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.

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.

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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