It was once a scarlet utopia, a few cubic meters of privacy and potential, an inter-county conduit for teenage flirtation, a tight little room that acted as a doorway to your dreams.
Even Superman loved it, choosing that tight little hole to swap his grey creases for a bright blue cat suit under shocking red pants. You could walk to the corner of the street, or the bus stop in your village, and there it would be, your link to wherever in the world was partying harder and living faster than you. The red phone box was a small reminder that the world didn’t stop where you hung your school uniform and curled your yearning arms around your favourite teddy.
It would be remiss of me to peer back at this twentieth-century oddity with rose-tinted glasses. The old red box came with its pitfalls. It was bigoted at times, whimsically rejecting coins as it saw fit. Cunning old fox recognised a face too, you’d see that if you tried the same failed coin for the second time it would just spit it right back at you and all you could do in return was tap your foot to the rhythmic tin echoes emanating from that rusty little coin return.
Chances are noise wouldn’t be the only thing emanating from that coin return. Then, as now, people just don’t respect the things that are put on this earth to help them. Put two fingers in that hole and there was a good chance you’d fish out your ten pence coin covered in unidentified goo, the composition of which one could only speculate on. You’d have to hold your breath in the hope the old girl would like your coin. If she didn’t, you’d be sticking your fingers in into that pool of gunk in a desperate hunt for your cash. Still, if you were wanting a taxi home or were fired by the possibility of a romantic dalliance you would take the risk. You’d penetrate goo to penetrate goo and maybe shed some of your own goo too. The circle of life was dependent on phone boxes. You couldn’t just booty text back then. You had to actually call and talk.
“We don’t talk anymore, we text.”
Other humans, generally at the nucleus of life’s problems, often required you to make the trip to the phone box. Maybe you were breaking up with your girlfriend or pleading with the taxman, or trying to arrange a flight to the Far East or even talking to the Samaritans. All the while some tube outside would be waiting, tossing his coin in the air as if a gentle reminder might make you want to cut your call short for his benefit. All the while you’re feeding coins into the meter, spending a fortune ensuring aunt Doris was still alive and remembering why you only called her once a month.
But this new century has stolen so much from the sentimental old chokes amongst us. Today’s thirty-somethings can only see things like the phone box some way behind us, in the slow lane, fading fast, soon to be out of sight. In the fast lane moving past those anachronisms of yesteryear, are the modern contraptions and the pointless pursuits they facilitate. Mobile phones, tablets, Skype and Instagram. Life these days is all tweets, twits and website hits. As with all things that vanish with an older way of life, it isn’t just the inanimate object that disappears, it’s the humanity within.
We don’t talk anymore, we text. We don’t make the effort to ring anyone because we don’t have to. News reaches them before you know it yourself. Social networking, online media, subjects trending and scooting across the void of time and space in a matter of seconds. It is impossible to be authentic, to be new, to tell someone something they don’t already know. Everything happens so fast that we’re waiting for the next hit. You’re so busy recording your kid’s first word that you missed what was actually said. Never mind, you can check the footage you uploaded on to Facebook later. Except, later on, the thought will be gone and you’ll have one foot in the future and the other in your friends’ lives, spreading yourself ever-thinly between the real world and the fake. The only problem is, friends aren’t what they used to be. They used to be people whose voice you’d recognise in a crowd. Not anymore.
And today’s phone boxes? They’re more like space pods. The ten pence rule is gone. It costs much more to run that glitzy touch screen. And the handset? It’s hardly needed. Nowadays the red booth is just a large, immobile, chunk of scrap. No door either, a symbol in itself of the mass sharing of irrelevant information we’ve all traded our privacy for. Who cares if the world and his wife can see the screen that you are navigating in nosey, voyeuristic thrill? Whatever you are looking at, they already knew it anyway.
And so our voices weaken to soft creaks, each person a second self of the last, and the next until each clone is unidentifiable from the one beside. We’re an army of irrelevants, each indulging in a foolish pursuit of information to a chorus of clicks, scrolls and youtube adverts. We’re not lost in the moment because it’s the one place a Google search can’t find. We’re talking about what just happened and how it will change things to come. ‘Now’ is the one thing that never seems to be here. And all the sad little comforts that once helped us to live and love are now ‘charming’ or ‘quaint.’ Such words come with an embarrassed giggle from the new kids on the block, all of whom grip their little boxes of light with unwavering resolve. Their eyes glaze as their screen lights up. They’ve just got some news. It makes them smile but the smile will outlast the memory.
Folks of a certain age will watch with regret as the world we once knew seems to spin quicker than it once did. More and more of the people in it walk like zombies, glued to that little box of light, hooked on the irresistible hit of instant news and other people’s lives, living for the moment but never really quite getting there.