From Phone to Loo

Recycled Booths May
Help When Nature Calls

Cellphones are so ubiquitous these days, a 10-year old would need to text message his friends for help using a phone booth. If he’d be lucky enough to find one still working, they’d probably ask, “What do you mean by pay phone?”
Times, they are a-changing, Mr. Jones. You rarely see the man in uniform collecting quarters, pockets heavy with change. Or old timers talking about a nickel a call. Or get to dial Butterfield 8 for pizza. Just like in the movies.
Enters John Long (yep, his real name) and a common-sense idea: “phone boxes” recycled into toilets. He’s just finished his own private “cabin in the woods,” all amenities included – running water, frosted glass panes and a heater – and, with its overhead flushing tank, a charming old fashioned look too.
Hey, you’d say, that could work here. Manhattan is notorious around the world for its chronic lack of public toilets. And for that unfriendly and equally ubiquitous sign, “Restrooms for Customers Only.” We’re all for change, but with a few (no smoking) “buts.”
England’s red booths or Brazil’s fiber glass domes known as “big ears,” for example, were once hailed as stylish urban designing statements, whether they held operational or broken down phones inside. But in New York, the only four still working booths left are, with all due respect, plain ugly.
In fact, their brutal, industrial, greyish metallic design would please no one but many a budding cinéaste who’d found them hum, intriguing. Public phones are now reduced to a transparent three-wall open cabin. Whether security or economics dictated their minimalist appearance, no one knows. What’s certain is, few will miss when they’re gone for good.
And whatever happened to those elegant wood-paneled booths of Grand Central Terminal where Cary Grant made a clever call on “North by Northwest?” Maybe they’re stored in some Queens warehouse. Still, they’d require extensive reconstruction work to withstand the elements.
The ideal candidates, of course, would be the ones that did withstand Clark Kent’s metamorphosis into Superman. Granted, he was superfast and superneat, but there was always a crime to solve and no time to spare, so we imagine them sturdy as they come. A few tinted windows and some plumbing and Shazam! (sorry, wrong superhero call), you’d have some much needed relief stations.
But those might as well be stored at the Fortress of Solitude.
To be fair, there’re some new, high-tech public toilets popping up throughout the city. There’s even a toilet paper company that puts some up during certain times of the year. Great, if calls of nature were seasonal. So, as with a lot of other things, something different, and probably not recycled, would have to do it for New York.
Widespread cellphone use is also doing away with architect Chu Ming Silveira’s big ears, known as “orelhao” and used in Brazil since the 1970s. The same decommissioning is going on in India and other places. Except when they’re being recycled into yet something else, like public library outposts, DVD rental places, Internet access cabins, and even Google voice mail stations.
So, more power to Mr. Long, even though he transformed only one phone booth and for his own backyard. His idea is bound to be picked up by some government agency though. Make that sooner rather than later. If for nothing else, at least to prevent the quasi-obsolete booths from being used as, well, toilets.

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