There is a man in the East Village who has walked the streets for years, checking the coin return slots of payphones for spare change. He used to carry a Tower Records bag. Now he carries a Duane Reade bag. Years ago, our paths crossed at the same time and place each day, early morning by Love Saves the Day. There, he would slip his finger into the payphone's coin return, often coming up empty.
If I got to the phone before him, I would put a quarter in the return slot. Not because I thought it would help him financially, but because when you're searching for something rare, unexpectedly finding it can really lift your spirits.
My morning schedule and route changed and I stopped passing that corner. I didn't see the man for years. When Love Saves the Day closed and the new ramen place ripped out the payphones, I thought of him. I wondered if he was still alive.
Recently, I ran into the man near the same corner and spoke to him.
"They took out your payphone," I said as we passed Love Saves the Day.
"Yeah, they did," he said, "Business has been down all around."
"Is it because of cellphones?"
"Yeah, cellphones. And you know what they're doing now? They make impressions of the key and open the phones. They just empty the coin box."
He stopped to check another payphone's return dish. I asked, "How many phones do you check each day?"
"Whenever I see one! But the odds are zero to five, zero to twenty."