Thursday, June 18, 2009

Payphone Man

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."


Bowery Boogie said...

wow. touching. great storytelling.

Tree said...

I'm one of those people who only has a cellphone, and an out of town area code to boot. I needed to call an MTA number the other day that wouldn't accept my call, so I had to wander for 15 minutes just to find a payphone. (the machine doesn't give change.)

Anonymous said...

you have the most amazing encounters! I was walking around your neighborhood this past weekend. Hadn't been down that way in awhile...wanted to try every old butcher shop and quirky thing around. I did find an out of print copy of one of my favorite books in a store on the LES and that made my day.

Keep up the good work! You do this city a lot good justice!

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Great story, Jeremiah! There are so many 'strangers' in my NY life...the people I see every day, but never actually know. This Phone Man could be one of them, one of those people who is familiar, but one day they're gone and you mourn the loss.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

The way buildings will be going that's the same way that people will go...dwindling into nothingness...and always replaced by something new for good or worse :(((

EV Grieve said...

Another great slice-of-life, Jeremiah. Have you noticed people checking muni mteres for change too?

S. Tran said...

My favourite part of the story is how you would slip a coin in for Payphone Man to find.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks guys.

slipping the coin into the slot for him was my younger, more idealistic self--but thank god for young idealists.

that thing about "strangers" reminded me of a great quote:

“There can be no relation more strange, more critical, than that between two beings who know each other only with their eyes…and yet by some whim or freak of convention feel constrained to act like strangers." –Thomas Mann.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Aww, there's something in my eye. :)

Mark said...

Those are the very payphones I was mugged in front of way back in 1968when this was a Blimpie Base.

T.J. Moore said...

Hey, I think I saw your guy today on First Avenue! A man stepped in front of me to check the coin drop at a payphone. He was short to average height, had grey scraggly hair, and 3-day stubble on his face. He was carrying a plastic bag. Sound like your guy?

I'll leave him a coin the next time I go by that payphone.

Jeremiah Moss said...

could be him, TJ. he also uses metal crutches. i'm sure he'd appreciate your coinage...what if everyone started leaving quarters in the payphones along 2nd ave?

macaronnik said...