Some years ago I noticed a newly installed payphone outside a coffee shop on Broadway in Astoria. Payphones, even 6 or 7 years ago when this occurred, were typically being removed from service, not placed anew.

I picked up the handset of this Astoria payphone and wouldn’t you know it: No dial tone. Probably the first new payphone in Astoria in years and it was out of service right away.

I hung up the phone.

It started ringing.

Can a phone with no dial tone receive incoming calls?

The synthetic, chirpy sound of the ringing payphone faintly penetrated the street noises, inviting me to answer.

I picked up and said hello to a youngish-sounding woman. “This number just showed up on my phone,” she explained. I replied “This is a payphone. Someone must have tried to call you from here.”

“Who could it be?” she asked.

“I have no idea,” I responded.

“I’m confuuuuuuuused…”

She spoke quickly. I couldn’t hear her every word, but somehow she segued from the missed call to loneliness. She said she was lying in bed after waking from a “delicious dream”.

I was not seduced by this seemingly scripted, insincere encounter. Her delivery broke down. She became irritable.

I said nothing unkind. Offering to let the phone handset hang there, I suggested someone else might pick it up and talk to her.

Her voice, initially soft and coy, became sharp, and hard. She uttered obscenities. Through the phone I heard a man’s voice, yelling. A terrific racket erupted, as if dozens of pots and pans had fallen from a shelf.

The call ended.

I may never know what was going on that night. Was it a sting operation? A hooker’s unusual gambit for finding new customers? Reality TV programmers trying to trap passers-by into some sort of humiliation?

A week later the payphone was gone.

Mark Thomas lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at, and The Public Payphone Project where he has followed the changing world of public telephony since 1995.

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