You drove for hundreds of miles with a set of hand-written directions you obtained from a live but fallible human being. You navigated by a set of visual waypoints – counting light poles to turn offs, reading numbers on mailboxes, noting the colors of houses. Road trips were then endeavors of perception and faith. It mattered what exit, which billboard, what model of car was parked in what driveway. This was a time of the co-pilot, of sharp eyes and bird-like intuition. You held a fold-up Triple-A map in your hands and when things didn’t look right you stopped on the side of the road and laid the thing out over the hood of the car. There was that tense moment of deliberation about that last left or the mile-marker you surely missed but if things got hopeless you always had the coin-operated phone.
You could find them reliably at a truck-stop or a service station but sometimes the search for a working version became an adventure in itself. Even if you found one there was the matter of the dimes, which sometimes you’d have to dig for between the seat cushions or bum from a stranger. You might have the number of the party who could guide you safely to your destination or might have to dial information, which was another live human being who you could, miraculously, get through to without ever being asked to make a selection or being placed on hold. Sometimes you got a busy signal, so you’d have to wait for awhile in the rain or the cold to try again, and sometimes there’d be no answer at all. The phone would ring on and on. You might go back and take another crack at the directions or stop to ask a friendly passerby. Communication was far from reliable or instantaneous. But somehow you got by on your wits alone.
I present to you a clean, working pay-phone complete with a copy of the Yellow Pages, should you require a florist, a plumber or a tow. When I saw this it was as if I had stumbled upon a hand-operated water pump. When I picked up the receiver there was a sound emanating from the earpiece I had not heard since the turn of last century. I felt like an alien discovering Mozart on the Golden Record in the Viking Explorer. And in that moment, through that sound, I remembered all those times I fumbled for change, feeding dime after dime into the clacking, clinking mechanism, the feel of the rotary dial, the sound of far-away tones and voices, all who were happy to hear from me, all who were waiting for this call, and who understood that it was costing me money and time, so there was an economy of language, a way of speaking that seemed to be more personal, more direct, like a pilot talking to the control tower on the radio, because there was always the imminency of being cut off, of running out of time; you held your free hand over your ear to muffle the background noise of passing cars, your cupped hand over the mouthpiece to cut the wind, the handset cradled between your ear and your shoulder and that distinct smell of molded plastic, the smell of the phone, and the breathy quality of your voice as you said that last I love you in the glare of the oncoming headlights. You’d say what you had to say, you’d clarify the directions or reassure your mother you were alright, and you’d hang up, and the dime would fall clink, clink into the coin box and you’d snap the handset back in the cradle and unconsciously poke your finger into the change slot to feel for some forgotten Roosevelt dime. And you’d drive on.