Phone Home

New York City Pay Phone

This photograph was taken somewhere in the subways of Manhattan in 2008. If memory serves, I believe it was at one of the Times Square terminals. I’ve always liked the image but I never knew what to do with it. A few years ago I made a copy of the original, edited it, and set it aside for future use. Every now and then when I’m cleaning up the old PC, I stumble across this photo and spend a few minutes staring at it, wondering what kind of message is hidden in the image. Today, as I was making my daily 93 mile commute to work, I was thinking about the details in the photo when the message hit me like a brick to the teeth. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it previously, and now that I see it, I can’t un-see it. In retrospect, I’m reminded of a line in the classic 80’s film, Rambo III. Col. Trautman makes the following statement:

“There was a sculptor. He found this stone, a special stone. He dragged it home and he worked on it for months until he finally finished it. When he was ready he showed it to his friends. They said he had created a great masterpiece, but the sculptor said he hadn’t created anything. The statue was always there, he just chipped away the rough edges.”

By no means do I think this photo is a masterpiece, nor do I perceive it to be one of the best. That said, I think the above mentioned quote fits my personal experience with this photograph. The message was always there, it just took some time to create it. Moving on…

It has been said that youth is wasted on the young. As cliché as that message is, it’s true. The older we get, the more we appreciate the little moments in life. When you’re a child, you can’t wait to be an adolescent. When you’re an adolescent, you can’t wait to be an adult. When you’re an adult, you wish you could go back to being a child so that you can do it all over again. This is just one of those quirky human behaviors that make us who we are as a species. This summer I will be turning 32. To some, I’m an old man, to others, I’m just a baby. In either case, I’ve tasted both the struggles and the comforts in life. Each passing year seems to change me in subtle little ways. While life sometimes seems like it’s moving at maximum warp, I’m beginning to learn to force myself to slow down so I can cherish the moment and savor “the now.”  

I know now that someday this will all just be a distant memory, one void of specific details, but saturated with pure tonality and emotion. When I read this passage in 30 years, I won’t remember what shirt I was wearing or what I happened to be snacking on. I won’t recall the weather or what time in the day it was written. I will only remember the tone of my mindset and the feeling in my heart. Memory is always waning and time is always fleeting.

The message in this photograph is now distinct. The focus of the image is clearly the phone in the foreground. While no longer apparent, the handle on the payphone was bright yellow. This was one of the two things that drew me in to photograph it. The other was the content; the fact that there was a graffiti covered payphone in the subway! In the 80’s and early 90’s, we used payphones each time we needed to make a call outside the comforts of home. In 2008, smart phones were already the status quo (although they don’t have much value in underground subways where network connections are nonexistent); so the presence of a payphone immediately intrigued me. I approached the phone, set-up my tripod, adjusted the settings on my DSLR for a longer exposure and sat down on a bench to wait. Once I heard the unmistakable sound of the train approaching, I got up and prepared myself for the shot. The small grouping of patrons boarded the train and within seconds, it was moving again. I waited for the train to reach a notable speed and I had just enough time to take one single photograph; the one you see today.

The juxtaposition between the moving train and the stationary phone is interesting to me. The train is moving quickly, transporting people through their busy, warped-speed lives.  The phone is stationary and unflinching, giving would-be riders the opportunity to slow down and have a conversation with their loved ones while they wait. Life is moving at an unstoppable speed. We can grab it, lock our feet in the sand and try our hardest to slow it down but it’s never going to happen. Life will always move at an unfavorable speed and we simply have to find ways to adapt to it. The train represents life, carrying its riders forward at unnatural speeds. The phone embodies human interaction and direct communication with those we love the most. The train will always be moving, and if you miss one, you can always catch the next. The phone will always be there, but the people on the other line may not. It’s important to utilize the time we have, and sometimes all that takes is picking up the phone.

The older I get, the more I value slowing down to spend time and converse with the people most important to me. Life is still moving at an alarming rate but I’m learning to let it. There will always be time to get that work done around the house, you can always work a little harder around the office to get the project done on time and you always have tomorrow to make that first million dollars; but today… today you deserve to sit down and enjoy the company of your loved ones. Give your wife an extra-long kiss when you get home, go ahead and toss the ball around with the kids, call your mother and tell her you love her, shake your Dad’s hand and thank him for teaching you how to become a man and give Rex an extra bone just because you can. The people in our lives are what make the memorable moments, and in the end, that’s all life is, a collection of those moments.