Hello, Pay Phone Information? Enthusiast Provides the Answer
by IAN URBINA
It started as an art project. Blue spiral notebook in hand, Mark Thomas spent afternoons walking the streets of Manhattan, compiling the numbers and locations of public pay phones. He posted them on his Web site in the hope that people would call them.
“There is real beauty in whimsical acts of contact between strangers,” he explained. Soon his list expanded to include public phones at the top of the Eiffel Tower, in the basement of the Vatican, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and at about 450,000 other places around the world.
Word of his project spread, and Cindy in Hawaii reported having had the strangest conversation about beaches with a man answering a pay phone in Brazil. Kim from Sydney, Australia, said she called a phone on the corner of 57th and Broadway in Manhattan, where a guy answered, “Wassup” and said he had never heard of Australia. Most surreal of all was the conversation Mr. Thomas had when he picked up a pay phone in Queens, at the 36th Avenue stop of the N line, and the person on the other end explained that he had found the number on Mr. Thomas’s Web site.
But soon the project changed as panicked e-mail messages started arriving from people who needed to learn the location of a certain pay phone: A mother in rural Texas was desperately looking for her pregnant 15-year-old daughter, who had run away a month earlier and had tried to call home from a pay phone; an anti-pedophile group was racing to find a man who had used a pay phone to arrange a sexual meeting with a young boy; a real estate broker in Phoenix wanted to put an end to the daily calls from a stalker who was threatening to kill him.
In an age of cellphone ubiquity, Mr. Thomas’s passion for pay phones, while initially little more than fanciful, has thus yielded both entertaining and more urgently practical applications. His Web site, www.payphone-project.com, which gets about 45,000 visitors per month, is one of the only places where people can match an incoming pay phone number to a location. The Web site, he said, has become what the pay phone once was: a lifeline for those in sudden moments of need.
Mr. Thomas’s enthusiasm for the topic is unmistakable. He raises his voice to describe the hodgepodge of people who, shifting from one impatient foot to the other, stand in line at what has been called the nation’s busiest pay phone, in Grand Central Terminal. His face flushes with excitement as he recounts some of the bizarre conversations he has had in answering pay phones that rang as he walked by. Like the lady who called the pay phone on the corner of 30th Street and 34th Avenue outside Salamis, a deli in Astoria, Queens. She persuaded Mr. Thomas to stay on the line with her for 20 minutes on a frigid December night until her daughter showed up to receive the call. Or the gravelly-voiced man who called the same phone and said:
“Hello, is Louise there?”
“No, this is a pay phone.”
“I know. Look, when she walks by, could you tell her that Julio called and I’m going to be at Rikers longer than I thought.”
Pay phones are a preoccupation that Mr. Thomas, 36, a professional concert pianist who lives in Long Island City, Queens, says dates back to his teenage years growing up in Tampa, Florida. Bored and stuck at home on Friday nights, he made a habit of calling a pay phone on Kennedy Boulevard near the University of Tampa, along what was then one of the seediest sections of the city. “When you’re 15 and you can’t even drink yet, there is something really titillating in talking to prostitutes and winos,” he said. David Letterman’s random calls to public phones near the Ed Sullivan Theater provided further inspiration. And with the Web site, started in 1995, Mr. Thomas suddenly opened the door to a robust subculture of similar aficionados.
“You’d be amazed at how many people share this odd habit,” he said. People began collecting numbers while they were researching in Antarctica or vacationing in New Zealand and e-mailing them to him when they arrived home, he said.
The list’s biggest growth spurt occurred in 1999 with the arrival of two anonymous submissions. “These people saw the utility of the information I was posting, and they wanted to help,” he said. One person described himself only as a police investigator with special access to law enforcement archives. The other was an employee of one of the major phone companies. Their contributions brought Mr. Thomas’s searchable databank up to its current total of about half a million numbers.
But the Web site could be a lot more effective if the phone companies would hand over their full lists, Mr. Thomas said. “It makes no sense that you need to get a subpoena or hire a private investigator to find out where a certain public phone is located.”
Daniel Diaz Zapata, a spokesman for Verizon, one of the largest owners of pay phones in the country, explained that public pay phone lists have never been published. Although the phone company is required by law to print the phone number on the front of each pay phone, he said, it is not required to release its compiled list. “Like most phone companies, we don’t see there being any advantage in making this information public,” he said.
Jean Ritter of Conroe, Tex., disagrees. After her 15-year-old daughter, Lannette, ran away from their home, near Houston, Ms. Ritter turned to Mr. Thomas’s Web site for help. Lannette, who was five months pregnant, had been gone for four weeks when she called her mother one rainy afternoon, crying and sounding panicked. But before Lannette could say where she was, someone took the phone from her and hung it up.
“I thought I was going to throw up, I was so sick with worry,” said Ms. Ritter, explaining that she took the phone number from her caller ID and entered it into Mr. Thomas’s Web site. “It told us the exact location of the gas station where she was, and we jumped in the car to go get her.”
Del, a woman who would not give her last name, works for a Web site, perverted-justice.com, which monitors the Internet looking for pedophiles. She described Mr. Thomas’s lists as indispensable. “We pose online as young boys, and when the potential predators decide to make a call to set up an in-person meeting, they often do so from pay phones,” she explained. Since the group hands over its information to the police for final investigation, Del said she could not be sure how many pedophiles had actually been stopped with help from the Web site.
Darrell Blomberg, 45, offered his own testimonial. A real estate broker from Phoenix, Mr. Blomberg started getting several threatening calls a day from a man. “He knew my address and kept describing the gruesome things he was going to do to me,” Mr. Blomberg said. Aside from being tormenting, the calls, which came in daily for 13 months, were costing Mr. Blomberg about $20 per month because they were directed to his 800 number, which bills the recipient.
“It was galling,” he said. “I lived constantly wondering whether this guy was actually coming to get me.” Mr. Blomberg began keeping his .38-caliber pistol loaded and in his bedroom, but he said that it was Mr. Thomas’ Web site that eventually provided a small sense of security.
After taking the suspicious phone numbers from the calls listed on his bill and plugging them into Mr. Thomas’ Web site, Mr. Blomberg realized that the stalker was calling from several pay phones within a six-block area of downtown Syracuse. “I felt a lot less terrorized,” he said. “It dawned on me that this guy was really far away and that he hadn’t left this one neighborhood in nearly a year.”
Mr. Thomas said he welcomes the newfound use of his hobby. And since almost all pay phones reject incoming calls these days, he said that he recognizes that his original hope of instigating capricious acts of contact between strangers is now nearly moot.
He is less accepting, however, of other trends. “Cellphones just don’t stack up,” he said.
A collector of antique radios who prefers records to CD’s, Mr. Thomas laments the creeping obsolescence of pay phones. As their quantity dwindles nationally — to fewer than 1.8 million from a peak of 2.7 million in the mid-’90s — Mr. Thomas sees more than just a loss in public convenience.
“Pay phones are lifelines for the down and out; their booths are rainy-day cocoons,” he said. “You lose those, and you lose a lot of windows onto the human condition.”