The Mojave Phone Booth

Just as my generation never knew of the automat except in cultural history books, the current crop of young adults likely has no first-hand experience with public coin-operated telephones. Given that cellphones are ubiquitous, who now would ever need to drive around town looking for [one of the very few extant] coin-op examples on which to make a call? Were it not for Maxwell Smart reruns, Bill & Ted, retro Superman comics, and Dr Who, I doubt anyone younger than 40 would even know that payphones and their booths once existed @ drug stores, bus stations, libraries, and street corners nationwide.

As I prepare for my own relocation to a far-away desert location in coming months, two observations are unavoidable. First, truth really is stranger than fiction. And second, the American Southwest is a very odd place.

the Mojave Phone Booth

the Mojave Phone Booth

Enter the Mojave phone booth.

California instituted a network of what were called ‘policy stations’ after WWII in an attempt to bring infrastructure – in this case, telephone service – to remote parts of the state. A public phone booth was installed in 1948 not far from the Cima Cinder Mine in eastern San Bernadino County. This was done at the behest of one Emerson Ray, owner of the mine, in order to provide payphone service to the (very few) local employees in the area. The phone booth was located at the intersection of two remote dirt roads – 35° 16′ 40” North, 115° 43′ 53” West, to be exact – eight miles from the nearest pavement, and fifteen miles from the nearest numbered road.

At first, the phone inside the booth was a hand-cranked magneto, but that was replaced by a rotary coin-op in the 1960s, and then a touch-tone model in the 1970s.

The only problem? The mine closed.

The phone and booth remained.

In the late 1990s, the nascent Internet took notice of the isolated booth, located inside what had since become the Mojave National Preserve. A hiker from Los Angeles spied a ‘telephone icon’ on his map of the expanse and, in disbelief, decided to visit the site. Yes, there it was. He made note of the phone’s number, and when he got back to LA, wrote an article for an underground paper telling of his adventure and publishing the number. Before long, a reader created a website dedicated to the phone, and soon fans were calling the number. Others went to see the phone and to answer any incoming calls; a reporter from the Los Angeles Times visited and found a man camped there who had been at the site for a month and had answered over 500 incomings, including one from an individual who identified himself as “Sergeant Zeno at the Pentagon.”

The booth, in the middle of nowhere, became covered in graffiti, and detritus of the visitors from all around the world littered the site. Its days were numbered. PacBell removed it on 17 May 2000 at the request of the National Park Service, largely because of vocal environmentalists unhappy with the effects of all of the increased traffic.

PacBell is said to have destroyed the booth. A headstone-like plaque was installed on the empty site, but that was later removed by the park service as well… but not before an eponymous indy rock back, short film (Dead Line), documentary (Mojave Mirage), full-length movie (Mojave Phone Booth), and extensive coverage by National Public Radio guaranteed the phone’s pop-cultural apotheosis.

All is not lost. The phone booth’s number is no longer owned by PacBell, instead having been acquired by a small regional provider. And that number now rings into a conference call, sometimes. The idea is that strangers can once again connect just as when the phone booth was still active. But if there is no one else on the line, it’s often just static.

BTW, the number is (760) 733-9969. And if you get through, ask for Sergeant Zeno.

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