Call Me

Patrick Merewether

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.

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."

When a journalist who lives on my block called that number, he reached the complaint line for the Colorado Payphone Association. But the representative who answered couldn't tell him who my owner is, why he installed me here or how many complaints have been made about me. The woman passed his questions on to association president Frank Semone, but when Semone called back, not even he could say who my owner is. You see, the hotline just takes the complaints. Semone actually has to go research the phone's owner and then try to solve the problem.

"Years ago, there were a lot of people using the phones as drug phones, and there were a lot of complaints, so we worked out with the cities to put that sign on there," Semone says. "We have received maybe three complaints in the past year and a half to two years. We've been very surprised. We used to get complaints weekly, and then they just quit. Now drug dealers are primarily using cell phones."

And that's affecting his business. He's down to eighteen members from fifty, when pay phones like me were making bank. "The first prerequisite to getting into the pay-phone business is you have to be very dumb," Semone says. "It's not a good idea. The reason I'm still in business and the other members are in business is that they've been in the business for a lot of years, so they've got locations that are viable and continue to be viable. Most of our locations are in truck stops and service stations, where credit-challenged people will use a pay phone. That's where we put the pay phones now. We're not building them; we're just maintaining them."

Shortly after the reporter spoke with Semone, my owner suddenly claimed me. It seems Semone buzzed him about my little dilemma. His name is Arthur Boerner, and he owns about 180 phones in the area. He put me here in November exactly because it's a credit-challenged area. "I know the location because there's a lot of people who walk the streets. The street is just loaded with people," Boerner says. "The phone isn't the problem. The assholes using it are the problem."

Well, I'm glad to know he doesn't blame me. In fact, he says he's planning to kill incoming calls and put a smart-phone device on me in the next week so that I can get some sleep between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Still, how long I'll last is anybody's guess. The cops have started coming down hard on the longstanding and thriving crack trade centered around the intersection of 13th and Pearl, and the net result has apparently been to scatter the crack dealers and their customers. Boerner wishes I could be some sort of secret-agent man for the DPD. You know, make him some cash while the cops use me to target people.

"Why can't the police use it as a tool?" Boerner asks. "They'd be free to monitor my phone rather than pushing the crack from neighborhood to neighborhood."

But that's just the way the crack game is played. One crackhouse closes, another opens five blocks away. One corner goes cold, another heats up. The problem's never solved, it's simply shifted. Just ask us pay phones.

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