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Requiem for a Telephone Booth

The Internet helped turn a lone phone booth in the Mojave desert into a cult phenomenon--until the bureaucrats stepped in.

May 30, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"You think maybe some phreaks stole it?"--disbelieving fan on a Web site devoted to the uprooted Mojave Phone Booth.

The endless elegy to the Mojave Phone Booth is loving and wild, as passionate as the callers who rung it up at all hours and usually got an answer, as giddy as the two naked young women who recently answered calls there.

Earlier this month, the most famous phone booth this side of Clark Kent was yanked from its remote spot in the Mojave National Preserve, 75 miles from the Nevada border. Fans from all over the world called the booth or picked up its ringing phone, drawn by what was billed as "the loneliest phone booth on Earth."

What happened on that stretch of desert is a metaphor for today's wired times, a weird merging of old and new communication. Promoted by the Internet, media and word-of-mouth, the phone booth symbolized an intimate, makeshift community of sorts--until it turned into a roadside attraction among the Joshua trees. The pay phone was done in by the very fans who sought the quirky potential of a connection to the middle of nowhere. It became such a symbol that one fan had planned to get married at the site. (He met his fiancee there.) And a USC graduate student in visual anthropology is producing a documentary on the Mojave phenomenon.

The booth was installed in the 1960s for miners, and no one paid much attention to it until recently, when a computer entrepreneur, Godfrey Daniels, plugged the phone on his Web site, http://www.deuceofclubs.com/moj/mojave.html.

"All its glass had been shot out," he wrote, "but I thought it was beautiful." He posted photos and a satellite image of the pay phone, and a star was born.

In the last three years or so, fans who traveled to the booth, on a winding dirt road accessible only by four-wheel drive, reported answering more than 200 calls a day.

No one knew what was to come.

On May 17, with no notice, workers removed the booth. The number has been disconnected.

Pacific Bell and National Park Service officials cited safety concerns, saying that "increased public traffic had a negative impact on the desert environment in the nation's newest national park."

Pacific Bell spokesman Steve Getzug said he did not know who initiated discussions about hauling away the phone booth. He said it was a joint decision.

"I know there were several conversations between Pacific Bell and the National Park Service," he said. "It was really weighing this issue of public needs and impacts they saw happening out in the desert. I think they were concerned with campfires and litter, and had concerns about people coming out there and getting stranded."

*

A spokesman for the Mojave National Preserve, Mike Reynolds, said park staff members have come across "a ton of trash in the area" and stranded motorists who try to get to the phone booth without four-wheel drive. One windy day, near the booth, with no one around, "there was a blazing campfire pit. It was going crazy.

"Congress has set aside these lands to be preserved, protected and enjoyed by all citizens," he said.

Fans of the phone booth challenged the officials' statements, saying that they took care to pick up trash. Regulars at the site said that they did not notice abandoned campfires and that locals helped out stuck motorists.

In fact, said Kaarina Roberto, a USC graduate student, people took pride in the spot. Roberto, 28, was skeptical when she first started investigating the site as the possible subject of a thesis for her visual anthropology major. Then she and her husband began camping there, answering the phone as it rang all night.

"When we first heard people say they cared about it, it sounded kind of weird," she said. "But it's caring about what it represents . . . it represents the positive aspects of humanity, a diverse group of people who share some common ground, a shared humanity."

She was stunned by the news of its removal.

"It sounds really preposterous," she said, "but it felt almost like a death of a community that has formed, unlike anything else you've ever experienced."

Andria Fiegel Wolfe, a 30-year-old theatrical lighting designer, and her sister visited the booth last year from New York City. The phone was ringing as they pulled up in their rental car. In the heat of the desert, they shed their clothes and answered the phone with sun block and a smile: "Mojave Desert. How may I direct your call?" In 4 1/2 hours, they took 72 calls.

Because?

"I think it's a little bit of magic, something special," Wolfe said in an e-mail. "'I think that people also appreciated the frivolity of it all, the whimsy of the trips out to the Booth. . . .

"Me, I was inspired to go see the desert for myself. And it changed my life. If it took a silly telephone booth to give me that, I'm thankful and can't question it too much. I'm sad beyond words that it's gone, but it's a sadness over the circumstances of its removal--that the park isn't truly for the people, if that's the way the rangers see it."

Daniels, who plans to keep his Web site up, still hoped that the booth could live on, to tie the knot in front of it.

"I want to get the booth. I want to reinstall it somewhere else. I won't disclose the location, but you'll be able to call the number."

The booth, according to Pacific Bell, will be destroyed.

That's standard procedure, a spokesman said, for a damaged phone booth that cannot be revived.

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