Why Superman Used a Phone Booth

(Photo by Dariana Anairad via Unsplash)



Feeling like a ten-year-old, I memorize the number, walk home, press the number, and hold my breath until I hear a ring.

The phone booth at the corner of the Monroe County courthouse grounds still works.

Granted, I have never seen anyone use the thing, but I am absurdly happy to think that a long, bulky rectangular phone, shielded by an entire glass box, can still make a connection. The booth represents a refusal to fling away old technology—and the memories it triggered. Curious whether the phone booth ever made the local news, I check the Republic-Times archives and learn that this phone booth is new. A December 2019 article announced that “a staple of downtown Waterloo” would soon return, in an act of civic generosity “heralded as a Christmas gift to the community.” In short, Harrison Telephone Company had promised to replace the beloved phone booth, which stood at a corner of the courthouse grounds for half a century.

A sweet gesture, symbolic at this point. I wonder how long the town had gone without a telephone booth, no one noticing because they all have cell phones….

Three weeks. A car driven by a ninety-two-year-old woman had collided with a Jeep, smashing the public phone. The telephone booth was then “removed from its pedestal”—but only in physical terms. Nostalgia bubbled up fast. Regulars at Outsiders Tavern, across the street, told gleeful stories of startling visitors by calling the phone booth just as they passed. People posted throwback photos of themselves using the payphone. This particular bit of the past was pronounced an icon.

I close my eyes, remembering teenage dates when my mom made sure I had a quarter in case the guy got drunk or overly flirty. Later, the thrill of phoning in news copy. The editorial meeting interrupted because a melodramatic freelancer was calling from Martha’s Vineyard in a hurricane, and Bob Woodward had just used the same pay phone. A phone booth holds history—decades of nervous calls people made to future employers, sneaking away on a lunch break—or to lovers—or to long-estranged family members—or maybe to a Russian spy.

Vintage booths sell for thousands of dollars on eBay. Why such a cultural charge? Because the booths are liminal, their glass panes and metal frame enclosing a space that is both private and public, visible and enclosed, a transition between worlds. Clark Kent chose a phone booth (a glass one, transparent and illogical) to morph into Superman. J.K. Rowling made a phone booth the gateway to the Ministry of Magic. Bumbling agent Maxwell Smart stepped into a phone booth, spun the rotary dial, and was lowered into CONTROL’s underground headquarters. A phone booth transported Bill and Ted to their excellent adventure; allowed an exit from the Matrix; took Doctor Who (all the Doctor Whos) through time and the cosmos.

Using a public phone to reach across physical distance was a kind of travel. By allowing you to connect with people when you were not at home or work, payphones made official accommodation for our unpredictable individual lives. We have been connected 24/7 for so long now, it is hard to remember the anxiety and excitement, the relief of reaching someone who would help you out of a jam, the fillip of intrigue when you passed a ringing phone and wondered whether to answer it.

Waterloo’s new phone booth stands just in front of a well-hung bronze buffalo, a perhaps not specifically solicited bequest from a longtime resident who was a Western aficionado. The booth has sky-blue panels set in its shiny metal frame; I prefer the bright red of the original, which at least alludes to the iconic British call box with the royal insignia and arched top. Why does U.S. design so often lack charm? I wish I had made a call, back when you could, by stepping into a pagoda-shaped phone booth in Chinatown or a cable car booth in San Francisco. I loved the phone booths in the lobbies of grand hotels, carved wood surrounding a commodious space, lit golden, with carpet and an upholstered seat and writing paper. You felt important, sliding that door closed. You were alone, in charge of your own destiny, making something happen that no one else could hear.

Maybe that is why phone booths aroused such hostility between strangers (a precursor of road rage?) when someone was waiting to make his Very Important Call, and someone else was happily gabbing away, usurping the privilege. If you were sensitive to such onslaughts, there was nothing worse than fumbling with coins, already befuddled by some calamity, and yelling out the accordion door that you would “just be one more minute” as you tried to find a tow truck or a family member. When a friend says dryly, as something less than surprising is announced, “I’ve gotta get to a phone,” I grin, remembering the old, goofy urgency, the adrenaline of hunting down a place to make a connection.

Coin-operated pay phones were invented in the U.S., of course, back in 1889, after the Germans paved the way with a call box (you had to buy a ticket) south of Berlin’s Brandenburg gate. In the 1970s, the booths began to disappear from the U.S., replaced by a phone stuck on a pole, its only shield those silly Plexiglas wings or a metal frame. The idea was to make phones more accessible to people using wheelchairs—but the shift coincided with the beginning of the end of privacy. In the 1978 Superman movie, Clark Kent saw one of the new phones, did a doubletake, and found a revolving door to use instead.

Twenty years earlier, the fun had been stuffing as many people as possible into a phone booth, shattering its solitary, one-person austerity with silliness. Twenty-five students in South Africa set a world record in 1959. And then, fast as it started, the craze was over. More lasting tropes are hysteria—a distraught Will Ferrell in Anchorman, blurting that he is “in a glass case of emotion!”—and violence. People in phone booths get shot by snipers (Phone Booth) or stuck (La Cabina), or they shoot themselves, or somebody shatters the glass in raging frustration (Falling Down). There was a time one could Dial M for Murder. Alfred Hitchcock trapped Tippi Hedron in a phone booth in The Birds, ratcheting up the frantic desperation. A stabbing takes place in a phone booth in Psycho. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant uses a payphone to call his mother, essentially saying goodbye to his old life before he begins running. He emerges from that enclosed booth, that touchstone, suspicious of everyone around him.

Hitchcock understood the power of illusory safety, of claustrophobia’s panic, of the containment of evil. Like murder mysteries set in boarding schools or Anglican seminaries, a phone booth scene draws power from its tight boundaries. That, or its ubiquity and anonymity become part of a thrilling game, as in Die Hard With a Vengeance, when Samuel L. Jackson races from one phone booth to the next, trying to stop a terrorist bomber. Intended as places of safety, phone booths are often terrifying places, glowing eerie on a dark, empty street. The dangling phone book is ripped away, or certain pages have been torn out, leaving the ragged edge of need. I once knew a gentle, tormented Franciscan priest who was killed during a sexual assignation late at night in another city, circled phone numbers from a telephone book found in his car.

Phone booth graffiti was often intentional, inscribed as a secret service, a hobo code for sexual seekers. We are anonymous in phone booths, and we are alone. In the 1967 Supreme Court case Katz v. United States, the justices were asked to decide whether the FBI was within its rights when it installed a listening device outside a phone booth. The court expanded the Fourth Amendment protection to include electronic wiretaps in the “unreasonable searches and seizures” clause, because Katz had an expectation of privacy when he stepped into that booth.

Whether today’s courts would make the same call is doubtful, but it is easier to buy a burner phone than find a working phone booth, so unless all the lawbreakers come to Waterloo, the question is moot.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.