THE WAITING IS the hardest part.
You’ve made it to the Mukilteo dock in plenty of time to make the 11:30 a.m. ferry bound for Whidbey Island, seemingly so close, you feel like you could swim to it. Only there is no 11:30 a.m. ferry, because they’ve got only one boat running on this crisp Saturday in January, which leaves you with an hour and a half to kill before the 12:30 sailing.
The old Mukilteo dock used to be adjacent to a bustling Ivar’s takeout counter and a brewpub, but the new dock requires a bit of a walk to get to them. Still, you’re more than happy to exit your car and hoof it, in large part because it’s the start of a three-day weekend, when nobody cares (or shouldn’t, anyway) if you hunker down at the bar at Diamond Knot Brewery and order a plate of biscuits and gravy and a pint of equally filling stout.
The brewery is not as crowded as it certainly was back in the early 2000s, before smartphones were ubiquitous. But to call such a device a “phone” is something of a misnomer. They’re handheld computers, and on this Saturday at the Mukilteo ferry dock, the vast majority of folks waiting for the next available boat are content to noodle around on their iPhones and Androids, away from fish and chips, locally brewed beer and the picturesque park at the marina down the road, where an actual, in-person interaction might materialize.
“People don’t even talk on their cellphones. They use some kind of instant messaging or some kind of texting,” says Dave Felice, a Whidbey Island resident and retired telecommunications professional who sits on the board of the Connections Museum, which has locations in Seattle and Denver. “Some behavioral scientists are now saying that the idea of verbal communication is being lost because way too many people are texting instead of talking.”
But there was a time — a time before smartphones and DMs and all that Slack — when telephones were about warmth and reassurance, about hearing the voice of a family member or long-lost lover who lived half a continent away, about reaching out in distress and getting a courteous response from someone you trusted deeply, or simply had to in the moment.
And if your car overheated in the wilds of South Whidbey on a stormy winter’s night in the pre-cellphone era, you bundled up and wandered off in search of a pay phone, a harbinger of help on an otherwise-dark, lonely road.
“That gives me a sense of connection, community and security to know that here I am, cut off from everywhere else in the world, and here’s a working telephone,” Felice says of pay phones. “A mobile phone doesn’t really give you that same kind of tactile, secure sensation. It’s kind of like people now going back to playing records instead of streaming [music]. People have a sense of desiring something that they can touch, see and feel, and that’s what you get from a phone booth.”
For the most part, mobile phones doomed pay phones and the booths that housed them to extinction. Except on the southern half of Whidbey Island, where anyone can still make a local call from any of 35 working pay phones — for free.
“When pay phones started to decline in usefulness, we were also in the process of converting to a new telephone switch that didn’t do pay phones,” says George Henny, co-CEO of Whidbey Telecom, a 114-year-old company that his late father, David, purchased for $20,000 in 1953. “So we decided to turn them into a community service so people could make free local calls in case they don’t have a cellphone or it’s stopped working. And believe it or not, people use them.”
FELICE RETIRED TO Whidbey about four years ago after dwelling in Denver, where he worked for Mountain Bell and did “everything” during his 39 years in telecommunications. He remembers realizing the industry was in for an irrevocable shift away from landlines in 2009 while on vacation with his wife in Hobart, Tasmania.
After checking into their hotel, they needed to make a phone call — and quickly realized that not only did their room lack a proper telephone, but the hotel itself did, too. “When we asked the manager, he replied that [the] phones had been removed because, ‘Everyone has a mobile phone now,’ ” recalls Felice. “I had to go across the street to the bar and convince the bartender to let me use his phone. There’s additional irony: Our hotel was across the street from the telephone company’s central office.”
Felice doesn’t use Whidbey’s free pay phones to make calls, but he considers Whidbey Telecom’s move to convert them into free local phone boxes about 10 years ago “a very creative idea.” And he hails David Henny’s decision to install underground cable shortly after he purchased the company as “absolutely a pioneering maneuver.”
“It’s expensive to start with, but you actually save money in the long run [with underground cable] because you don’t get the kind of damage from having overhead wires, particularly with the wind and rain we get in the Northwest,” says Felice. “When PSE (Puget Sound Energy) power goes out on the island, the Whidbey Telecom phones still work. When commercial power goes out, your cellphone may or may not work. Because if the commercial power that goes out is supplying power to the tower that gives you cellphone service, you’re out of luck, or you may not have enough electricity to charge your phone. People in Connecticut learned that very painfully when Hurricane Sandy hit. It took them several days to get even emergency communications restored.”
Like a lot of people who live on and visit the island, Felice also seems to relish the pay phones’ mere presence, and his favorite one is a nondescript phone booth on Highway 525 near Classic Road that has more historical significance than most of its counterparts.
“Classic Road is the dividing line between North and South Whidbey,” he explains. “That phone booth kind of typifies the end of the frontier. It actually marks the end of Whidbey Telecom’s service area, but it also reminds me of the kinds of telephone booths that you see in rural Britain. You might be traveling on a one-lane road out in the middle of nowhere with nobody around, and all of a sudden, here’s a red phone booth. In fact, British Telecom wanted to get rid of its red telephone booths, and the people said no. So they’re now undergoing the process of identifying which telephone booths get to stay. Those booths, that’s a remnant of the time when not every household had a telephone.”
