We have arrived safely

“We have arrived safely.”
“I miss you.”
“I’m about to run out of money.”

These are the three sentences that simply belong to every, shall we say in every telephone box. The most important three sentences. They virtually ‘lived’ there. And let’s not forget, speaking used to be expensive. So expensive that it was better to not do it altogether. It’s hard to imagine anymore how quickly those few coins were gone, tumbled away, as if they had taken drugs, entirely lost and no one nearby, who could or would provide small change for bigger coins because they themselves wanted or needed to make a phone call, and very urgently at that. And then you had to get back in line.

My sister always had very little money, was actually always hard up, so she liked to be called back.
Those were problems, those were real problems that are impossible to understand today. With a mobile phone in your pocket or in your handbag it seems laughable.

But beware if you don’t have a mobile. What do you do then? I miss you. The number you have dialled is unavailable. On November 21, 2022, the public phone booth was switched off, or rather the coin function was. Thus, the phone booth became de facto redundant. Little by little, the booths, also affectionately called “Stübchen” in German, will disappear. Not far from Berlin, near Michendorf, you can visit the telephone cemetery. Magenta-grey, sad-looking oversized cubicles have been put there or will be carted there. In the end there, will be 160,000 telephone boxes that will just sit there in silence before being laid to rest. A small number will survive. Indeed there are collectors, just as there are stamp collectors and Isetta collectors. And plastic bag collectors.

However, one box will stay. Forever. Unused and spruced up, in the same place. In situ. At least that’s what we hope for the one telephone box on Stavendamm in the Schnoor neighbourhood. It has been painted really fantastically yellow, like a sunflower, and now serves as a greenhouse, a mini conservatory, and is both a telephone booth monument and a representative for all the other telephone booths that have been cleared away. If you come close, look through the many small windows and stand in front of it long enough, you can even hear what the plants are telling each other. Maybe they remember how it was, what the telephone boxes used to look like, and how unpleasant it smelled in there – often downright stank – of pee and mouldy, tattered telephone directories, sweat and cigarette smoke. And how often the coins were rejected or became stuck in the machine and you couldn’t even say, “Mum, I have to go, bye.”

The last penny had just fallen through and people outside the door were waiting impatiently: fellow citizens banging their fists against the window.

The mobile phone is certainly the reason for the demise of the telephone booth, or the telephone cabin, as the Swiss call it. Everyone agrees. And let’s not forget vandalism, which made telephone booths its main target. “For years, people were used to finding telephone booths trashed; the mouth and ear pieces of the phones were broken during the night and the booth’s glass walls had often been smashed in”, recalls the Bremen Literature Prize winner Wilhelm Genazino.

Telephone booths had long since ceased to be profitable. And they still had to be cleaned, although they never looked as if they ever had been. In the end, they were reduced to basic telephones and ‘stelae’, as Telekom called them. They were only to be found at busy train stations, airports, or exhibition centres. They were said to be electricity guzzlers, irrelevant even for emergency calls.

Even that function was taken over by mobile communication. At some point, all will disappear. Just like the petrol stations and petrol will gradually disappear. But the flowers will remain and they will grow out of the telephone box on Stavendamm. The number you have dialled is unavailable. The cubicle itself is locked, a few windows are missing. They have to be missing so that the plants get enough air. Beautiful Schnoor air. And you may also leave a few coins there: a small donation for flowers. After all, as we know, flowers can also wilt; the coin slot is in the birdhouse. Karen Marten would certainly be pleased. She looks after the booth and it is thanks to her that the box is still there and has new, pleasant-looking, pretty, and sweet-smelling tenants.

Translated by Anja Rademacher