Call Me

Lament of a crack-shack phone booth.

All day and all night, I stand here, never moving, on the same sad patch of trampled grass while strangers use me. Eight minutes for 35 cents. A lot of the folks in my 'hood don't even pay; they just stick their grubby fingers in my slot and root around for spare change. If I could talk, I'd say something like, "Yo, dumbass, don't you know every drunk, tweaker and rock-smoker on this block checks my slot damn near every hour on the hour? What do you think the chances are of you being the lucky one who gets the free quarter? Get a job."

But, of course, every 200th or 300th time, there does happen to be a forgotten coin, and they snatch it up and grin like they just won something. It's like I'm the Capitol Hill dope-fiend lottery or some shit.

You see, I'm a crack-shack pay phone. A Bell-style, Elecotel Series-5, custom retrofitted phone with refurbished circuit board and outdoor enclosure. I'm old-school. But my owner's no old fool. He picked me up used for probably $500, maybe $600, and he's going to be clocking about half that much every month. My number is 303-831-0679, and, yes, I accept incoming calls. If a voice answers, you know they're looking for something, because a recording tells them that before they can talk, they must "deposit 35 cents for eight minutes." My owner charges you coming and going.

Patrick Merewether

You might think I'm a member of a dying breed. I mean, who needs pay phones when everyone's got a mobile? But in poor neighborhoods, pay phones are money. People can't afford mobile phones or even home phone lines. They can't pass credit checks, so they use pay phones. Also, in poor neighborhoods, drug dealers do their thing on the street. And street drug dealers love pay phones. Drug dealers in Denver's better neighborhoods do their thing in LoDo lofts and Congress Park bungalows -- but then, they know all their customers personally, and that's a kinder, gentler battleground in the War on Drugs.

Street drug dealers, at least the smart ones, understand that conversations over mobile phones are easy to monitor, and that if some joint Denver Police Department/ Drug Enforcement Administration task force ever wanted to get all hunt-for-Osama on their ass, they could use satellites to turn mobile phones into homing beacons.

That's why they use me. And they use me a lot. Sometimes there's so many thugged-up-looking dudes lined up to make a call, it's like I'm the only phone in a holding cell. But sometimes the dealers don't actually pay to use me to conduct deals. They just turn my receiver upside down or take it off the hook and leave it dangling to signal that the shit's there, or the shit's not there, or the shit's on its way, or whatever else is going on with the shit. They are somewhat considerate of my surroundings, though: Instead of throwing their cigarette butts everywhere, they use a red New Orleans Famous French Market Coffee and Chicory can for an ashtray.

The building I'm stationed in front of is called The Palisade, which I think means cliff, and if I could move, I'd find one to jump off. Because I'm sick of people yelling into me at three in the morning, all "I need my shit man! Come on, where's my shit?" and then slamming down my receiver. Yo, I'm plastic and wires, man, why you doing me like that? That's just cold. You need to be nicer to your crackhouse pay phone.

The Palisade is just a cheap, run-down apartment complex, studios only, $425 a month, utilities included -- but not refrigerators. You have to rent those. Not everyone who lives there is a crackhead or deals crack, but some do. I hear them making deals. I see the crackheads coming and going at all hours. Late at night, I can smell the smoke coming from their windows, and I can see them sucking those glass dicks when they leave their shades up.

But right next door is a fairly nice complex, where 711-square-foot condos sell for $135,000 and a one-bedroom rents for $850. The alley between the two buildings is littered with dirty mattresses, glass vials, scorched Brillo pads -- all the usual crack-shack accoutrements. In the summer, there were these dudes living on the Palisade's south side, second floor, who were smokers and dealers, and they had this system rigged up where they'd raise and lower a bucket to conduct transactions. But these paranoid, spun-out fools also rigged motion-sensor security lights outside their apartment window. Anytime anybody came by to buy crack at, say, 4 a.m., the whole alley lit up like a prison yard during a jail break.

I figure my only hope of getting out of here is if the neighbors in the nicer buildings bring the heat. But bring it on who? Although Qwest owns most of Colorado's 22,595 pay phones, the rest are independently owned. There are no regulations on where pay phones can be placed, and the police don't have the power to remove me. Only my owner does. And he's a little hard to identify. There's a little red sticker on the inside of my casing that reads: "NOTICE: For complaints regarding the possible illicit or illegal use of this pay phone, please call 303-804-5702."

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