“There’s actually a painting of that phone booth, and the title of that painting is ‘Mason-Dixon Phone Booth,’” adds Henny. “That was the northern border of our service area at the time. That way, people from Central Whidbey could make local calls to South Whidbey. Otherwise, it would have been a long-distance call. It only cost 25 cents instead of a buck and a half. Dad did it because he wanted to serve people he couldn’t otherwise.”
NOT FAR FROM the Mason-Dixon Phone Booth is another: in the parking lot of the Greenbank Pantry & Deli.
“We love it. It’s nostalgic for a lot of people,” says the deli’s co-owner, Alex Pulichino. “I don’t know how often it’s actually used, but I do know there are a lot of people who take photo opportunities — senior family members with teenage family members. And it’s like, ‘Whoa. What’s that thing? A time machine?’ ”
Until recently, plenty of people actually used the free pay phone at Bailey’s Corner Store in Clinton. But, according to the store’s owner, Ken Stange, they weren’t the most upstanding dialers. There used to be a drug house down the street, and its residents would use the pay phone to call their dealers.
“The drug house, it went up for sale, so that’s a great thing,” says Stange, who adds that the phone booth on his property “is nostalgic, a little bit, for me.”
“My dad worked for the phone company back in the day, back when it was Pacific Northwest Bell back before they broke up the phone monopoly,” he says. “He was an engineer for them his whole life. He would be turning 94 next month if he were still alive.”
Stange bought the convenience store — which multitasks as a burger joint, taproom and performance venue — in late 2015 after suffering from “a lot of burnout” as an English teacher at Coupeville High School, where he still coaches tennis.
“I had to try something new,” he says. “I enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work, though. Down here, it’s more of a community feeling. We host a trivia night every Thursday [that’s] definitely the longest-running trivia night on the island. I’ve been doing it for five years now.”
Bailey’s Corner has been using those trivia nights to raise money for local food banks and other charities, and also hosts live music in a covered, quasi-outdoor area that’s heated by a wood stove. Beneath the stage lives a black cat named Larry, who, despite its name, is not male.
“We believe Larry’s a girl,” says Stange. “There were people who lived on the property that had these two kittens, and we realized the kittens weren’t being fed. A cat is a good thing to have; it keeps the other critters away. One cat disappeared, and those people moved and took the other cat. Not too long before Christmastime, Larry showed up on the scene and was definitely feral. But it was hungry. Eventually, it started coming out a little bit more. Then when we hit our cold snap, we tried to lure the cat into that covered area so it could have shelter at night and some heat during the day. So we have a store cat. The other cat was named Larry, so she’s named Larry, and all future cats will be named Larry.”
FOUNDED BY A Pacific Northwest Bell executive in 1988, the Connections Museum is located on the second and third floors of CenturyLink’s Duwamish Central Office at the corner of Corson and East Marginal in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. The building’s exterior is gray, drab and virtually windowless, and the elevator is comically slow.
The museum, which is open to the public only on Sundays, is staffed entirely by volunteers, many of whom work for decidedly 21st-century employers — Microsoft, Google, Amazon. Early telephone technology might seem downright archaic to some, but to the museum’s volunteers, who start their day by commiserating over drip coffee and store-bought doughnuts, it’s the foundation for virtually every advance that’s transpired since.
The oldest pay phone showcased at the museum dates to 1898. Customers could plug any coin — even half-dollars and silver dollars — into this phone, and, when deposited, each coin would make a unique sound. This was how the operator knew that the requisite amount of money had been dropped in the slots for, say, a call to Portland, which cost $2.30 — or about a day’s wages — for three minutes of long-distance conversation.
One floor up, right by the museum’s entrance, is a pay phone encased in a clamshell motif that used to sit in the lobby of the Polynesian restaurant on Pier 51, back before it served as a ferry dock. It’s reminiscent of one of the current phones located at Whidbey’s Langley Marina, and next to it in the museum is a vintage switchboard of the kind David Henny learned to operate when he was a boy growing up in Philadelphia. George says that when a repairman observed the Henny home setup back then, he mistook it for an illegal bookmaking operation.
David passed away at the age of 70 in 2001; his second wife (and George’s mother), Marion, still serves as the chair of Whidbey Telecom. They met when David’s mom set them up on a blind date at the opera in New York City. She worked for Bell Telephone in Philadelphia at the time, and he hired her away — and then some. They fell in love not over the phone, but over phones.
It’s a story nostalgic enough to give the pay phones that still stand like Giving Trees in South Whidbey a run for their money — nostalgia having helped so many Americans soldier through the pandemic. When the future seems to offer little hope, we seek comfort in what’s charmed us in the past, the memories we don’t mess with.
On Whidbey, when Langley was on lockdown, this yearning might have taken the form of a drive down the sleepy side of Maxwelton Road in Clinton to Dave Mackie Memorial Park. There, shrouded in fog, is a lone retro basketball hoop positioned hard against the shore, and a vintage baseball field with a covered wooden grandstand tucked closer to the road. Step onto that diamond, and you might expect Moonlight Graham or Roy Hobbs to emerge from the dugout. If they did, they’d likely marvel at the newfangled technology they encountered in the form of a functioning pay phone at the park’s entrance, and contemplate calling home.