HACKENSACK, N.J. -- The pay phone -- that quaint-looking device with a receiver and a slot for coins -- is fast disappearing. Or were you too busy staring at your Droid to have noticed?
It doesn't take a genius to identify the culprit: cellphones.
Verizon Communications recently sold off its public telephone business, a move that has further reduced the number of pay phones and frustrated people who rely on them.
Michael Maccaro owns Bethlene Enterprises, a Wayne, N.J.-based property management firm that owns pay phones in northern New Jersey, mostly in urban areas. He says he no longer looks at the call reports for his 65 sites.
"I can't get out of this business soon enough," groused Maccaro, who used to have 1,400 phones.
One of his phones is outside a 7-Eleven in Teaneck, N.J. It handled 22 calls during one seven-day span in January -- three a day, on average.
Vanishing 10 percent a year
The number of pay phones nationally has dropped from a peak of 2.2 million in 2000 to perhaps 400,000 today, according to the American Public Communications Council, which represents 800 independent pay-phone owners. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that pay phones are vanishing at the rate of 10 percent a year.
Willard Nichols, the trade group's president, says pay phones "are primarily used by the lower-income portion of society -- that stands to reason." He adds that about half of calls do not involve coins, such as those made with a prepaid calling card.
America's first coin-operated telephone was installed in 1889 in a Hartford, Conn., bank. A tinkerer named William Gray invented it after begging to use someone's telephone to summon a doctor for his wife, according to Sheldon Hochheiser, archivist and institutional historian at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) History Center, based at Rutgers University.
By 1902, there were 81,000 pay phones in the U.S., mostly at drugstores and train stations. The number kept rising until cellphones "ended up in everybody's pocket," said the 60-year-old Hochheiser, who can't remember when he last used a pay phone. Not that he is sentimental about it.
"New technologies evolve and appear and sometimes they complement older technologies and sometimes they replace older technologies," he said. "What hasn't changed is the need for people to stay in touch."
Not everyone has a cellphone
But don't bury the pay phone just yet. Wireless also is the reason some people consider this poster child for obsolescence necessary.
After all, cellphone batteries die. Rechargers go missing. Cellphone service is spotty in some places. Calls drop. And not everyone has a cellphone.
Sentra Bowers, a home health aide from Paterson, N.J., says she uses public phones when she exceeds her wireless plan's limit on minutes. She just wishes there weren't so many broken ones in her hometown.
"The earpiece is off and half the wires are out," she complained.
You can find pay phones in the lobbies of major hotels and in shopping centers.
Verizon Communications -- the last Ma Bell spinoff in the pay-phone business -- used to be New Jersey's largest operator of public phones. The regional telecom giant, citing declining pay-phone revenue, agreed last fall to sell almost all of its remaining 50,000 phones to Pacific Telemanagement Services of San Ramon, Calif.
Still part of the landscape
Thomas Keane, chief executive of Pacific Telemanagement, said he hopes to keep a lot of the old Verizon phones in place. Decisions are made in consultation with property owners playing host to the phones.
Keane calls pay phones "our version of buggy whips" and wants them to remain part of the landscape.
He insists they're relevant -- a service to consumers, especially those living paycheck to paycheck.
"And I think the acoustics are much better than with a cellphone," he said, "so pay phones are better for conference calls."
Keane says the orphaned and vandalized phones at street and commercial locations give all pay phones a bad rap. "It doesn't help," he said. "It makes people think they can't find one."
It also doesn't help that an entire generation hears "pay phone" and asks, "Huh?"