IN THE SUMMER OF 1999, the Holy Spirit directed Rick Karr, a 51-year-old Texan, to answer the calls made to a phone booth located in the middle of the Mojave Desert, 15 miles from a highway. He spent 32 days camping beside the phone booth on the desert playa in scorching heat. During that time he answered over 500 calls, many of which came from someone named Sergeant Zeno, who said he was phoning from the Pentagon.
What was there was only a ghost of what had been there, a phone booth installed in the 1960s for volcanic cinder miners and the few other domestic residents of the area. By the time Rick Karr arrived, the glass casing had been shattered, and what remained of the interior was lined with candles, license plates, rosaries, and other votives.
Karr was only one in a long line of pilgrims to the Mojave Phone Booth. A Los Angeles resident was incited to visit by seeing a telephone icon on a map of the Mojave, and it was his description of the trip published in an underground zine that catalyzed Godfrey Daniels, a computer programmer and entrepreneur, to build a website devoted to the phone booth. That the internet made the Mojave Phone Booth famous is, of course, ironic: the very technology that had rendered the phone booth obsolete acting as the agent of its resurgence.
Between 1997 and 2000, when Pacific Bell retired the number at the request of the Mojave Forest Service, the phone received thousands of calls, dozens each day. When asked why they called, most of the callers’ answers could be distilled to this: “Because there was a chance someone would pick up.”
The first American phone booth was patented by William Gray in 1889 for a bank in Hartford, Connecticut. It replaced real people who would sit in a quiet area of a public space beside a telephone and collect money from people who wanted to use it. The first phone booths, like the first movie theaters, were acutely beautiful examples of craftsmanship. A phone booth was not just a convenient place to have a conversation — it was a significant place.
By 1904 there were over 3 million phones and 81,000 phone booths across America. By 1946, only half of American homes contained phones; consequently, pay phones were nexus points for communities. For traveling salesmen and other insolvent entrepreneurs, telephone booths in the lobbies of public buildings were the only affordable places to do business. For these itinerant people, described by A. J. Liebling as the “Telephone Booth Indians,” the phone booth was of material and emotional relevance, providing “sustenance as well as shelter, as the buffalo did for the Arapahoe and Sioux.”
Phone booths helped facilitate a growing belief among urban Americans that privacy was both necessary and desirable. They carved out a private space in the public sphere, allowing us to do for the first time what most of us unwittingly now do every day when we speak absorbedly into our personal devices or simply into the air, behavior that we once characterized as insane. Yet almost as soon as they were constructed, phone booths began to be deconstructed. In the 1950s the wood was exchanged for glass, and the booth itself, in many cases, was replaced by a kiosk that set the phone apart but left the caller exposed, and in some ways more vulnerable, to the world.
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