The last pay phone in downtown DC sits in an assuming box fixed to a squat pole on the sidewalk in front of the new Cheesecake Factory on H Street, Northwest. If you’ve ever walked by, you probably didn’t register it. You almost certainly didn’t try to make a call. Or at least if you did, David Ferguson, general manager of that Cheesecake Factory outpost, hasn’t noticed it. He’s never spotted anyone pressing the receiver to their ear. “I would remember that if I had,” he says. Ferguson often cleans up trash left on the box, but he’s never lifted the handset, either. “That may be one of the dirtiest things in DC,” he says, “so I’ve never put it up to my face or ears. I was never brave enough to try it.”
Actually, the thing doesn’t work, and apparently hasn’t since last year. Now it’s going to be removed, according to the city’s Public Service Commission, which oversees telecommunications and energy utilities. That’s no huge surprise. But for anyone who can recall exactly how that hard plastic receiver felt against your ear, it’s still a bit sad—a minor sign of how DC’s past is always fading into the distance. Your childhood toy store goes out of business. A favorite high-school teacher retires. The fancy building you vividly remember being all glossy and new is currently so out of date, it’s being razed and replaced. Just another gut-punch reminder of your own impending obsolescence.
It wasn’t long ago that pay phones were ubiquitous. They’ve been around since the 19th century, and as recently as 1999 there were 2 million of them around the country. But by 2018, that number had plunged to about 100,000, and today they seem about as modern as TVs with UHF dials—more Dupont than 202 (or, God help us, 771). There were 127 outdoor public phones in the District a decade ago, the Public Service Commission says. Today, there are just six: the one on H Street plus four along a stretch of Mount Pleasant Street and one in Adams Morgan, outside the bar Shenanigans. (Should you ever lose your iPhone after a night of hard drinking, here’s the establishment to be in.)
So why is downtown’s lone street phone headed for the scrap heap? The owner of the pay phone is a California company called PTS Providers, which still operates quite a few of them around the country. The economics of a device like the one on H Street can be grim. On average, each needs to generate about 100 calls a month to make financial sense, says PTS founder and CEO Michael Zumbo. In downtown DC, those calls just haven’t been coming in recent years, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic.
Pay phones are still common inside places like hospitals and courthouses, and they remain a lifeline for people who can’t afford other kinds of service. Zumbo says that PTS currently owns about 80 phones in the Washington area. Of those, fewer than half are operational, with the disconnected ones due to be removed at some point. Still, in 2019, some 70,000 calls were made from the working ones. PTS looks carefully at usage figures when deciding whether to keep a device going. “The sad part, to me, is there’s still a need,” says Zumbo. “They’re being used. It’s just that the individuals who are using them don’t have a voice. And that is a shame. I mean, it’s not a huge financial-revenue source for my company. Today we’re kind of breaking even [on the pay-phone part of the business]. But we’re going to leave them in as long as we’re not losing money.”
One person who’s especially sorry to see the H Street phone go is Brian Feldman, a DC performance artist who might be better acquainted with that particular apparatus than any other Washingtonian. On December 24, 2016, he used it to stage a show called Rent This Phone, which involved calling individual members of his audience and singing a tune from the musical Rent. It took three straight hours, several rolls of quarters, and a considerable amount of disinfectant. “I brought Clorox wipes and Lysol, a trashcan, and paper-towel rolls,” he says. “I was totally prepared. I hadn’t really used a pay phone since the days of the pager. But I thought it would be a unique delivery device for a theatrical experience.” Feldman still feels a strong connection to that phone, describing its looming demise as “disappointing.” But as with most of us who remember coin calls fondly, his attachment is more nostalgic than practical. “I definitely want to limit my pay-phone engagement to this project,” he says. “Otherwise, I pretty much avoid them.”
This article appears in the November 2021 issue of Washingtonian.