Honolulu’s Pay Phones Feel Like Relics From the Past
In various states of disrepair, they serve a purpose for international travelers and those without mobile phones.
I saw something strange the other day in Mō‘ili‘ili: a pay phone that looked to be in pretty good shape. That it was there wasn’t unusual—even though everyone has a cell phone nowadays, you still see quite a few public phones around town. The strange part was its condition. Most pay phones in Hawai‘i are in depressing shape: receivers missing, plastic shattered. They’re generally ruined beyond repair. But aside from some light graffiti, this one looked almost new, like it had been sent here from 2003.
When Honolulu’s pay phones are damaged or destroyed—sometimes literally collapsing through rusted legs—they aren’t replaced. A company called Viiz Communications, with its U.S. headquarters in Alabama, bought Hawai‘i’s pay phones from Hawaiian Telcom in 2017. As part of the sale, Viiz agreed to rebrand all of Hawai‘i’s pay phones and signage, which could have meant no more iconic blue boxes. But the company didn’t do that. In fact, it doesn’t look like the company’s done anything at all with the phones.
When I was younger, I never paid attention to public phones, until my high school friends and I realized you could call one for free if you knew the number. My buddies found it endlessly amusing to call the phone next to the bus stop in front of the McCully-Mō‘ili‘ili library at 6:30 a.m. That’s when they knew I’d be there, waiting for the No. 6 bus to Mānoa to get to school. They finally quit when another bus stop regular picked up the ringing phone one day and told them to get a life (which I found endlessly amusing). Later, we figured out that an electrical outlet, used to power the lightbulb that lit up the phones at night, was hidden behind the plastic cover directly above the phone. Whenever we needed power to recharge our cell phones, ironically, we would look for the nearest pay phone.
It wasn’t until I saw the movie Punch Drunk Love that I started appreciating Hawai‘i’s pay phones, especially compared to the drab silver and black boxes you see in other cities. In the film, Adam Sandler is making a call at the corner of Seaside and Kalākaua avenues in Waikīkī. It’s a frantic situation. Sandler’s character is yelling into the phone at his sister, while at the same time being crowded by onlookers as the Honolulu Festival parade goes by. The pay phone acts as an anchor, tethering our emotionally unstable protagonist to reality. With bright blue sides adorned in pink hibiscuses and green leaves, the phone is striking and almost looks like it was custom-built by the movie’s prop department.
Soon after I watched it in 2008, I began noticing these beauties all over the city. At the time, there were slightly more than 5,700 pay phones in Hawai‘i, according to the FCC. By 2016, that number was down to 3,615. That still placed Hawai‘i among the top five U.S. states for number of pay phones, behind New York, California, Texas and Pennsylvania. One reason we have so many could be the tourists—not all foreign travelers have cell phones with international data plans. Though how many pay phones actually work seems like anyone’s guess (my calls and emails to Viiz over a three-week period went unanswered). Maybe it’s too expensive to remove them. Or maybe Viiz just forgot about us out here.
The only thing I care about is that the phones are still around. For lack of a better term, they are aging in place. Even if most of our pay phones look way worse than the ones in Mō‘ili‘ili and Punch Drunk Love, and even if they don’t work at all, I think pay phones deserve space on our streets. Consider them public works of modern art or revered survivors of the Great Phone Wars. We’re already losing rainbow license plates. Leave us the hibiscus pay phones, please.