Ask a passer-by on a Reno street where the nearest pay phone can be found, and they look at you like you’ve just stepped out of a time warp.
“Man, I don’t even know where one would be,” answered Samuel Vazquez, 26. “I honestly don’t think I’ve seen one ever.”
Carmine D’antona, 17, was puzzled by the query: “A what?” she asked. “I have no clue what that is.”
Jennifer DuPree, 74, knew all about pay phones, but hadn’t seen any in years. “Maybe (there’s one) somewhere in this shopping center,” she said. There wasn’t.
People younger than 40 may have only seen pay telephones or phone booths in movies and on TV. Iconic English phone booths are both Harry Potter’s portal to the Ministry of Magic and Dr. Who’s time machine. In the 1960s, an American phone booth was Agent Maxwell Smart’s underground elevator to spy headquarters, and in 1989, Bill and Ted used a phone booth to embark on their excellent adventure. These days, Bill and Ted (and Clark Kent, who used a booth to shed his street clothes and become Superman) would be out of luck.
Now extremely rare, pay phones once were a common—and essential—part of the nation’s landscape. No more. The proliferation of mobile phones killed them, and through their text function, smart phones may make talking on a phone obsolete as well.
Some folks remember the devices with nostalgia—but agree that smart phones are a major improvement.
“I’m glad we have (cell) technology,” said LeRai Porter, 71. “It’s so much more useful. I hadn’t grown up with technology, so I’ve seen the transition.”
Others are glad they missed a bygone age.
“I’d hate to have existed in the time without cell phones,” mused Owen Glover, 17. “I can’t imagine having to walk somewhere to call someone. That just seems annoying, but I guess it was the norm back then.”
History tells us that William Gray invented the pay phone after no one he asked would let him use their newfangled phones to call a doctor for his sick wife. The first pay phone was installed in downtown Hartford, Conn., in 1889.
In 1995, 2.6 million pay phones, operated by different companies, existed in the U.S., according to media reports. By 2018, the Federal Communications Commission estimated that fewer than 100,000 public phones still existed—including some devices that were no longer able to make calls.
A dinosaur hunt
So how many of those endangered species are left in the Truckee Meadows?
An internet search generated various lists of local phone locations, but the information is woefully outdated. One online tally of Northern Nevada pay-phone locations lists numbers with 702 area codes, which were changed to 775 in 1998. Other websites listed specific local phone locations with 775 area codes, but those, too, have long vanished.
So the RN&R embarked on a quest to find the last public phones by using old-school technology: asking people. There are three operating pay phones at the RTC Fourth Street Station, and one at RTC Centennial Plaza in Sparks. The cost of a call is 50 cents for three minutes of talk time.
Stoney Harshbarger, 66, directed a RN&R reporter to two more functioning payphones at the Atlantis. One is underneath the escalator between the Purple Parrot and the bathroom, and the other is across Virginia Street behind the escalator to the skyway.
Those six phones are owned by Pacific Telemanagement Services, which operates about 25,000 pay phones across the United States. The California-based company failed to return numerous voicemail messages left by the RN&R over a period of weeks. (Maybe they like texting better.)
Some Nevadans interviewed said they didn’t think pay phones are useful in the 21st century; others disagreed.
“When I was about 14 or 15, I met a man who got off the bus and had no money to get home to New York from Colorado,” said Tristan Hunt, 19. “I met him at the bus stop everyday for a week so that he could try to contact his family with my cell phone, because payphones were no longer around.”
Pika Aviles, 28, raised the same issue that confronted the pay phone’s inventor 134 years ago: “What if you lost your phone in a place you’re not familiar with?” he asked. “You have to go asking strangers to borrow their phone. What if they all say no?”
Pay phones in transit hubs and tourist destinations cater to travelers who lack data plans or have dead cell batteries. For those who can’t afford or don’t like cell phones, public phones remain essential.
A captive clientele
Jails and prisons are among the few places pay phones can still be found.
At the Washoe County Jail, inmates use a phone system run by a third-party company, Legacy Inmate Communications. Inmates’ communications are monitored, with the exception of calls with their lawyers or that involve religion.
Inmates are granted two free calls per week. Additional calls can be made using pre-paid phone cards or by calling collect. No coins are accepted. The cost is $2.10 for a 15-minute call within Nevada.
The Truckee Meadows’ loneliest pay phone may be the relic near the main entrance of the Downtown Reno Library. It is battered and broken; its wires are severed, and only half of its handset remains. Its dial tone has been silent for nearly a year. That phone previously was used by unhoused people who lacked cell phones, library staff members said.
“The phone has been broken since last summer,” explained Kristen Ryan, managing librarian at the Downtown Reno Library. “We made multiple attempts during the summer and fall to get it repaired.” But she said the voice mailbox for Pacific Telemanagement Services was always full, and librarians were unable to leave messages.
Ryan noted that unhoused people who want a cell phone can check in with the library on Wednesdays, when people from the county’s Community Court program and Catholic Charities help people to apply for free government phones.