Maybe it had something to do with the ubiquitous Omicron variant of COVID, but I dreamed the other night that I was a young reporter wondering if it would be safe to use a public phone booth to dictate a story.
This sentence is strange on many levels. I haven’t been a young reporter in, well, almost an eternity. Most people, maybe even some in the news world, have never had to dictate a story over the phone. And I can’t even guess the last time anyone saw a phone booth.
They were once as common as roadside rest areas, the undeveloped kind. Every town, regardless of size, had at least one or two telephone booths conveniently located on a street corner. I remember using one in downtown Philip late one October night to drop an article in the Sioux Falls newsroom about a playoff football game that had just ended. And I used one on a sidewalk outside a beer store in White Clay, Nebraska, once to dictate a story to the Associated Press office in Minneapolis during the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
I didn’t think of using the public phone booths. In fact, there weren’t many other ways to reach people with the latest news. Cell phones wouldn’t arrive for 40 years. When they did, I thought they would be a rarely used convenience that would make the job of journalists easier. I had no idea that they would become one of life’s necessities for many people. I certainly didn’t know they would replace in-person banking, printed newspapers, cameras, portable radios and so many other things. I thought they would be a bit like phone booths except a guy could use them from the car instead of locking himself in a small glass box on a sidewalk in plain sight of anyone passing by .
If I had to use a phone booth today, I would consider the COVID aspect of it. I mean, who knows who might have used the thing? I have never been in a phone booth with an air handler. Wouldn’t be good for an airborne virus situation, would it? So yes, I would be concerned.
Funny thing, though. I should have been equally worried at the time. Like any other public telephone user, I would enter the booth, close the door to limit outside noise, grab the same receiver that all the other users had been handling, drop a coin in the slot, or call the operator for a call collect and go about my business. Who knew what germs were hanging around, just waiting for an unsuspecting human? I could have grabbed anything anyone else in the phone booth user world was carrying.
Dictating a story under those conditions meant holding the receiver in one hand, my notebook in the other, and trying to speak slowly, clearly, and loudly enough that the person on the other end of the line didn’t have to repeat: “Repeat that”. last phrase.”
I remember one time in Gregory where I used a phone booth in the pouring rain to dictate an update to an ongoing story involving a legal dispute over a $12 million lottery ticket. The stand sat on the curb, just outside a cafe. The wind howled. The rain was beating against the glass. I didn’t wear hearing aids yet. I should have been. I dictated well enough for the person typing the notes. It was me who asked, “Repeat this question, please.”
Looking back, it seems like a romantic time to be a journalist. There on your own, get creative with your methods of bringing the story back to the home office, hang up the phone and rush to the nearby cafe for a burger before hitting the road home. Who wouldn’t love that kind of life, huh? All seasoned reporters knew the location of every public phone booth and kept track of which ones were out of service at all times.
Romantic, you bet. But I wouldn’t trade my cell phone for every phone booth in the country.