Pay Phone Makes a Post-Sandy Comeback

(Image Credit: John Minchillo/AP Photo)

When the power's knocked out, when your iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry are dead on arrival, who you gonna call? Whoever it is, you're gonna do it by pay phone.

Yes, that fossilized, germ-laden, coin-slot contraption that first came to market in 1889 is back with a vengeance, thanks to Hurricane Sandy and her destructive force. Indeed, it's safe to say that the pay phone is among New York City's most prized possessions right now, allowing millions of communication-starved inhabitants the chance to reach out and touch someone, anyone.

"Phones that normally do two dollars a day are taking in $50 a day," Peter Izzo of Van Wagner Communications, one of 13 local pay-phone-operating franchises, told the Wall Street Journal.

Not that everyone knows how to use them. For many people born in the latter 20th century, the pay phone is as mystifying as two tin cans and a string.

Alison Caporimo, 24, a magazine editor who lives in the East Village of Manhattan, had never used one before Tuesday. She found it challenging. "I lost a lot of coins," she told the Journal.

What's more, many people, who rely on electronic contacts rather than memory, had to resort to (gasp!) handwritten notes to remember phone numbers. Oscar Guzman, 34, who created a makeshift office near his neighborhood pay phone in the West Village, called it a "nightmare." "The audio is awful," he told the Journal.

There are about 12,000 pay phones in New York today, 27,000 fewer than 20 years ago, according to the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which regulates New York City pay phones. That number will most likely decrease after October 2014, when the contracts for the companies that own and operate pay phones in New York expire.

Other than the long lines, and the challenges of using them, and the difficulty hearing, the biggest hurdle was coin-overload, the Journal reported.

"During disasters, we sometimes have to empty them every day," Thomas Keane, chief executive officer of Pacific Telemanagement Services, a pay-phone operator whose New York locations include hospitals, police offices and transit stations, told the Journal. "It takes 300 to 400 calls a day for that to happen."

Still, some operators, like Van Wagner, also programmed some of their pay phones to work for free, as they did after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Journal. And even phones that require coins are still coveted.

As Izzo noted in the Journal, "In times of distress, the people of the city love them."

Just as long as they're not rotary.