Growing up in the early 2000s without a cellphone, I always made sure to have a couple of quarters jangling around in my pocket so I could call my parents for a ride home.
But as smartphones entered the hands and the pockets of the nations, public payphones began their slow decline.
These days, encountering a coin-operated public phone is increasingly rare – but they haven’t all disappeared.
Stanley Q. Woodvine, a Vancouver writer and blogger who has been homeless for 14 years, has made headlines with his recent attempt to map the last remaining payphones in the Metro Vancouver area. Woodvine says many of his friends who also live with homelessness are still avid users of payphones.
In 2015, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission documented a steady drop in payphone use before declaring payphones a non-essential service in 2018.
With this in mind, I set out on a journey to track down the remaining public payphones in Parksville-Qualicum Beach.
Liz Sauve, a media representative from Telus, says the company lists 16 payphones in the Parksville-Qualicum Beach area that she says should still be in working order. However, since they’re all located on private property, Sauve said she wasn’t able to pass on their locations.
Before leaving the office, I asked around to see if anyone knew where some might be. A co-worker circled the spots on a map where he thought there might be some, and I scrawled down a number of a fellow reporter so that I have someone to call when I get there. I root around in my car for change. How much does a phone call cost these days? I bring three quarters, just in case.
Paper maps, quarters, remembering phone numbers – these bits of life that were once so ubiquitous have quietly slipped away in the age of the smartphone.
A call to Deb Tardiff with the City of Parksville reveals that there are two payphones in the lobby they share with School District 69, the library, and VIU at 100 Jensen Ave E.
There are two – one upstairs, and one downstairs. The upstairs phone even includes a phone book, circa 2002, attached to the unit via wire.
Tardiff says the phones were put in when the building was constructed in 2001, and are maintained as a public service.
“Because it’s a public building, we put in public payphones. They’re still here… I am told by our facilities person that they are well-used,” said Tardiff.
A conversation with the security guard on duty confirms this – he says that the payphones and the computer libraries are a primary method of communication for homeless people in the area.
Two down – and 14 to go.
“El Jefe’s Pay Phone Directory” online lists one payphone in Parksville, at the “Co-op Mini Mart” on 1401 Alberni Highway. Times have changed, though – it’s now called the Co-op Gas Bar, and there’s not a trace of the payphone that was once affixed to the wall outside.
A woman stocking said that the payphone was gone before any of the current staff started. It’s been so long that none of the staff remember it being there. A person came in asking for a payphone about a month ago, but other than that, she doesn’t recall getting any other requests.
I head to the next location on my hand-drawn map, the Errington General Store. One lone payphone stands guard outside. It’s grubby and looking worse for wear, and the phone call (it cost 50 cents) I make to fellow reporter Karly Blats crackles with static, but Errington resident Laura Gatez says it’s relatively well-used.
I ask Gatez how long it’s been since she’s placed a call on a payphone herself.
“Oh. Well. Let me think,” said Gatez. “At least four years.”
Gatez thinks that this phone gets used more than most. She says cell service is poor in some areas of Errington, and economic circumstances make it difficult for some residents to afford mobile service.
I find another payphone on Harrison Avenue in Parksville, beside TD Bank. The booth stands amid a plot of dandelions, receiver hanging askew on the switch hook. The call box is scrawled with graffiti and the buttons would probably benefit from a good wipe.
I raise my camera to take a photo when a voice across the street stops me.
“Are you taking a picture of all the antiques in Parksville?” asks a man from across the street, with a laugh.
“I’m taking pictures of the pay phones in Parksville,” I say back across the road. “When was the last time you used a payphone?”
He laughs. His name is Clare Cooney, and he says last time he used a payphone was about three-and-a-half years ago.
I call the Whiskey Creek Co-op and store manager Leslie Baynes picks up the phone. Baynes said they used to have a payphone, but Telus took it out six months ago after it was repeatedly vandalized. She said she tried to keep it, but it was broken into so often that Telus removed it.
“I always saw people using it,” said Baynes. “Not everybody has a cellphone. We get people that report accidents – they come running in, and they don’t have a phone on them,” said Baynes.
Baynes thinks that was the last of Whiskey Creek’s payphones.
“There’s nothing out here any longer,” said Baynes.
The same story is true at the Qualicum Beach Visitor Information and Chamber of Commerce. After repeated vandalism, the phone was removed about three months ago. French Creek Marina used to have three or four, but they’ve vanished, too.
For those without cellphone service, there is a patchwork of courtesy phones throughout Parksville that can take their place.
The Society of Organized Services allows people to make calls to the government to check in on things like income tax return and disability checks. At the Parksville Career Centre, you can register for an account and make job-inquiry calls. The centre will also take messages from potential employers on your behalf. The Oceanside Health Centre has a courtesy phone for patients and visitors.