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What would Superman do? Vanishing public phones

Have you missed them? After being so much a part of the landscape for decades, they're on their way to becoming extinct. Vanishing before our eyes: the public telephone (or pay phone as we here in the South have always called them).

For a good portion of the years I've been in this business, wherever I traveled, small town or major city, there'd be a pay phone somewhere — at a service station, in a hotel lobby, in a restaurant. A collect call to the office (in the earlier days) or (later) a telephone credit card or 800 number, and hey, I was in touch.

It may not have been the most convenient arrangement, but until vandalizing pay phones became sport and deregulation of the telephone industry made calling from any pay phone communications Russian roulette, it was a pretty reliable way to make calls.

Many's the time I was dispatched to Memphis, Little Rock, Jackson, Washington, or elsewhere, with instructions to get a story and phone it in so it could beat the deadline for the next Delta Farm Press.

My co-worker, the late Nelda Coleman, was without a doubt the fastest typist I've ever known. I can type pretty fast, but her fingers literally flew over the keyboard, and the errors were few. We always asked for Nelda when we had to phone in a story, because she could type it as fast as we could dictate it.

After fax machines became fairly common (when they first came out, those suckers were big as a breadbox and cost $2,000), we could type our stories and fax them back, but it just wasn't the same as dictating them to Nelda.

In my early-day travels around the Mid-South, when a nice Holiday Inn room was $25 and nice Mom-and-Pop motel rooms were $15, my “portable” typewriter was an IBM Selectric. The thing weighed 40 pounds or so, and lugging it from my car, across the parking lot, and up three flights of stairs to my room was always a challenge. It was perhaps the best typewriter ever made, now a dinosaur.

Today, laptop computers, digital cameras, and the Internet make it all so simple: write a story, take a photo, then e-mail them to another computer, and it's done. The bottleneck, though, is the telephone. Most current generation cellphones aren't Internet-capable, and transmission speeds over regular phone lines are glacially slow.

More hotel rooms are offering high speed Internet access (usually at 10 bucks a day), and many airports, restaurants, and public places offer Wi-Fi wireless connections (for which there usually is a charge).

Still, I miss the pay phones. At Memphis recently, I looked for one in the Peabody Hotel, which not so long ago had banks of them. I had to practically scour the hotel to find one. Ditto for the Cook Convention Center: all gone.

However good cellphone service can be — if everything works just right — it's still hit-or-miss in a lot of places, particularly rural areas. And if your cellphone won't work, don't bother looking for a pay phone. They've all vanished.

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