Great Read

Dial N for nostalgia: Is anyone still using pay phones?

The pay phone is sandwiched between a Pizza Hut and Faith Sanctuary Community Church on South Leimert. The change holder has been torn out, leaving a rusted metal hole. The letters F and E have been etched onto the phone's face.

Nearby, a mechanic sits in the driver's seat of an old Honey Dew Shasta mobile home that's hooked to a beat-up car by jumper cables. His eyes follow a bald, strong-cheeked woman as she struts toward her Lincoln, her door-knocker earrings flashing.

Neither of them pays any attention to the phone.

In a Beverly Hills park, a mother and her child practice their numbers on a swing set next to a pay phone coated in a thin layer of sand. Uno, dos, tres. A father and his son run barefoot around the slide. Cuatro, cinco, seis.

Nurses in powder-pink and blue scrubs walk off their lunch. "Free Calls: Receive God's Blessings, Get Daily Prayer, Press *12," the phone reads. Siete, ocho, nueve, diez.

A little girl in maroon tights walks up to the phone, pulling on its corrugated silver cord. She picks up the headset and tries to take it with her.

She's the only one to use it in an hour.

Atop Mt. Wilson, the industrial-looking pay phone looks alien under the canopy of greens, grays and yellows. A cobweb covers the coin slot. A red-white-and-green sticker advertises calls to Mexico: 5 Minutos Por $1.00.

Every so often, a car or motorcycle zooms by, disrupting the silence.

Cellphone signals hang by a thread. But the phone goes untouched.

These are the pay phones of Los Angeles County. They look like relics from a time before cellphones, yet anyone picking up the receiver will hear a comforting, if slightly harsh, dial tone. They still work. The question is, is anyone using them?

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The first public coin phone, as they were then called, was installed in 1889 by inventor William Gray, according to AT&T. Users would pay an attendant after the call was made.

The booth that often surrounded the phone offered privacy — something to be cherished, especially in the middle of a bustling commercial area.

The first booths were made of wood and found in the lobbies of public buildings. Throughout the 1950s, they were replaced with glass and became more common on street corners. Traveling salesmen and others caught in the rain could use the booth as shelter until the storm passed.

Eventually, the glass booths disappeared, leaving stunted kiosks in their place. But by that time, the phone booth's status as an American icon had been cemented, namely for its starring role in the Clark-Kent-to-Superman transition.

There used to be more than 2 million pay phones in the United States, according to the American Public Communications Council, a trade association. Fewer than 500,000 are left. Of California's 27,000 pay phones, most are concentrated in Los Angeles County, the San Francisco Bay Area and along the Interstate 5 corridor, according to the Public Utilities Commission.

Pay phones used to be operated by major companies such as AT&T and Verizon; now the industry has been left to smaller businesses.

Pacific Telemanagement Services has become the largest pay phone provider in the country. It owns almost 30% of California's phones, 2,100 of which are in L.A. County. Most phones can be found in high-traffic areas such as airports or in low-income communities, said Mike Zumbo, the company's cofounder and president.

Though it appears to be a dying industry — with 18% to 20% erosion a year — pay phones are still profitable, Zumbo said. His company buys dial tones from providers for about $30 per pay phone per month. At 50 cents a call, 100 calls a month would result in a $20 profit. The company earns additional money when users make collect calls or use prepaid cards.

For the 10% of American adults who don't own a cellphone, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet Project, pay phones are a lifeline. For the other 90%, they're reliable during natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, when cellphone service can be disrupted.

They're "the cheapest, most dependable public communication tool that is out there," Zumbo said.

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Across the street from the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts at Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards, a pay phone overlooks a crowded bus stop. A family of four sits on a concrete wall about three feet from the phone.

A woman in a black dress and mint-green windbreaker stumbles to the other side of the phone, into the driveway of an empty storefront for lease. She hikes up her dress, pulls down her underwear and urinates.

The pay phone offers minimal, if any, coverage.

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Rod Lanthier remembers sneaking into a phone booth on a Montreal street and putting a dime into the slot to call his grade school crush. Finally — some privacy, he thought each time.

The touch of a pay phone takes Lanthier, 53, back to this place, a time with no distractions, no cellphones. A time when the 6-foot cord to the only phone in his house reached just inside his room, still within his parents' eavesdropping distance.

Lanthier belongs to a shrinking but devoted community of people who get nostalgic at the thought of pay phones. Though he's not sure how large that community may be, he knows it exists because he's sold nearly 600 refurbished phones — complete with rotary dials — since 2007.

Who's buying them? CEOs of tech companies, attorneys, dentists, military officers, highway patrolmen, retirees of all sorts, Lanthier says.

He takes great pains to learn about the men and women who buy his phones. He wants to make sure they know what they're doing. Most young people don't, he said, "because they don't know how to dial the phone. They've never seen one."

When Mark Thomas started the Payphone Project in 1995, he wanted people to slow down and take the time to have a conversation on a pay phone.

Inspired by David Letterman, who would make random calls on-air to a pay phone outside his Times Square studio, Thomas began listing on his website the numbers and locations of pay phones he found around Manhattan. As more and more people stumbled onto his site, the Payphone Project became something greater.

Thomas and his project have also helped parents and runaway or abducted children reunite. Thomas said he's received countless emails and messages from families who used his site's list to find a missing child who called them from a pay phone.

The Payphone Project has since expanded its list of numbers nationwide and been heralded by AT&T as the definitive site chronicling the phones' decline.

Thomas, 48, imagines a future in which pay phones will be free, with audio advertisements. But he can't imagine a future without them.

"I don't think we're ever going to see the complete end of the public telephone."

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Eight kiosks form a semi-circle on the corner of Bauchet and Vignes streets; one in the center is missing its phone. Hanging from three of the phones are black cases with 5-year-old phone books inside. The phone on the far left is off the hook, its headset resting on the top.

Through a metal fence behind the phones, the words "Men's Central Jail" are branded on the wall.

Countless cars and buses whiz by, passing the six bail bonds offices crammed into a shopping center across the street.

Perhaps inmates use the phones when they're released, to reach out to the real world. Until then, the phones stand at attention, like sentries from a time long past.

trevell.anderson@latimes.com

Twitter: @TrevellAnderson

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