, I gotta go do the dishes.' And they're like, 'what's so bad about that? Just throw it in the dishwasher.' No, no, you don't understand."

Until recently the impact of Marjorie Rolland's avoidance of 20th-century comforts had been limited to such carping by Rachel and by Rolland's other daughter Jill. But Rolland's technophobia is now being seriously tested by the predominance of another modern amenity: the cell phone.

Glorie Fillah

Rolland has steadfastly resisted going mobile. She resents the intrusion of digital squeaks and squeals on everyday life and worries that with two teenage daughters, a phone--or phones--intended for emergencies will quickly become an expensive plaything. "It just irks me that this day and age you have to have a cell phone to be able to keep in touch," she says.

Despite these reservations, Rolland understands that she is being left behind by technology. Whereas once a simple quarter plunked into a pay phone could put her in touch with her daughter, or her husband, or her mechanic, public phones are slowly becoming a relic of a bygone era.

On a recent June Saturday night, Rolland went to pick up Rachel at Cafe Fusion, a hipster coffeehouse at the corner of East Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue that features live techno DJ's most nights of the week. It was 12:45 a.m., later than Rachel is normally permitted to stay out. Rolland had made an exception because two of Rachel's favorite DJs were spinning at a party near the coffee shop.

But when Rolland arrived at the café Rachel was nowhere to be found. Rolland waited until 1:00 a.m., and then she began to worry. Lake and Bloomington is not the friendliest corner of Minneapolis at any hour, and Rolland considers Cafe Fusion an oasis in otherwise hazardous environs.

Usually if Rachel is going to be late she'll leave a message at home. There are two pay phones across the street from Cafe Fusion, but Rolland knew from past experience that they were useless to her. The phones don't accept coins, only calling cards--an added step in the calling process that Rolland had never seen the point of. Why rely on a calling card when you can just deposit 35 cents?

Because this was the third time in the past month that she had crossed signals with her daughter, Rolland also knew that restrictions applied to the few pay phones she had encountered in the surrounding area. Worse, come nightfall, many didn't work at all. "It's like your worst nightmare," Rolland says. "You're trapped. It's just awful."

Rolland's frustration with finding a pay phone in Minneapolis has its roots in the drug wars. In 1992, in an attempt to discourage drug dealing and prostitution--both then facilitated by the use of pay phones--the city of Minneapolis enacted an ordinance regulating pay phones. Phones in the East Lake Street area, recalls Wizard Marks, at the time the manager of the nearby, now-defunct Chicago-Lake Safety Center, "were making the quarters by the noseful. It was just incredible the amount of quarters that were being shoveled into those phones."

Under the law, the city has the power to designate "problem" phones and to order their owners to take steps, such as blocking incoming calls or restricting the hours that a phone can be used, to discourage a public phone from becoming a nuisance. Anyone can have a pay phone installed at her business, although the devices are usually owned by U S West or one of its competitors. A business owner may get a commission, depending on how much money the phone generates.

Minneapolis does not keep exact figures on how many phones have been altered or removed since 1992. But a list of complaints filed by individuals and the steps taken under the ordinance offers a snapshot of the war against pay phones. According to the city's office of Licenses and Consumer Services, there have been more than 200 complaints filed regarding phones on private property since 1992. (Clara Schmit-Gonzalez, the assistant director of the department, cautions that this is not a comprehensive list because some complaints, in which a phone was a secondary problem, may be filed elsewhere.)

In particular, the area around Cafe Fusion has been a hotbed of phone battles. In 1993, for example, the phone at Vilma's Food Market, a couple blocks north on Bloomington Avenue, was shut off between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. because of loitering, graffiti, and "suspicious activities." Three years later it was ordered removed. In 1994 two pay phones on East Lake Street near Bloomington were also shut down after 11:00 p.m. In 1996 a pay phone at 1513 E. Lake St. was ordered removed, and the next year another phone just a few doors down was shut off between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m.

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