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Pick of the day: Chronicling life at a pay phone

At the tail end of last week, a front page story in the New York Times stood out from all the rest. Buried at the bottom of the page, beneath all the international and political news, was a story by Manny Fernandez about a pay phone. Fernandez, a former colleague of ours in the Post's Metro section, figured out a non-cliched way to write about the surprisingly still-used pay phone. Instead of merely pointing out the obvious -- that phone booths still exist despite the spread of cell phones -- Fernandez set out to discover who exactly used such tight quarters, and why.

The piece reminded me a of a recent Story Lab "Pick-of-the-day" by N.R. "Sonny" Kleinfeld, also of the Times, who wrote in January about the cycle of lives spinning in and out of a popular Brooklyn laundromat.

In Fernandez's story about a pay phone, the reporter, naturally, gravitated to a pay phone where there might be some interesting action. Fernandez proceeded to a criminal court house -- the Queens Criminal Courthouse on Queens Boulevard -- and checked out who walked up to the nearby pay phone over several days in early February. Most important, Fernandez jotted down what the customers were saying (not necessarily an easy task since some of the customers had been recently released from jail) and whom they were talking to.

Basically, this was a stake-out.

The piece reads almost like a diary:

THURSDAY, FEB. 4, 9:07 A.M.
[Benjamin] Patir, 59, pulled a quarter from a pocket. He happened to be walking by the phone booth when he decided to call his son. He has been out of work for five years, ever since his stroke, and he said he ran out of money to pay his cellphone bill two weeks ago. Asked why he called from that phone at that moment, he replied, “Loneliness, loneliness, loneliness.” Mr. Patir’s son did not answer. He left a message. “I just asked him why nobody think about me,” he said. “Nobody calls me.”

Fernandez accumulates details like a statistician, offering a kind of census report on this one seemingly anachronistic machine that one day, just not yet, will recede into time like computers with black screens and green type. Over seven days, more than 100 people sank $52 into the phone, many of the customers having just been released from court or jail:

"They were mostly men, as young as 18 and as old as 62. They were Hispanic, black, white, Arab. Several said they were unemployed and could not afford a cellphone," Fernandez writes. "Others owned a cellphone, but did not have it for one reason or another. For many, there was nothing suspicious about whom they dialed and why: They called their mothers. The machine served not so much as a lifeline, but as a simple landline, with life."

In the end, what makes this piece so compelling is that Fernandez examined an age-old place with an anthropological eye, and managed to do so without any proclamations announcing some re-born pay phone trend. Like Kleinfeld in his story about the Brooklyn laundromat, he showed how possible it is to find to fresh takes on ordinary places that everyone passes by in the course of a weekly routine.

By Ian Shapira  | February 16, 2010; 8:33 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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