Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time has come to finally hang up on public telephones

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MONTREAL -- Unlike my grandfather, and even my father, telephones have been with me all my life.

One of my first memories as a child growing up in a working-class district of Montreal was of my mother patiently waiting for our telephone line to become available. In those days, as those of us of a certain age all recall, there were not enough ground lines to go around. Consequently, individuals had to share those that did exist -- usually with unidentified individuals in the same neighbourhood, or at least within the same phone exchange. They were called party lines, and, despite their name, they were anything but fun.

You only knew the service was in use when you picked up the receiver and heard a conversation taking place. Good etiquette dictated you should put down the handset immediately so as not to overhear someone else's conversation. Some did; some didn't.

Eventually, with the passage of time, shared lines gave way to private lines throughout the system. All were happy, especially teenagers.

My first experience with an outdoor public telephone booth took place many years, not in Canada but in Paris, France. It was a Sunday and I thought it would be appropriate that I call home to touch base with my family. In those days, in the City of Lights, public telephones worked with a geton (token) and they were purchased only at le drugstore. There were, as I recall, few public telephones to begin with in the French capital and to find one that was also functional was extremely problematic. To locate one near a pharmacy that was open on Sundays was virtually impossible.

I remember to this day how disillusioned I was to discover that, after having finally found a phone and an open pharmacy in a relative proximity, the telephone had been vandalized in the interim. I never did phone home that Sunday and the entire experience left a very bitter taste in my mouth insofar as public telephones were concerned.

Today, outdoor public telephones are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Of course, there are still a few around, but those that have survived the burgeoning era of the smartphone are rapidly beginning to show their age.

A few days ago, I went out looking for some of them in the streets of Montreal. Those I found were, to say the least, in a sorry state. Long neglected, most show signs of dirt, rust and the ubiquitous graffiti, truly the scourge of our times. In some cases, ill-mannered people had left half-empty fast-food containers on their tiny protrusions. To touch their receivers without donning plastic gloves would be an act of extreme foolishness, in my estimation. Like my hard-sought telephone in Paris, now so many years ago, several were also out of order.

Clearly the various telephone companies are being compelled from an overseeing authority to maintain this rudimentary service for the population. However, there are sufficient public telephones found indoors in commercial plazas to meet any emergency. It is perhaps time to remove those that remain on our sidewalks that, incidentally, also pose yet an additional and unnecessary danger to the visually impaired.

From their very inception in the early 1900s, outdoor public telephones have always been embroiled in controversy throughout Canada. Quaintly known as 'slot machine telephones' at the time, their appearance in the daily lives of Canadians living in the Edwardian period did not go unnoticed.

In a pointed editorial on Dec. 9, 1905 entitled The 'Slot Machine' Telephones Should Go, the now-defunct Montreal Star argued for the elimination of pay telephones, at that moment considered to be more of a nuisance than anything else. "They cannot be very large revenue-earners, and they are most successful breeders of unpopularity," proclaimed the newspaper in the affected style of the time.

Then the broadsheet brought up an issue many of us have experienced in using these devices down through the years.

"Another annoyance is the occasional failure of the 'slot machine' to work, when the soft-voiced young lady at the 'Central' will not take the word of a Presbyterian elder that he has deposited his 'five cents' in good faith, whereat a worldly man -- not the Elder -- suffers from a rush of temper to the head."

They were not wanted then; time for them to go today.

Robert N. Wilkins is a Montreal local historian and freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 A9

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