The Payphone

A man wearing a navy paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses pedaled his bike to the corner, stepped over his seat, and coasted on one foot to the bike rack at the side of the liquor store. He slotted his front wheel in the rack, strode four steps over to the unsheltered public payphone, lifted the handset, inserted a quarter, dialed the number to his daughter on the east end of town, and waited. He needed to call her Tuesday, today, to see if his cheque had arrived. His watch said 4:42 p.m.

No dial tone started, nothing, until he heard an automated woman’s voice say in her cold, impersonal way, “Credit twenty-five cents. Please deposit twenty-five cents.”

Below each face, he stenciled Gentrify and Prosper.

The man forgot that the phone company raised the price by one-hundred percent, to fifty cents. He patted his pants pockets, checked his jacket, checked the sidewalk, even checked the pouch attached to his bicycle, and couldn’t find a quarter. He couldn’t find two dimes and a nickel. He couldn’t find anything. There was no one around for several blocks to ask for change.

“Fuck sakes!” the man cursed. He slammed the phone against the liquor store’s brick wall, breaking the earpiece off. He dropped the receiver and biked away.

*    *     *

A person in a black hoodie emerged from the alley, hood up, carrying a plastic grocery bag and wearing scuffed up sneakers. Their shadow was cast across the sidewalk by the amber light of the streetlamp. They walked with purpose, more purpose than most people tend to walk with in midday, and this was midnight. The person stayed close to the building, did a double-take of the cross traffic, pulled a can of aerosol out of the grocery bag, and spray-painted a stencil of the mayor’s face with Spock ears on the east side, west side, bottom side, and top side of the payphone that sat next to the liquor store. Below each face, he stenciled Gentrify and Prosper. Before the last of the particles of paint had settled like dew, the person was around the corner and halfway up the block.

*    *     *

A young professional in a pantsuit walked towards a downtown traffic light. For the first time in many passes by on her way to work, she noticed a payphone near the crosswalk and wondered if it had always been there. It must’ve always been there, she thought, they don’t put new ones in. She then wondered when the last time she used a payphone was. High school, maybe. Traffic whirred past, a bus mirror nearly hit a waiting pedestrian. She felt her phone buzz in her purse, pulled it out, texted, omg, prolly gonna barf at work today, lol??to someone named Sheri, and put her phone back in her purse. A man sitting on a walker next to the liquor store entrance was asking for spare change. Sheri’s friend turned her head and the WALK signal appeared.

*    *     *

A young mom parked her baby’s stroller against the brick wall of the building, picked up the receiver, dropped in two quarters, took a deep breath, and dialed the number to her mother. She took the dirty diaper from the back of the stroller, looked for a garbage can, and when there was none around, set it on top of the phone box. The dial tone hummed four separate tones. Each sound was a breath where she hoped that her own mother would answer the phone, and not Gene. Please, not Gene.

A tubby twelve-year-old boy and his orange-haired friend skipped out on third period social studies to go to the mall for burgers with money the redhead took out of his dad’s wallet.

“Hello,” her mom answered the phone.

“Mom, it’s Kyla.”

“You should know better than to call here, girl. Are you in town? When’d you get here?”

“Mom, I need to get my stuff,” Kyla sobbed.

“Well you should’ve thought’ve that before you stole my $500 and skipped town!”

“Mom, I can explain. It’s Gene, he—”

“Ha! Yeah sure, Gene took it. Heard that before. I’ma send him down there to get my grandbaby back. Treena should be with me. You’re downtown aren’t you? You’re downtown. Hell, he’ll find you in ten minutes, and you can bet your skinny little—” Kyla pressed the phone’s lever with her free hand, righted baby Treena’s bottle in her tiny mouth, let go of the lever, inserted more change, pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket, and dialed the number on it.

“Hello?” an irritable woman’s voice answered, TV loud in the background.

“Hi, I’m calling about the basement suite.”

“Are you working? This apartment is for people who are working only,” the woman said, and then coughed.

“I’m a mom, my baby is only six months. But I’ll be looking for a job soon.”

“Oh, I’ve rented to your kind before. And you know what I got for it? A trashed basement, a buncha visits from the police, and a trip to the rentalsman. Never again.” And the woman hung up.

Kyla pressed the phone’s lever one last time, inserted her last two quarters, and dialed another number.

“Can I get a cab to the mall downtown. Coachman Motel. For Kyla.” She grabbed the stroller, left the receiver dangling from its metal cord, and got her baby as far away as possible from where Gene was going to be.

*    *     *

A tubby twelve-year-old boy and his orange-haired friend skipped out on third period social studies to go to the mall for burgers with money the redhead took out of his dad’s wallet. They hadn’t skipped social studies all year; it was boring, all about the history of the RCMP and how they helped an inspired Sir John A. Macdonald found the nation. Today was a good day to skip; the class was going to the library, so the teacher wouldn’t even notice.

“Hey Tim, check this out!” the tubby boy said to his friend. He picked up the receiver and dialed 9-1-1 on the payphone next to the liquor store in the shadows of the tall downtown buildings. He immediately hung up the phone with his finger and continued to talk to no one.

“I need a firetruck to the downtown area because Tim here’s a firecrotch!” He hung up the phone and the boys laughed and felt invincible until the payphone rang. The tubby kid froze and almost shit. Tim answered the phone.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

 “Uh, sorry, wrong number,” he said in the most adult voice he could muster.

“If this is not an emergency, we’d like to remind you that fraudulently calling Emergency Response is a chargeable offence in section—” Tim hung up the phone as slowly and quietly as he possibly could and they sprinted through the red-light intersection to take cover in the mall food court.

