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Rodman payphone a silent testimony to the loss of a once-frequent object

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The pay phone stands, as lonely and unloved as an old tree stump, along a sidewalk to nearly nowhere on Main Street in Rodman.

The old Citizens Telecom sign on it has been disfigured in a desultory fashion, as if done while someone was trying to resurrect a relationship with a love no longer listening. There is a dial tone, if you’re willing to play with the disconnect lever a little, and there was, both times I visited it, a dime sitting on the ledge, a little like the old mason jar of water used to prime little-used pumps. Add four dimes to that, and you can make a local call.

The pay phone is there and it works, but even the company that operates it isn’t exactly sure why it is there. Citizens Telecom changed its name to Frontier Communications in 2008, but no one at Frontier seems to know why Rodman has a Main Street pay phone.

“I’m not sure why there is one in Rodman. Historically, it could have been required off a tariff review,” Frontier regional representative Claudia Maroney said.

Across the nation, pay phones have been in steep decline. Two telecommunications giants, AT&T and Verizon, gave up pay phone service a decade or more ago. Frontier, which along with other parts of New York serves a swath of the north country in mostly Oswego and Southern Jefferson counties, only has 4,000 pay phones in the state — 3,000 of them in the greater Rochester area. The rest are spread across Frontier’s primarily rural territories, Ms. Maroney said.

Nationwide, the advance of mobile phone technology and use has eviscerated the pay phone industry. The federal government deregulated pay phones in the mid-1990s, spawning thousands of pay phone “networks” that ranged from several thousand to a handful of stations, owned and operated by big companies in some cases and the guy down the block in others. In 2000, by the Federal Communications Commission’s count, there were 2 million pay phones nationwide. That number is now on the south side of 200,000.

Everyone who has an opinion on the demise of the pay phone seems to have the same opinion.

“As to the recent past and future of pay phones, they are a victim of what we all have taken for granted and use millions of times each day ... a cell phone or smartphone,” Verizon spokesman John Bonomo said in an email. For more insight, he referred me to the Independent Pay Phone Association of New York.

So I called their number. It appears that it is no longer in service — at least not in any practical sense. The listed website — www.ipany.com — can now be purchased for less than $1,400 (having been abandoned by its former owner).

Ms. Maroney defends Frontier’s commitment to pay phones, noting the company remains “sensitive to areas of rural New York, especially remote areas where cell phone service can be sporadic.”

Both emergency and number retrieval calls are free and essential on pay phones, for example. And though they are becoming more quaint every day, calling cards still exist.

And while no one mentioned it, there have been no revelations that the National Security Agency or any other government groups monitor pay phone calls.

As for the phone in Rodman, it’s hard to find anyone who has taken notice of it — a call to the town hall number was answered by a woman manning the library who didn’t want to give me her name, and when asked if she’d ever seen anyone using the pay phone on Main Street said “I don’t believe there is one, is there?”

The library is about 150 yards from the phone.

There is one website — www.payphone-project.com — that is dedicated to the pay phone. It has pictures, essays and upates on all things pay phone. And it has a directory of pay phone numbers that, while not verified by anyone, is entertaining. Type in Ogdensburg, NY, and you come up with four numbers: at Standard Shade Roller, American Computer, J.T. Philips Insurance and the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority. None of those numbers is in service.

So then I called eight more numbers that were listed as pay phones in various villages and hamlets around the north country. Five were not in service. One was disconnected (there is apparently a distinction between “not in service” and “disconnected”), one was indeed at the business listed, Stash’s Pub in Lowville, but was not a pay phone. And the last, which was supposed to be at a well-known restaurant in Massena, was answered by a very nice lady who was aghast that a website would list her home number as a pay phone.

But, in keeping with the general theme of this story, she said I was the first to ask her if it was a pay phone. As pay phone numbers go, it apparently isn’t getting any traffic.

“Oh, gosh, no. You’re kidding me, right?” she said when I said I was calling a number listed as a pay phone in Massena. I assured her that I was not. I told her I would warn that if you see a listing for a pay phone in a well-known restaurant in Massena, don’t call it.

There is no listing on the Payphone Project website for Rodman. Likewise, the only one for Watertown, allegedly at the North Pole Fire Department, is out of service. And I have to admit, finding pay phones in the city and its environs is not that easy. There is one at one entrance to the Route 3 Walmart (on the city side, not on the Hounsfield side) and there is one in the Price Chopper on Arsenal Street.

I could not, however, find one in any of the public areas at Samaritan Medical Center. This is a building that has signs conspicuously posted against mobile phone use.

And when I asked Gene Hayes, the city of Watertown superintendent of public works, if he knew of any pay phones on city property, there was a pregnant pause.

“Hmmm,” he said at last. “I sure don’t know of any.”

Gradually, like the dying off of an endangered species, pay phones are sliding from the sight lines of our daily lives. To the degree that Rodman residents don’t remember, without being reminded, that there is one in their midst.

I stopped at the Rodman pay phone last week to get the number. I thought I’d call it every once in a while, see if anyone answered. Sadly, there is no number posted on the that lonely phone. But the seed dime that I saw there last fall was still on the shelf, waiting to prime a pump that is very nearly dry.

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