It’s a tough time for deep-background sources, film noir detectives, shadowy double agents and superheroes.
The ubiquity of cell phones has driven from the market a key plot point in the American canon: the pay phone.
A perfect storm of mobile devices, deregulation, monopolization, de-monopolization and re-monopolization has driven the light-blue mainstays of the roadside nearly out of business.
According to the National Pay Phone Directory, there are, however, still more than 700 numbers assigned “coin-operated customer-owned telephones” in Davidson County. The fancy name belies the simple business model: the phone company sells the number, a company leases it and the equipment, and however many quarters they reap are their own.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that there is a receiver still at the box. The directory lists, for example, two phones at the Exxon at Charlotte and 14th Avenue. Today, light-blue pylons and some unused wiring stand as cenotaphs to the forgotten pay phones. Here and there, small signs promising pay phone availability stay attached to stanchions once home to the simple quarter-a-call devices.
Stubbornly, working phones hang on: mostly at gas stations and in hotel lobbies, at the airport, hospitals and at a large number of Waffle Houses and at numerous businesses on the Dickerson Road-Gallatin Road gateway.
An interesting note, too: The pay phone directory also provides numbers for far-flung pay phones leased by entities that have a Nashville billing address. Dozens upon dozens are assigned to Shoney’s, for example, or HCA but — weirdest of all — there are eight pay phones in the 201 area code (New Jersey) assigned to “Clinton-Gore 92.”
Why are they still assigned? Why are they billed to a Nashville address?
It’s a quandary a noir gumshoe could sort through. If only he could find a pay phone.