No Phoning Home

The public telephone goes the way of the rotary dial

While pay-phone users along East Lake Street and in other low-income neighborhoods have certainly run afoul of the phone police in disproportionate numbers, other areas of the city have not been immune to problems. Citizen complaints have occasionally poured in about phones in the downtown area, northeast Minneapolis, and Uptown as well.

The city's tactic of shutting off phones "didn't prove to be effective in the long run because of the invention of the cell phone," says Wizard Marks. "I don't know now, looking back on it, that it was ever a viable solution. Yes, it would move people away from the particular phone, but so long as there is nothing that moves them away from the area, they're just going from corner to corner to corner in the same general spot."

The debate over whether pay phones encourage crime is academic at this point because pay phones are beginning to disappear--with or without government interference. The advent of the cell phone has led to lower profits for pay-phone operators and, consequently, fewer phones. U S West, for example, had 12,650 pay phones in Minnesota in March 1999. By March of this year, that number had dropped nine percent, to 11,425. Intelliphone, which operates about 1,600 pay phones in the Twin Cities area, also says that its numbers are dropping, although the company won't provide specific figures.

The losers tend to be folks like Rolland who don't want to fork out for cellular service and, notes Jeff Paletz, a consultant with Intelliphone, poor people. "Nowadays people use cell phones and they use other means of getting hold of their drug dealers," says Paletz. "What happens when you remove a pay phone is you deny lower income people, people who can't afford cell phones, access to telephones."

Adds Marks: "It's a horrible thing, because [those] losing access generally tend to be single moms with small children--the very people who need telephones."

Jennifer Alexander, a professor of the history of technology at the University of Minnesota, compares the changes in the phone business to those of the transportation industry. Whereas in the first half of the 20th Century few people could afford their own automobiles and most relied on public transportation, these days everyone moves from place to place in their own private cocoon. "It's really privatizing something that had been set up as a public asset," she says.

Unfortunately for the pro-pay-phone forces, their voices are seldom heard at city hall. Schmit-Gonzalez, of licenses and consumer services, says that she doesn't recall ever receiving a complaint that there aren't enough pay phones around. Ron Mittan, aide to city council member Jim Niland, whose Sixth Ward includes Cafe Fusion, echoes those sentiments: "I can't remember anybody ever complaining that there weren't enough phones out there."

In fact, there's evidence that the coin-operated telephone is becoming every bit as quaint as Ma Bell's old rotary dials. Ron Knappen, the founder of Phoneco, in Galesville, Wisconsin, a company that sells vintage phones, says old pay phones are the most popular thing he sells--for their nostalgia factor, not their usefulness. "A pay phone is a very convenient thing, of course," he says. "But now it's losing its necessity because people have got those cell phones. You're gonna start seeing them disappearing from the landscape."

For the cell-phone-challenged, however, pay phones remain much more than nostalgia. Rolland's recent frenzied search for her daughter is a case in point. When Rachel failed to show up at Cafe Fusion, Rolland turned the car around and drove home, only to find that there were no messages. She called the police, called Rachel's friends, and finally called Cafe Fusion on the off chance someone would pick up--and someone did. The employee on the other end of the line looked outside and noticed a girl in a yellow cap sitting on the curb. Rolland knew that was her daughter.

By the time she arrived back at the café it was approaching 2:30 a.m. Rachel had arrived just after her mom had departed. Unable to use the pay phones, she followed the advice given to every lost hiker: Stay in one place.

Rolland says the episodes have made her a reluctant convert. Just as she eventually gave in and bought a dryer, Rolland will probably purchase a cell phone. "I guess I'm gonna have to," Rolland sighs. "I don't know any alternative. I don't like going through what I went through Saturday night."

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