Please insert a coin

The number you have dialled is temporarily not available. (flickr user Christian Watzke)

The number you have dialed is temporarily not available. (flickr user Christian Watzke)

Pay-as-you-go contracts for cell phones can be very irritating. I usually run out of credit at the most inconvenient times, subsequently roaming London’s neighborhoods looking for a place to buy a top-up voucher. The last time I encountered such inconvenience was on my recent trip to Berlin, Germany.

Notwithstanding any EU initiatives to cap roaming charges or standardize chargers, you still cannot buy top-up credit for a UK mobile in Berlin. And so I was forced to do something that I thought I would never do again in my life: I had to use a public phone booth.

A brief history of Telefonzellen

Before my parents allowed me my first cell phone, I had to rely on them quite a bit. That was in the mid-90s, when they were still placed inside little yellow cabins and in 9 out of 10 cases vandalized beyond functioning. According to this incredibly interesting “Historie der Telefonzelle” (careful, it’s in German but has some pictures to look at), there were about 120.000 of them in 1994.

After ignoring phone booths for the past ten years or so, I found myself walking around Berlin looking for one of the 110.000 that are still remaining. They are white-gray-magenta in color now – because the operator changed to Deutsche Telekom – and they are no longer inside a little cabin, as an attempt to curb vandalism.

Picking up the handset, taking out a 50 cents coin from my wallet, the sound of it falling through the apparatus, and slowly dialing the number on the sticky metal keypad – I felt uncomfortable, almost like traveling backwards in time…

Identity under attack

Why did the use of a public phone booth after ten years of abstinence leave such a memorable impression on me? I think it has to do with identity.

Before I went up to the phone, I looked around to see whether anybody was watching me, maybe even somebody I know. The phone was in a busy market place, and – as I mentioned before – no longer inside a cabin. The entire time I was using the phone, I felt vulnerable and somehow under surveillance – even though people just went on buying their fruits and vegetables.

The other person answered the phone. “Where are you calling from?”

“From a public phone booth”, I said.

“Oh… really?” (Astonishment. Silence.)

“Yes, really. Let’s make it quick, I’m almost out of coins.”

When I met that person half an hour later, he used his iPhone to figure out the way to the nearest coffee place. And that’s when I realized where the discomfort of using a public phone booth really comes from.

Latte machiato drinking, cosmopolitanism embracing, Apple products using people like me don’t use phone booths. That is so 20th century, hello?!

Because we have become so terribly self-reflexive, self-aware, and self-promotional, our identity feels threatened if we find ourselves in a public phone booth. At least, that is my explanation for why it was such a big deal for me.

I’ve done some identity work since then. I have now integrated the use of public phone booths into my identity collage. It’s filed under “back to the roots” and “retro is cool”.

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