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Tracking the Pay Telephone Coin : It's No Nickel-and-Dime Operation as the Trail Winds From a Public Phone Slot to a Secret Counting Center

October 22, 1987|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

Whatever else may be wrong with society, people still do give a dime.

Two of them, in fact, if they are using a coin telephone for a local call.

And where, did you ever wonder, does all that phone money go?

Inside a secret location in Southern California, with 16 closed-circuit TV cameras monitoring every move, the take from those money-eating instruments gets counted every working day.

You might say the buck--420,000 of them daily--definitely stops here.

At a service station in Los Angeles, a woman in a green dress was asking no quarter, but she was giving one. It was a typical scene, little noticed, frequently repeated. The woman was inside a phone booth, making a call. Although a local call is technically 20 cents, it's a common practice to use a quarter, because most people don't find themselves with the proper combination of required nickels and dimes.

This is the odyssey of that particular quarter:

Later in the day a van pulled up. Out stepped Debbie Jakubowski, 31, making one of about 55 such stops on her route this day.

For the last seven years Jakubowski has been a collector with Pacific Bell, one of more than 80 who cover the area from the Tehachapis to the Mexican border to the borders of Arizona and Nevada, an area that holds 78,000 coin-operated phones, which are emptied on a frequent but undisclosed schedule.

Jakubowski's route this day would include such mundane stops as markets, malls, a bowling alley, a hospital. There are, she discloses, livelier routes: "There is a nudist camp that has pay phones."

No such activity, however, at this service station. Stepping out of her van, Jakubowski's first move is to test the phone with a quarter, a dime, and a nickel. Had any of them not been returned after she had heard the dial tone, she would have removed the housing to see if there was a stuck coin. If so, and if she could not remove it, a repair person would be called in, showing up within 24 hours.

"The company starts us off every day with $1.20 in change," Jakubowski said.

Taking one of the 50-plus keys on her ring, she then opens the phone and removes a coin-filled orange receptacle inside, replaces it with an empty receptacle, all the while scribbling everything she has done onto a route sheet.

In her van is a safe with six chutes. Into one of them, its contents untouched by Jakubowski, goes the filled receptacle--including the quarter from the woman in the green dress.

Before departing, Jakubowski picks up trash inside the booth and puts it into a can in her vehicle. She checks to see that the directory is in place; had it been missing, she carries extras.

Driving to her next stop, she reflects on the various company security methods by which the collectors are carefully monitored:

"Sometimes they'll plant marked coins inside a phone, just to make sure they are returned. The markings can be seen only under a black light.

"Also, while driving, we can't go near our own home or a friend's home at any time. If we go somewhere for lunch, it has to be along our routes, so they can keep track of us. And, once to twice during the day, we call in to tell where we are, again so they can keep track of us."

Jakubowski completes her appointed rounds, and heads for the coin-collection center, passing through a barred gate into the inner sanctum. Years ago there were four such centers, but the company found that having only one is more efficient. Jakubowski backs her vehicle toward No. 16 in an array of 35 vaults, and one by one unloads her receptacles onto a cart, which she pushes into a 5-by-5-foot vault, then removes a load of empty receptacles for the next day.

She then closes the vault door and departs.

On the opposite side of the vault, another worker is waiting, as the quarter deposited by the woman at the service station phone booth gets readied for its second stage of travel.

"On an average day, we count 8 tons of quarters, 3 tons of dimes, and 1 3/4 tons of nickels," John H. Adair said.

Adair is Pacific Bell's public communications chief for the Southern California region. If he sees three coins in a fountain, he counts them.

His main concern, however, is pay phones. "Did you know that when you see a different type of booth, there often is a reason for it?"

For instance, at the request of Chinatown residents, many of the booths there are red.

On Olvera Street, again on request, there are brown booths.

As for where pay stations are, it might be easier to state where they aren't. "We have one station in San Ysidro that is almost in Mexico," Adair, 45, said. "It is within 5 feet of the border. In fact, we have around 20 within 20 yards of the border."

So vast is the Southern California region, that, Adair said: "I sometimes draw a dial tone from Arizona--a California booth using an Arizona area code. It is cheaper to run the dial tone wires from the Arizona office."

Regarding pay stations in general, changes are happening, and more are on the way:

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