The Person in the Phone Booth

David Trotter

Anyone old enough to have made use of public phone booths on a regular basis will know that they were more often than not damp, cold, filthy and foul-smelling, and while amply supplied with the phone numbers of prostitutes, practically impossible to make any sort of call from. So folk memory insists, at any rate. So literature insists too. Urban phone booths in particular have become indelibly associated in the literary imagination with urine. What invariably greets the protagonists of genre fiction as they open the door of a booth to make some life or death call is the stickiness left behind by a previous user. Expecting to speak and to listen, they instead inhale the anonymous yet fiercely intimate odour of the crowd.

The protagonist of Howard Simpson’s Vietnam spy novel, Someone Else’s War (2003), has information to gather. He makes a call. ‘The phone booth smelled of urine; someone had spat generously on the floor and a loud argument in Cantonese was going on at the stamp counter.’ Booths should keep sound both out and in. They should be secretive. But Simpson, like many other novelists, has felt it necessary to compound secrets with secretions; not just urine, but phlegm too. Simpson wants us to understand that all the spilling in spying is a dirty business. The implication he draws on, the implication of the folk memory endlessly recycled in genre fiction, is that we don’t fully recognise a phone booth as a phone booth until we’ve felt just a little bit sick at the sight and smell of it. The disgust is the recognition. But what exactly is being recognised?

Of course, better things do happen in phone booths, at least in fiction. Clark Kent and Dr Who regularly disappear into booths maintained to high standards of hygiene in order to pick up where they left off as extra-terrestrials. The time-travelling booth that launched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) had a curious retractable tripod fizzing with static on top, but no sign of insanitary behaviour below. The star of that film, Keanu Reeves, also appears in The Matrix (1999) as Thomas Anderson, a.k.a. Neo, a company man turned hacker turned messiah. At the film’s conclusion, Neo phones in a proclamation of defiance from a booth on a busy street in the virtual world into which the bulk of the human species has been absorbed, before stepping outside, donning dark glasses and ascending to heaven, while Rage Against the Machine break out their heavy-metal anthem ‘Wake Up’. But it isn’t all CGI, yet, at reality’s interface with illusion. Harry Potter, for example, nips into a sanctuary of rather more traditional design to place a call to the Ministry of Magic. J.K. Rowling has enough respect for folk memory to register his surprise that the phone actually works.

A lot depends on genre. ‘Don’t go there,’ would be sound advice to characters in most kinds of Hollywood movie. They invariably do. Why, when Hitchcock’s homicidal birds swoop down on the main drag in Bodega Bay, does Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) rush out of the diner from which she’s been watching and headlong into what is about to become the most famous phone booth in the history of cinema? If she wanted to make a call, there’s a perfectly good phone inside the diner, which she’s just used to tell her father about an earlier attack on the local school, and then to summon her boyfriend and the police. Hitchcock, of course, knows why. What he gets from Melanie’s mistake is an image of isolation and exposure, as she twists and turns in torment in her transparent cubicle, and the glass shatters. Psychoanalytic critics have led one to suppose that the danger stems from inside rather than outside the psyche; the Bodega Bay cubicle was the first to serve as a lightning-conductor for the unconscious. After that, it was only a matter of time before someone made Phone Booth (2002), in which a sniper armed with a high-velocity rifle traps publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) behind glass on a street in New York, forbidding him to put the receiver down until he has agreed to confess his sins (that is, his desire); or Run Lola Run (1998), in which Man communicates despair and self-hatred from the Berlin equivalent, while Woman does something about it, in postmodern fashion, three times over.

As these examples demonstrate, phone boxes have led an exciting imaginary life, and not always in big cities. A good deal of folklore attaches to the booth that once stood on the Aiken Mine Road in the Mojave Desert in California, about 15 miles from the nearest highway. It even earned a cameo in an episode of The X-Files. Technology’s far-flung outposts in the wilderness have fulfilled a variety of tasks, up to and including the reconfiguration of traditional communities by international capital. In Bill Forsyth’s comic-utopian Local Hero (1983), the young executive sent to Scotland to buy a fishing village on behalf of Knox Oil and Gas has no other means of communicating with his boss in Houston, Texas, than from a public phone box on the quayside across the road from the hotel. The locals have a whip-round to supply him with 10p coins, and thereafter attend assiduously on each visit to the box, wiping the receiver for him or supplying a glass of whisky. On one occasion, the outside of the cubicle is repainted while he frets inside; on another, a previous user, who has fallen asleep in situ, bolt upright, emerges to relay an important message. The phone box is the place where a traditional community forms and re-forms in mildly carnivalesque fashion around the connection to modernity which once made will never be unmade. At the end of the film, as the executive gazes out at Houston from the penthouse apartment to which he has reluctantly returned, Forsyth cuts to a long shot of the quayside portal – the phone is ringing.

In cities, by contrast, we enter phone boxes on the street in order to be private in public. That is, we once did, before we all had mobiles. Nowadays you don’t go somewhere special to make a call unless your mobile’s broken, or you’ve left it at home. The new urban spectacle consists of people apparently in earnest conversation with themselves, whom we might once have crossed the road to avoid, or broadcasting the gory details of a personal fiasco to a train carriage full of strangers. It is in fact the prospect of the phone box’s complete supersession by the mobile which has most effectively laid bare its original purpose. For each of these mobile-users is engaged, as we once were when we stepped into a phone box, in constructing privacy in public. The difference is that they rely on an understanding of the distance between themselves and the next person whose expression is social and cultural, rather than physical. That understanding has not yet quite become a consensus, but it is already powerful enough to have altered urban experience. The history of the urban phone box, which is also the history of the city since electrification, is the history of the construction of privacy in public.

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