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Walking home from work last night, I noticed a man disembowelling the Headlands payphone. I assumed that since it was broad daylight and no one was reacting that he was, in fact, expected, and I approached him to see what he was doing.

“Switching out the payphone, eh,” I said.

“Yup,” he replied.

“Er…is it because we broke it, or…?”

It turns out that the phone company is getting out of the payphone industry, and that local businesses who want to keep payphones are going through private contractors now. This is happening all over the country, actually, and it spells a slow death for the payphone. I have a friend who runs an entire site about payphones all over the world. It’s quite a thing.

This gentleman was replacing the housing of the payphone, removing the SBC branding for a company that is a little unclear from the labeling.

the Headlands Coffeehouse payphone

The man and I chatted for a little while, about the payphone industry and payphones in Mendocino County, and then it occurred to me to ask:

“So…the number’s still going to be the same, right?”

“Actually, no,” he said. “Incoming calls won’t even be accepted on this phone.”

I felt a sad pang go through me at that thought, because the Headlands payphone is a staple of my life. When I moved back to town and didn’t have a phone yet, I gave out the Headlands number on employment applications, and when I got my first job in Fort Bragg, I found out standing in the pouring rain at the Headlands phone. The DMV still thinks it’s my phone number.

“Call me at Headlands,” we’d say, meaning the payphone, not the business.

Or we’d call down to see who was there, sometimes, on cold nights when we weren’t sure when we wanted to go outside. Bad news was delivered on the payphone, long distance counseling was made, parents looked for their children…it was a community hub.

When I went to Ireland, I called back to the payphone to check on all my friends. Others did the same–when the phone rings, you never know who it might be or what adventure might be in store. The payphone number has deep personal meaning to so many of us that I kind of feel…violated by the change. A very close friend even has the payphone number tattooed on his arm–that’s how much it means to us.

“No incoming calls? And the number is changing?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s funny, a lot of people have asked me about that while I’m working here. This payphone must be something special to some people.”

“Yeah,” I said, slightly embarassed that I was tearing up a bit. “The payphone means a lot to us all.”

It’s hard for me to explain what the Headlands payphone means to us…you either know, or you don’t, and if you know, today is a sad day.

“Well,” he replied, “I think the city is worried about loitering, you know…”

“I can understand that, but I suspect the loitering will continue.”

“Yes,” he said, looking around, “I can see that.”

We stood looking at each other for a moment while he jiggled wires.

“Well,” he said, “tell you what, I’m going to talk to someone at the City about this. Maybe we can make an exception.”

“Really? That would be awesome, if you did that.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I’ll try to email them when I’m in the office next week.”

I wandered off into the night, thinking about the years I’d had with my old friend. (I asked for the old housing, but he said I couldn’t have it.) I think I’ll call City Hall as well (707.961.2823) to lobby for the restoration of incoming calls on the Headlands payphone–I encourage you all to do the same. I realize it may not be possible to retain the number, but incoming calls at Headlands are an important part of our cultural heritage and our very existence–something which I hate to see disappear.

Farewell, old friend. Our years together were long and wonderful…I know we’ll meet on the other side.

Headlands Coffeehouse payphone

[payphone]