Almanac Life: The Last Payphone


Telephone boxes such as these were once dotted about towns and suburbs (pic: WikiCommons)


A wave of sadness tinged with nostalgia washed over me as I watched a recent news report in which the last of Manhattan’s street payphones were being removed by New York City authorities. What most struck my heart was the brutal finality of it all, as footage flickered across the screen of cranes loading onto trucks these icons of the twentieth century, to be taken away forever.


In the pre-internet age, prior to the arrival of mobile phones and smart watches, the humble telephone box was essential to daily life. Whether it be checking in to let mum know you were okay and would be home later, calling for a taxi after a night out, or maybe keeping in contact with friends and relatives in the bush or interstate, the public telephone was often a welcoming sanctuary. It would be impossible for anyone under the age of thirty to comprehend just how important those ubiquitous red boxes were. I began thinking of my home town, and of all the telephone booths that have been slowly and somewhat stealthily removed in the past few years.


The first and most regular public phone I used, from the time I was a ten-year-old, was the box adjacent to the entrance of the Williamstown railway station. After a day out with friends in the city, I would use it to call my relieved parents to ask for a ride home. On one occasion, while awaiting my lift, I randomly called one of the many numbers scrawled on the internal wall. The woman was named Jill, and she was both shocked that she was being called by an unknown child, and furious that someone had put her identifying details on public display. She subsequently pleaded with me to scratch out her number, which I did with my last remaining coin. That phone in front of the station is one of our town’s few remaining public phones, but nowadays it is housed in a modern, soulless, cubicle which is far less weatherproof than the comfortable old red booth.


Two other payphones which have long since disappeared are memorable for very different reasons. The first stood on The Strand, Williamstown’s picturesque waterfront boulevard; it was a booth outside which people would queue for hours to make a call. Why? Because a stroke of technological magic had rendered it possible for one to use only a single twenty cent piece to dial out to anywhere in the world. Back then, a phone call abroad was an expensive extravagance that few could afford on a regular basis, so many of the local European migrants in particular would take the opportunity to phone long-distance their far away relatives for the price of a bag of mixed lollies. But as the queues grew and news spread of this particular phone’s largesse, it was only a matter of time before Telecom got wind of their technical error and brought an end to this nightly party.


The second phone of note to me personally, was an unremarkable box on Williamstown’s main road. For many years, as I passed by, I would recall fondly the moment I hesitated nervously before dialling my future wife for the very first time. I can still hear her voice crackling down the line: “You are in the area, so why don’t you come over?”


To over-romanticize the phone booth would be to gild the lily in the extreme. Wires would often be found severed, mounds of broken glass would regularly be strewn about the booth, matches and other detritus might be stuffed into the coin-slot, leaving the telephone inoperable. The smells inside the booths could often be unbearable. In this post-Covid era of heightened awareness around personal hygiene, can you even imagine taking hold of a handset which has been fondled and breathed into by, perhaps, thousands of people before you? Or nonchalantly sticking your fingers into the coin-return flap in the hope that the last person had errantly left behind some stray pieces of silver?


Under the Telecommunications Act of 1999, it is mandated that the Australian government must provide access to certain services to all Australians on an equitable basis. At present, public phones fall within this remit, so in the short-term they will continue to be dotted about urban and rural landscapes. But their numbers are in decline, as the news reports from New York demonstrated so starkly. Which leads to another question: where will Clark Kent transform himself into Superman now?


You can read more from Smokie HERE.



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About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. Bernie tuck says

    More worried about Doctor Who than Superperson!!


  2. Many key moments in my youth happened in a phone box!

    On a related note I remember living in the country during the 90’s and opening my phone bill with great terror given STD calling rates, especially before 6pm!

    Thanks Smokie.

  3. DBalassone says

    I hear Ian Moss is also disappointed…

    Thanks Smokie. Interesting and unique piece.

  4. Rulebook says

    Smokie it was ring then hang up after 3 rings re pre arranged spot to be picked up and I love that you rung,Jill
    Thanks Smokie

  5. roger lowrey says

    Great read Smokester.

    Many favourite telephone booths in the RDL anthology, all with their individual stories.

    And I hope they didn’t short change him but I seem to recall that Telstra even used Ian Moss’s song “Telephone Booth” in on of their ads. “Just a telephone booth, on a high-igh-igh-igh-way.”

    And then the bastards promptly started pulling them all down!


  6. Good stuff Smoke.

    The phone box is another victim of all the Harvard MBA mantras around customer service. Which is essentially this: screw them anyway you can, provide zero service, then survey them on how you went.

    When the public phone box became nothing more than a plastic roof with no walls, and when banks started telling customers to fuck off outside, and when large companies decided it was best if they were uncontactable (ever tried to contact Apple?), and when government authorities put us at the end of 60 minute queues, and when an ambulance arriving turned into a lottery, we knew then that a new type of customer service had prevailed. One centred around providing nothing for more money.

  7. Luke Reynolds says

    The phone booth on the Highway at Pomborneit North outlasted the general store it was near, as well as the state school. Sadly it too disappeared a few years back.

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