A crowd gathered in Times Square recently for the removal of what the city promoted as New York’s last public pay phone. “End of an Era,” declared the news release headline, even though the era when pay phones played any meaningful role in New Yorkers’ lives certainly ended long ago.
One might be forgiven for feeling a bit nostalgic. Pay phones are vestiges of the analog world, before the “I’ll be 15 minutes late” text, when long-distance was a consideration and people on calls in public got their own private booths.
“People miss a period of time when a call meant something,” Mark Thomas of The Payphone Project told The Times. “When you planned it and you thought about it, and you took a deep breath and you put your quarter in.”
I’ve been considering the familiar refrain about smartphones, that they’ve made our lives easier to navigate at the expense of our manners, our attention, our safety while driving. We may be physically present, but we’re never really there.
Pay phones were stationary monotaskers. Before cellphones, if you wanted to talk to someone, you did it at home, at work or in a booth. Your telecommunications were contained to these discrete spaces, separate from the rest of your life. Pay phones may be nearly obsolete, but there’s nothing stopping us from reinstituting some of their boundaries in a post-pay-phone world.
What might this look like for you? For me, it would mean pulling over to the side of the road to send a text rather than dictating my message to Siri. I’d step out of the pedestrian flow and into the phone booth of the mind to listen to voice mail. I wouldn’t check social media while waiting for a friend to arrive at a bar. Long phone calls would take place at home, not while I’m on a walk or sitting on a park bench, ostensibly enjoying the outdoors.
My sentimental ideal of the phone booth — Richard Dreyfuss calling Marsha Mason from outside her apartment in the rain at the end of “The Goodbye Girl” — is a time capsule, a romantic vision of the past. But the phone booth as metaphor, as inspiration for creating boundaries between virtual and real life, still seems useful today.
Programming note: Starting this week, my colleague Gilbert Cruz, the Culture Editor at The Times, offers his recommendations for what to watch, read, listen to and more. Scroll down to the Culture Calendar to check them out. — Melissa
🎭 The Tony Awards (Sunday): Even for someone like me, whose job it is to experience oodles of culture, it’s difficult to see all the Broadway shows. (And if you don’t live in or near New York City, it’s impossible.) So I’m thrilled that I’ll get to see highlights from musicals like “Six,” “Company” and “The Music Man.” That’s thrilled with a capital “T” and that rhymes with … you get what I’m saying.
📚 “The Hotel Nantucket” (Tuesday): It doesn’t feel like summer unless I read an Elin Hilderbrand book, which I’ve done every year for almost a decade. They mostly take place on Nantucket and they’re full of secrets and romantic drama and beaches. I’ve read my fair share of novels involving magic and dragons, but fancy New England island living often feels more fantastical to me than anything from George R.R. Martin.
🎥 “Spiderhead” (Friday): Speaking of islands, this Netflix movie based on a George Saunders short story about futuristic drug experiments is set on one of those beautiful ones in the middle of nowhere where shady things happen. If you need a strong dose of Chris Hemsworth before this summer’s “Thor: Love and Thunder,” here’s where to find it.
RECIPE OF THE WEEK
Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Noodles)
Who doesn’t love a flexible recipe that can absorb all the odds and ends in the fridge and result in something truly delicious? This speedy pad kee mao recipe from the chef Hong Thaimee is a perfect example. The key is to throw in loads of garlic, fresh chiles and whole basil leaves, which make anything taste amazing. Just pick a protein and a quick-cooking vegetable or two — I recently used shrimp, broccolini and chard — and use the widest rice noodles you can get. Note that if you don’t have thick dark soy sauce, adding brown sugar to regular soy makes up for the missing sweetness. Cook this once and it’s yours to play with forever, a zippy, spicy weeknight meal that you can make from what you’ve got.
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Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Formula 1: We’re about a third of the way through the Formula 1 season, and it’s been thrilling. Redesigned cars have helped the Ferrari team climb near the top, while the seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton is struggling. If you’re in the U.S. and don’t want to wake up early to watch a race, check out “Drive to Survive,” a Netflix documentary series focused on the sport’s personalities. It has turned countless Americans into fans. 7 a.m. Eastern on Sunday, ESPN
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