Guest Op-Ed: Remember Phone Booths?

By Alison Barnet

It’s Saturday and the Prudential mall is crowded. Here he ​comes on his cell phone, claiming, for all to hear, “This is just between you and me.”

Remember phone booths? The way people pushed hard on the doors to make sure they were tightly closed? If they saw someone standing outside, they made a face and pushed on the doors some more. Why? Because a phone call was a private matter. Of course, back then people generally had more to say than “Oh, hi! I’m in a phone booth! What? I’ll be home in five minutes.”

Remember phone etiquette? The good old days when people taking calls in front of us said, “Excuse me.” When the phone rang at friends’ houses—no protracted, cute “ring tones” in those days—our friends apologized because they knew that talking on the phone in front of other people is rude.

Not to laud the past—although it’s looking better and better—but years ago we walked down the street with friends and talked with them. We noticed other people and the world around us. We would have been startled indeed if a friend had suddenly held a phone conversation in front of us (if you can call one side of a call a conversation). Gee, only a few years ago someone crossing the street talking out loud gesturing and laughing idiotically would have been considered nuts—certifiable! Yet this behavior is now the norm.

It was a noisy enough world before things began to beep, ring, sizzle, and squawk, before we couldn’t avoid hearing people’s most intimate business. Little did we know how phone mad the world would become, how frequently our heads would spin, thinking the cheery “Oh, hi!” behind us came from someone we know. Isn’t it funny when cell phone users complain they can’t hear the person on the other end of the “line”— “What? Huh? I can’t hear you!”—while remaining totally unconcerned about the rest of us who, plunged into Cell Hell, are subjected to every word. Often I find myself wanting to say out loud on buses and trains, “Well, we can certainly hear you!”

One evening, the woman behind me was spewing out incredibly personal information. Then a guy standing by the rear door started up, giving us his Social Security number and his address.

None of us will ever hear a one-sided conversation like this:

“Damn it, Henry!

Why’d you have to bother me in the middle of the street?”

​Fear cells sells. Even people who purport to hate cell phones can’t help but bring up the terrifying picture of a woman driving alone on an isolated road late at night. We wouldn’t want her NOT to have a cell phone, would we? Strange that we’re all so afraid of so many things, but driving while yakking on phones isn’t one of them.

He’s standing on the steps as I walk by. No one else is around, so he must be talking to me when he says, “Could I have the steak tips and a tuna salad?”

Alison Barnet is a longtime South End resident and  author of five books on the neighborhood’s history.

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