Where Does Superman Change?

In one of the more recent Superman films, there is a lovely scene in which Clark Kent becomes aware of a pressing emergency requiring the services of Superman. He looks around, sees a couple of the phones-on-a-stick, but nothing remotely resembling a booth, looks bewildered, and finally ducks into the far end of an alley, from which Superman almost immediately emerges.

For the last 20 years, phone companies have been trying to get rid of pay phones, on the premise that they are expensive to maintain and collect from. Often, the neighborhoods in which those phones are placed collude with them and actually demand that pay phones be removed, on the premise that pay phones are mostly used by, and therefore tend to attract, drug dealers and other criminals.

The first public phones, patented in 1891, were in actual walk-in closets, equipped with a desk, seat, paper, and pen. This was fairly quickly downgraded to a confessional-style bench and ledge, but still with a door and a flat surface suitable for taking notes on. More recently that was downgraded to a 3-sided, or 2-sided triangular, cubicle, with no door, in which privacy could be preserved only by facing into the corner. Flat horizontal surfaces were removed, leaving only the top of the telephone itself, which however was acutely slanted, apparently to discourage using it for taking notes. Now even the open-sided cubicle is gone, to be replaced, as noted above, by the phone-on-a-stick, or, more often, by absolutely nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. First, there are still a few pay phones in public places, mostly for emergency use or calling a cab. They are mostly set up and maintained by small local companies, rather than any of the Baby Bells and their offspring, and they are virtually unregulated. As a result, a friend of mine, a couple of years back, had occasion to be stranded at her hair stylist’s in a bad storm, so she used the pay phone on the premises to call home to ask for a ride. Not having any quarters available, she charged the call to her home phone. Later that month, she got the bill: nine dollars for a two-minute phone call to her home, four blocks away. “It would have been cheaper to take a cab,” she wailed.

The public phone has now mostly been replaced by the mobile phone. We presume that everybody has one. Indeed, an increasing proportion of the population has only a cell phone. Some of the younger generation may never even have used a “land line,” as the regular home-and-office phone is now retronymically called. It has even been replaced, for the purposes of anonymous and untraceable criminal communications, by the disposable prepaid cell phone, often used once or twice and then discarded and replaced by yet another. Sooner or later, no doubt, someone will pass a law requiring photo identification for purchasers of all such phones, but it hasn’t happened yet. So closing down phone booths did not solve the crime problem, it only made it harder for impecunious citizens to call the police, and gave the police a different criminal communication problem.

Well, now I’m noticing yet another area in which a public sector benefit is being privatized, at the expense of poor people—water. It was inevitable. First the great fascist-capitalist conspiracy convinced people that tap water, since it is provided by government, can’t possibly be good for you. Then they started bottling water (often, BTW, tap water) and selling it. The bottles are mostly plastic, and non-biodegradable. The water often comes from places that really can’t afford to export it, and is often sold in places that have more than enough of their own. ( See Holy Hydration, Batman! Florida’s Exporting Water!)

We have moved on to step #4. Public water fountains, in most public places, are no longer being maintained, and are often being removed altogether. Many otherwise cheap eateries are no longer serving water with meals, except when purchased in the bottle. Often, the excuse is given that water fountains attract homeless people. That is, people who cannot afford to buy water often quench their thirst at a sanitary public fountain, rather than waiting until it rains and then drinking out of the gutter. The nerve of some people!

Once again, this is the sin of Sodom. (See Panhandlers and the Jewish Tradition.) It is also the sin of the unhygienic late 19th century. Public water fountains were first installed around that time, to prevent the spread of disease from less sanitary water sources, such as mud puddles. We are likely to find out, fairly soon, why our ancestors made this decision, just as we are about to find out (due to the spread of antibiotic-resistant TB) why they made laws forbidding spitting on the sidewalk. Sometimes I think we should all just read a book about the Reformers of that period, since we are in the process of undoing most of their work.

What’s next? We have not yet figured out how to privatize air. And despite a great deal of work on the project, we have not yet made the Internet a completely pay-per-use resource. We haven’t figured out how to charge for the use of escalators and elevators, much less sidewalks. The Wired family welcomes any other bright ideas about public resources which can easily be privatized. Watch this space.

Red Emma


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