One woman's quest to find the last phone booths in the Adirondack Park
Alison Haas is a collector of obsessions. Road signs, antiques, bear poop and yard gargoyles (but only those dressed in festive costumes) are just a few of the things that fascinate her. For the past three years, she’s been cataloguing all of these curiosities on her blog. Its name, Along the Ausable, refers to the 94-mile Ausable River, which flows through the Adirondack towns of Upper Jay, Jay (where Haas lives), Lake Placid, Keene, Keene Valley, Wilmington and Ausable Forks on its way to Lake Champlain.
One of Haas’ fixations is phone booths, or rather lack thereof, in the Adirondack Park. Not just payphones, but booths that grant some privacy to the person making the call — the kind that shielded Clark Kent as he transformed himself into a tights-clad superhero.
Not surprisingly, the Adirondack region, like most of the country, is steadily losing such facilities. Frontier Communications, a Rochester, N.Y.-based company, owns 240 of the remaining payphones in the park and is its largest terrestrial phone-service provider. Of those payphones, a “very limited number” are enclosed phone booths, according to a company spokesperson.
As cellphones become ubiquitous (and people lose their ability to retain phone numbers), payphones rarely see any use, even in rural areas with poor cell coverage like the Adirondacks. Often payphones bring in less money than it costs to service them, giving telecommunications companies little motivation to maintain them.
As a result, payphones are becoming a rare sight across the landscape. Phone booths, which have played supporting roles in ridiculous movies, college pranks and countless relationship dramas, are even more uncommon. For example, in New York City, of the 13,659 active payphones, only four are housed in booths, according to a 2009 Huffington Post article.
In the Adirondacks, where cell service is spotty at best, payphones are still necessary to hikers coming off the trails, motorists who break down or people who simply don’t have access to cellular technology. The park is slowly becoming more wired with the gradual installation of more cell towers — disparagingly referred to by locals as “Frankenpines” for their flimsy camouflage as evergreen trees. But there’s still a long way to go before cell reception blankets the park. Meanwhile, the egalitarian payphone has become a victim of the park’s march to modernity, and Haas, for one, isn’t willing to let it go without some kind of memorial.
Haas, 33, is covered in freckles and wears a broad, permanent smile. To say she’s quirky would be an understatement. On the day we meet, she’s wearing a purple velour tracksuit — she’s catching a flight to Lake Tahoe to visit a friend later in the day and thought it would be funny to show up wearing something gaudy and “old-ladyish.”
Haas is one of those people who loves oddities and visual non sequiturs. She is also moved by nostalgia — hence her attachment to the phone booth.
It was while living in England, pursuing a master’s degree in the history of design, that Haas first became smitten with the iconic red phone boxes that dotted country corners and city sidewalks. When she found one still intact (many have been relieved of their phones), she used it to call home, rather than the more current payphones papered with advertisements for buxom female escorts.
“If you’re going to make a phone call in a phone booth, you’re going to make a phone call in a red British phone booth. You’re not going to go to the new 1997 British Telecom phone booths,” Haas says. “And it rains a lot there, so you need some cover.”
She so appreciated the red phone boxes for their unique design that, every time she saw one on her travels, she took a picture. Typically those photos also included her old Raleigh bike, Rusty, on which she toured the country.
When Haas, who is now an archivist at the 1932 & 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum, moved to Jay a few years ago with her husband, Drew, she noticed the town had a phone booth right on the village green.
“I was very excited because the phone booth in Jay was an older style, so it had character to it and it had a phone in it,” she says.
Armed with 50 cents, Haas walked down to the phone booth to try a call, only to discover that it was out of order. She wrote about the experience on her blog, then followed up the post by seeking out other local phone booths to see if any worked. When she happened on a phone booth in Keene Valley, next to some vending machines in the parking lot of the Valley Grocery, she tested it out. Like the Jay phone booth, it was broken.
Haas became determined to find a functional phone booth. People who read her blog gave her leads, which she followed, mostly to no avail. Once she became convinced she had seen a phone booth at the High Peaks Information Center on the Adirondack Loj Road. But when she got there, she found nothing.
Not long after that, Haas says, she discovered a “half phone booth” — the kind that comes equipped with a sort of dome. She asked the woman who was using the phone if she could photograph her for her blog. The woman, whom Haas remembers as “distraught,” said no.
“She was not entertained by that,” Haas recalls.
Haas wasn’t bothered by the refusal, since the phone didn’t meet the criteria for a booth. Later, she found one in Ray Brook, between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, that was the holy grail of phone booths. Built in the Adirondack style, this one had a peaked roof and rustic wooden siding. And it worked. Haas calls it a “gem.”
Now, looking for phone booths in the park has become a bona fide obsession. “We’ll be driving, and I’ll be, like, ‘Drew, phone booth!’” she says. Then she’ll try to get a photo, or at least note where she saw it. Haas knows there are still phone booths near Blue Mountain Lake, Gore Mountain and Keeseville, but isn’t sure if any of them work.
In November of last year, Haas’ beloved phone booth in Jay vanished. Frontier, which owned the booth, had removed it because it had fallen into disrepair and didn’t generate income, she learned. That set Haas on a mission to find the phone booth, which she thought belonged in town whether it was usable or not. She felt a connection to the booth, she says. For her, it was a place to stow a jacket when she went running. For others, such as neighbors who remembered the booth’s operational days, it was how they got a ride home after playing at a friend’s house. For still others, the phone booth recalled shenanigans from their teen years, when they used it to make prank calls.
Haas called Frontier and asked where the phone booth had gone. The employee she reached told her a coworker had taken it but wouldn’t give her any more information. She called the Jay town supervisor and asked him if she could use a town vehicle to collect the phone booth if she found it.
“I said, ‘I’m going to find it if I have to go to New York City to get it.’ Because I was imagining it went where phone booths go, in some basement in Manhattan,” she says. “And he looked at me like I was crazy.”
Haas’ amateur sleuthing paid off when she found the Jay phone booth tucked behind a garage that belonged to a Frontier employee. She’s thinking of asking the employee to donate the phone booth to Jay as a part of the town’s history, but she hasn’t yet worked up the nerve.
While Haas laments the loss of the phone booth in the Adirondack Park, she has other things to keep her engaged. It’s unlikely that antiques will ever fall victim to evolving technology. And if they do, there are always yard gargoyles.