After Sandy, Wired New Yorkers Get Reconnected With Pay Phones

NEW YORK—Alison Caporimo, a 24-year-old who lives in Manhattan’s East Village, is undaunted by newfangled smartphones and computers.

New Yorkers have seen long lines to make calls from pay phones.

But as for old-fashioned, coin-slot pay phones? The magazine editor had never really trained her Warby Parker eyeglasses on the contraptions.

“I lost a lot of coins,” confesses Ms. Caporimo, who didn’t even know how to work a pay phone before Tuesday.

With power knocked out in her Sandy-ravaged neighborhood—rendering her cellphone useless—she got a crash course in the low-tech, low-status devices. She returned to her local pay phone Wednesday with more quarters and better knowledge of the pay-phone locations in her area.

“You miraculously get resourceful and start seeing them everywhere,” she says.

Not since the birth of the iPhone has the pay phone experienced such demand, thanks to Sandy.

Natural disasters tend to vindicate the public pay phone. With their clunky bodies mounted high and sometimes behind glass stalls, they generally remain serviceable during power outages, even amid flooding. When times get tough, in fact, the biggest challenge is often keeping the devices free of coin overloads.

“Phones that normally do two dollars a day are taking in $50 a day,” says Peter Izzo of Van Wagner Communications, one of 13 local pay-phone-operating franchises. “In times of distress, the people of the city love them.”

After the storm struck, people under umbrellas waited in line at some pay phones downtown Tuesday.

“During disasters, we sometimes have to empty them every day,” says Thomas Keane, chief executive officer of Pacific Telemanagement Services, a pay-phone operator whose New York locations include transit stations, hospitals and police offices. “It takes 300 to 400 calls a day for that to happen.”

Like the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the blackout of 2003, Sandy has exposed the limitations of the cellphone. Not only does it require electricity for charging, but the cellphone also won’t pick up service if a major storm has knocked out the telecommunications infrastructure that provides reception.

What is more, the cellphone’s battery will drain faster if it is constantly searching for a signal.

On most days, New Yorkers breeze past corner pay phones with nary a glance. The devices are so foreign to many that the city’s official website has a question-and-answer section about pay phones in New York: Does anyone actually use them? “Even though the usage has gone way down,” it says, “the public pay telephones are still used for regular calls and long distance calls.”

The last time Leslie Koch picked up a pay-phone receiver was during the 2003 blackout. Since then, she says, “I didn’t even know they were working.”

But on Tuesday, old was new again, as her BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad and two laptops were idled. After calling her mother on Long Island from a pay phone, she commemorated the occasion by tweeting a photo of herself from Instagram.

For all the wonders of the iPhone, it can leave a lot to be desired in a pinch. Unable to get reception on his, Jordan Spak plugged coins into a pay phone in downtown Manhattan Wednesday morning.

“It’s funny what’s hiding in plain sight,” said Mr. Spak, a 32-year-old television marketer. “It’s invisible, but when you need it, it’s there.”

Despite their seeming anonymity, the devices aren’t extinct just yet. Roughly 12,000 public pay phones still exist in New York City, down from about 35,000 two decades ago, says the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which regulates the pay phones on New York’s sidewalks.

That number could dwindle further after October 2014, when the contracts expire for the 13 companies that own and operate pay phones here.

Of course, if pay phones were perfect, they would never have lost their cultural connection. In the West Village on Wednesday, Oscar Guzman had made a temporary office out of his corner pay phone, using it to seek out a pet-friendly hotel where he could stay with his two dogs.

With no electronic contacts at hand, Mr. Guzman, 34, had written down the phone numbers he needed on index cards.

“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “The audio is awful.”

Terrence Ross, 64, was similarly displeased with the retro technology. It was bad enough that the phones didn’t always work. But after gobbling up his coinage, they often failed to return the quarters. “They’re an enormous pain in the butt!” Mr. Ross said.

The storm made casualties of some pay phones. Operator Van Wagner said that flooding left 35% of its phones in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn out of service. But other pay phones are uniquely wired and don’t require commercial power.

Van Wagner also remotely programmed some downtown pay phones to work free of charge, as it did after the Sept. 11 attacks, said Mr. Izzo, the company’s senior operations executive.

“You will lose phones during certain catastrophes,” he said, “but the odds of losing all that communication is nil.”

Already, though, there are signs of pay-phone disconnect.

A walk uptown Wednesday revealed empty phone booths plastered with advertisements for airport shuttles (useless to most this week), new television shows (ditto) and Heineken beer (quite useful this week). A receiver dangled from one device. The only sign of life at pay-phone stations near 14th St. was a half-eaten carton of Greek yogurt.

From 28th St. to 48th St., on the West side of Sixth Ave., not a single person was using a pay phone. The city looked like itself.

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