*    *     *

“Hey sis, it’s Lester!” Lester wheezed, putting his calling card back in his wallet, and taking a seat on his walker. “No, no, I’m not drinking. Just calling to say hello. How’s everything going down there? Oh yeah. Haha. That sounds about right. Did you find a man yet? Haha, I know, I know, you gave up on men twenty years ago. Me? No, I haven’t found a man neither, haha. No. No. I’m good. I’m great. I just got a place to live and a few workers come around to help me clean up. Just last week! Yeah, it’s a nice place, real beautiful, you should see it. Got a bathroom, stove, TV. Joey said he’ll visit once a week. He’s a good brother. Brought me a pizza yesterday. You know, I remember in 1972, Joey said, ‘Brother, come eat with me’ and I said, ‘What the hell is that thing?’—It was the first time I saw pizza.

“What’s that? Kyla? No, haven’t seen her ‘round the city. When’d she leave town? Oh ok. I’ll tell her to call if I see ‘er.

“Can you drink the water down there yet? Still gotta boil, eh? Well if you ever need water, they don’t charge me for it in my new apartment. Come fill up your truck.

“Ok, sis. Alright. Ok. I’ll be going here for supper. I should be getting a phone in my place soon. Love you too. Say hi to John and his boys. Bye.” Lester hung up the receiver, got up from his walker, and rolled his way eastwards for supper.

*    *     *

The payphone rang as a woman in a sari walked past. She waited at the traffic light and the phone continued to ring. It rang and rang and the traffic light stayed red. Eventually, thinking it might be an emergency, she walked over to pick it up.

“Hello?” she answered.

“Is Kyla there? Kyla, is that you?” The woman in the sari didn’t move and didn’t breathe.

“Kyla, your auntie just called and they’re looking for you too. Gene’s coming to find you. He’s the one who told me you took the money, so don’t even—” The woman in the sari silently hung up the phone and scanned the block nervously. She tip-toed across the street with her bus pass clenched in her right hand.

*    *     *

A jazzy-looking man walked by in a pair of cowboy boots, crisp rodeo-cut jeans, button-up shirt, and slicked-back hair. He noticed the phone was broken, but he pushed the lever down and released it. The phone read Tues Apr 07 17:13.

*    *     *

A pasty-faced man in a fur-collared denim jacket strutted out of the liquor store and around the corner, stuffing a wad of bills in his back pocket, a brown paper bag with swishing contents under his arm.

A balding man younger than thirty parked a bullet-silver car on the street. He looked up in the direction of a new establishment on the corner. It was a previously dilapidated building that had sat empty for a decade, now refurbished and turned into one of those new olde style pubs. It was located across the street from the liquor store and next to that old Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai/Szechwan restaurant called Steve’s Saigon. The pub attracted a downtown business crowd by advertising a Happy Hour with cheap draught on Tuesdays. The balding man was meeting a friend for a cheap draught. It was Tuesday. Crossing the street, the balding man locked the car with a remote and it beeped. He pushed the button again and the car beeped again. He didn’t usually drink on what he thought was an up-and-coming side of downtown.

He looked across the street as he pocketed his keys and saw an old man he didn’t know, Lester, sitting on his walker in the middle of an empty lot. On the lot was a sign that said CITY PROPERTY NO PARKING. The balding man thought Lester might get a ticket, and then laughed. He saw Lester tip over in his walker and fall straight to the ground. The balding man stood still, watched for a while to see if Lester would right himself. There was no movement. The balding man went to his pocket to grab his phone and realized it was at home next to the toilet. He looked around, saw a payphone and walked to it. He went to grab the receiver to call an ambulance, but the area around the phone smelled something like urine, there was a dirty diaper on top of the unit, spray paint on the receiver, and the earpiece was shattered. He looked around, saw a couple holding hands walking towards the empty lot, and figured they would make the necessary call. He crossed the street and headed to the new establishment. His friend, outside smoking a cigarette, greeted him, “Hey Blaine!” Blaine and his friend entered the establishment and ordered a cheap draught.

*    *     *

A pasty-faced man in a fur-collared denim jacket strutted out of the liquor store and around the corner, stuffing a wad of bills in his back pocket, a brown paper bag with swishing contents under his arm. He checked the payphone. The earpiece was busted so she couldn’t have called from here, he thought, and he headed towards her ex-boyfriend’s place a few blocks east where she probably called from. There was a police cruiser pulled up to the empty lot just east of the liquor store, with two cops heaving Lester into the back, so the man hid his pasty-face behind the collar of his denim jacket and skulked away in the other direction, towards the mall.

*    *     *

The sun rose on a quiet downtown, edging over the buildings to shine light on the corner of the liquor store and the payphone on its south side. A white service van pulled up next to the curb and put on its hazard lights. A man opened the back doors, rooted around in a few tool kits, and made his way to the damaged payphone, number IA-5291. The man dismantled the outer casing with a socket set and flathead screwdriver. He used a power drill to unbolt it from the concrete sidewalk.

The man in the paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses came up on his bicycle again.

“You finally fixing this damn thing?” he asked.

“Nope. Taking it down,” the serviceman said. “It’s been severely damaged six times this year already, so I was told to remove it. They just don’t get used enough to justify repairs.” The man in the bandana cursed audibly, got on his bike and pedaled to the mall where the next closest payphone was. He had found his dime and three nickels.

The serviceman unhooked the phone line at the bottom of the stand and capped the hole in the concrete with an iron cap stamped with the company’s logo. He lifted the phone box into the back of his service van, grabbed his phone from his pocket, marked the job as complete on the company’s work-order phone application, got in the van, and drove to the mall to collect quarters.


Nicholas Olson is the author of A Love Hat Relationship, a photobook of collectable prairie hats; and a series of illustrated zines with accompanying audiobook narrations. More can be found at He lives in Treaty 4 Territory.