A good pay phone is very hard to find
Published: Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 11:04
HACKENSACK, N.J. - The pay phone - that quaint-looking device with a receiver and a slot for coins - is fast disappearing. Or were you too busy staring at your Droid to have noticed?
Don’t look for a pay phone on Route 4. None of the highway’s 22 gas stations has one.
Don’t feed quarters into any of the five phones in the entryway of Hackensack’s Coach House diner. They’ve been disconnected.
Don’t count on phoning home from the North Bergen terminus of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. The pay phone’s been removed from its stand.
It doesn’t take a genius to identify the culprit: cellphones.
Verizon Communications recently sold off its public telephone business, a move that has further reduced the number of pay phones and frustrated people who rely on them.
Time was when pay phones were a dime a dozen. In 1975, when all pay phones in the region were operated by New Jersey Bell, The Record identified a phone booth at an Exxon station on the Palisades Interstate Parkway as Bergen County’s busiest public phone. On average, 93 calls were made from it a day.
Today, the station is a Sunoco and there’s no phone.
If there’s a pay phone today that’s used 93 times a day, Michael Maccaro would like to know.
Maccaro owns Bethlene Enterprises, a Wayne, N.J.-based property management firm that owns pay phones in northern New Jersey, mostly in urban areas. He says he no longer looks at the call reports for his 65 sites.
“I can’t get out of this business soon enough,” groused Maccaro, who used to have 1,400 phones.
One of his phones is outside the 7-Eleven on Teaneck Road in Teaneck, N.J. It handled 22 calls during one seven-day span in January - three a day, on average.
The number of pay phones nationally has dropped from a peak of 2.2 million in 2000 to perhaps 400,000 today, according to the American Public Communications Council, which represents 800 independent pay-phone owners. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that pay phones are vanishing at the rate of 10 percent a year.
Willard Nichols, the trade group’s president, says pay phones “are primarily used by the lower-income portion of society - that stands to reason.” He adds that roughly half of calls do not involve coins, such as those made with a prepaid calling card.
America’s first coin-operated telephone was installed in 1889 in a Hartford, Conn., bank. A tinkerer named William Gray invented it after begging to use someone’s telephone to summon a doctor for his wife, according to Sheldon Hochheiser, archivist and institutional historian at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) History Center, based at Rutgers University.
By 1902, there were 81,000 pay phones in the U.S., mostly at drugstores and train stations. The number kept rising until cellphones “ended up in everybody’s pocket,” said the 60-year-old Hochheiser, who can’t remember when he last used a pay phone. Not that he’s sentimental about it.
“New technologies evolve and appear and sometimes they complement older technologies and sometimes they replace older technologies,” he said. “What hasn’t changed is the need for people to stay in touch.”
But don’t bury the pay phone just yet. Wireless also is the reason some people consider this poster child for obsolescence necessary.
After all, cellphone batteries die. Rechargers go missing. Cellphone service is spotty in some places. Calls drop. And not everyone has a cellphone.
Sentra Bowers, a home health aide from Paterson, N.J., says she uses public phones when she exceeds her wireless plan’s limit on minutes. She just wishes there weren’t so many broken ones in her hometown.
“The earpiece is off and half the wires are out,” she complained.
You can find pay phones in the lobbies of major hotels and in shopping centers.
Willowbrook Mall in Wayne has five. Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus has three.
There are five pay phones - four operable - at the New Jersey Turnpike’s Vince Lombardi service plaza in Ridgefield, but not in the main building. Instead, they’re in the truckers’ lounge. Garden State Parkway drivers aren’t as lucky. There’s no pay phone at the Montvale service plaza.
The Hackensack bus terminal has two pay phones and the Secaucus Junction rail station has two dozen. Those are among the 380 pay phones at NJ Transit sites statewide. The number has dropped from 890 in recent years because of “lack of usage,” transit agency spokesman John Durso Jr. said.