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Sorry, Superman

December 8, 2002 By STEVE KURUTZ

ON Broadway, in the upper 40’s, there used to be a series of buildings whose lobby phone booths served as makeshift offices for fly-by-night businessmen. The writer A. J. Liebling called these gentlemen Telephone Booth Indians because, as he put it, “in their lives the telephone booth furnishes sustenance as well as shelter, as the buffalo did for the Arapahoe and Sioux.”

If the Telephone Booth Indians could revisit their old stamping grounds today, they would likely go pale at the lack of available real estate. Where once wooden phone booths filled the city’s hotels, office buildings and train stations, sometimes numbering 10 and 15 deep, the quaint structures are now near extinction. And the few that remain do so precariously.

Take the 16 antique booths in the main lobby of the Western Union Building at 60 Hudson Street. In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, this regal Art Deco skyscraper, a nerve center for several telecom companies, has become a possible target for terrorists. Paradoxically, the very quality that makes the booths so endearing – the privacy they offered – has turned them into a haven for would-be bombers.

“I had to send a guard in there every time someone made a call,” said Bill Knight, the building’s security director. “It was too hectic.”

So starting in September 2001, Mr. Knight deemed the booths off limits to the public and said they would probably remain so indefinitely. Asked if the decision drew complaints, Mr. Knight’s reply spoke volumes. “Not really,” he said, shrugging. “Everybody has cellphones now.”

For the remaining New Yorkers who still cherish the solitary experience of placing a phone call from a booth, the situation at 60 Hudson Street represents the latest in a long, losing battle against modern technology, when even a lobbyist as strong as Superman seems powerless.

Granted, cellphones fit inside coat pockets a lot easier than do phone booths. But they offer little of the discretion that booths were famous for. Instead, cellphones have turned the city’s public spaces into a pulpit of the personal. People argue with their lovers out on the sidewalk. Friends dial one another and discuss movies they are seeing, while actually at the movies they are seeing.

The current state of affairs is all the more surprising given that New York was perhaps once the capital of phone booths. At their peak of popularity, they were scattered across America, from the Atlanta train station to the Mojave Desert. But it was in New York, a bustling city of pedestrians and passers-by, that the phone booth achieved its greatest cultural impact.

At one point in the 1960’s, the busiest booth in the world was No. 17 at the southern end of Grand Central Terminal, which registered 300 calls a day. The spare, cinematic quality of phone booths – three walls, one door, a secret world within a world – also attracted directors like Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Bob Fosse, who set a scene from “Sweet Charity” in one of them.

Much of the appeal lay in their homey comforts. There was a seat to perch on and a small shelf on which to write. An electric fan provided fresh air while an overhead lamp kept your thoughts illuminated.

The booths, many of them made at a Western Electric factory in Middle Village, Queens, were usually made of sturdy oak or mahogany. This meant that conversations remained safely inside while noise from the outside world was kept blissfully at bay.

Only New Yorkers could truly appreciate such a tiny, peaceful space.

Vanessa Gruen, 63, an official at the Municipal Art Society, remembers ducking into the booths whenever she was out job- or apartment-hunting. “If you needed to confirm an appointment, you could close the door and get away from the street noise,” she said. “They were a real convenience.”

In an often cold and impersonal city, the booths could be wonderfully accommodating. Like magic chambers, they transformed themselves according to each person’s needs. The booths at Pennsylvania Station, for example, offered Holden Caulfield a place to agonize, as well as a temporary retreat from phonies. Uptown, the conniving publicist of “Sweet Smell of Success,” Sydney Falco, used the booths at the “21” Club to lay down a fast scam on the vicious columnist J. J. Hunsecker.

For many real New Yorkers, the story line was much the same, though less dramatic. Reporters like Joseph Mitchell found the small, soundproof rooms a good place to call in stories. Businessmen out of the office retreated into the wooden recesses and loosened their ties before dialing clients. In 1945, AT&T set up a row of phone booths on the Hudson River Pier for sailors returning home from the war. In working-class neighborhoods, booths at local drugstores, coffee shops and delis often served as the neighborhood telephone.

EVEN criminals found an upside. “If your house is tapped, who is going to know that you went up to the corner of Lexington and 68th Street to make a phone call?” asked an F.B.I. agent, Joseph Valiquette.

Architecturally, the booths were like the city itself: varied. Chinatown’s booths had pagoda roofs. At fancy spots like the Waldorf-Astoria they were lavish, with arched doorways, paneled interiors and nickel-plated doorknobs. In the 1950’s, when booths expanded to sidewalks, they adopted the sleek midcentury style of glass and steel.

Perhaps more than anything, though, the booths simply offered a public, climate-controlled place to make a private call.

If you are one of the few holdouts to the wireless age, conducting your business – legal or otherwise – from a pay phone these days leaves much to be desired. The offspring of the phone booth, referred to as an “enclosure,” is not much more than two metal sides and a phone, which comes in several styles. There are the ones that eat quarters; the ones with stuck buttons; the ones with chewed receivers; and the rare ones that work. All of them leave users with a vaguely unsanitary feeling.

So why did the booths disappear? For several reasons, according to Paul Francischetti, a Verizon vice president. Part of the charm of phone booths was that they were microcosms of the city’s culture. In the 1970’s, New York was crime-ridden and in disrepair. So were the outdoor booths. Addicts used them to shoot up; drug dealers, the modern descendants of the Telephone Booth Indians, as a base of operations.

At the same time, building owners began to look at the indoor booths with a wary eye. Many felt the space could be used more effectively. The final blow came, Mr. Francischetti said, when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the pay phone industry in 1985, creating fierce competition and a bottom-line mentality. Booths were expensive to maintain. “More than anything else,” he said, “that brought phone booths to the brink of extinction.”

It takes some legwork, but a few booths can still be found in the city. The Waldorf’s are long gone, but the Frick Collection, on the Upper East Side, has one, and the Federal Courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn has a full row of booths, as does the Roseland Ballroom on West 52nd Street.

Several restaurants still have old-fashioned booths, among them Giambone, a sleepy Italian place on Mulberry Street. The owner, Joseph Elias, said the restaurant’s cherrywood booth, which dates to 1914, is used frequently by workers from the nearby courthouse. “Many lawyers come in and make their secret calls,” he said.

It was a rainy evening – perfect phone booth weather – and Mr. Elias stood behind the bar and explained the story of the lone booth. The space was once home to a Western Union office, and when it moved out in 1924, Giambone moved in and the booth stayed. “It fits,” Mr. Elias said.

Inside, there was a wooden bench, a metal fan and a nameplate that said “Western Electric.” Someone had scratched the name “Helen” into the wall. The booth looked warm and inviting. “The phone companies call me sometimes,” Mr. Elias said. “They want me to upgrade to digital. I tell them, no, I’m happy with what I have.”


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