The Demise of the Phone Booth: No More Privacy in Public



France has declared an end to the public phone booth. In the next two years, the glass cabin on the street will be no more. With it goes the last little bit of private space in public, an end to a moment’s refuge from the street or, for the homeless, a night of shelter from the storm.

I’m a baby boomer, came of age in the 1970s, wore shoulder pads in the 1980s, pushed a stroller in the 1990s. You’ve heard my generation’s nostalgic whinges about how things aren’t as wonderful as they used to be, and I want you to know that I resist that urge on nearly everything, popular music excepted. The landscape has changed, communications perhaps most of all. What was comic-book fantasy (Dick Tracy’s watch) or television futurism (flip phone: Kirk here) is now commonplace. The primary downside of this is having to listen, in the public sphere, to the conversations around you, every minor thought that flashed through the flabby brain two seats over on the train, the marital spats that all begin “I toooold you…”, the babble of she said-I said-then she said. I could go on, but no need, you’ve heard them too.

This isn’t so much an exercise in nostalgia as a farewell to a private space in public. Back in the day (begins all boomer reminiscing), conversations were somewhat private. At home, in the office, or in a phone booth, if you were out and about, or the conversation needed to happen away from home. The death of the phone booth, however long foretold, stands in for the demise of the private conversation. Even though, given the blanketed surveillance, the idea of privacy has been nothing more than an illusion for quite some time. The phone booth had glass walls, after all.

But you could duck into it to adjust your stockings. Kiss your boyfriend. Have a short cry. Look for change. Take a nap. Roll a joint. Call your mama. Or change into a superhero costume. For example. If you were in the booth, it was your space. Now all conversation, crying and kissing occurs in public, for better or for worse. My fellow train commuters and I witness a thousand instances of personal emoting every day. (I won’t go into the four-man brawl on the 6:45 train the other morning. Let’s just say we all woke up fast.) We put in our earplugs, turn the volume up, and create a private space in our heads. That’s what we’ve got left.

I’m going to take a selfie in a phone booth, a visual obituary to the privacy of the past.