It was probably close to 1:30 in the morning when I got out of the cab. This was the mid 90s. I was deep in the suburbs of Portland, somewhere near the border between Beaverton and Tigard. She lived in one of the sprawling apartment complexes with names like “The Outlook” and “Cedar Crest” that sound like nouveau riche country clubs. These indistinguishable shitholes encroach on one another, vying for the rental dollars of white people who for all kinds of avowed and disavowed reasons can’t stand living in actual urban spaces. I hated myself for going out there but my self-loathing did not slow me down one bit. She usually stayed with me downtown, so I had been there only a couple of times before and never sober, but I was able to find her apartment without much trouble. I knocked on her door, loud enough to wake her but not loud enough to trouble other people. She didn’t come to the door. I knocked louder. Nothing. I knocked louder still. One of her neighbors yelled out the window, then another did. I swayed in place trying to figure out what to do next. Sometimes alcohol turns your mind into a magician and you fall for the misdirection and slight of hand. I believed that she just hadn’t heard me and that if I called her then she would for sure wake up. I remembered the cab driving past a payphone near the manager’s office. I backtracked to the payphone. I put three coins in, dialed the number, and heard the beep-beep-beep-beep of the busy signal. I dialed again. After a few times I realized all at once the truth of the situation. But even after I understood that she was never going to answer the phone or open her door I continued to dial her number over and over because there was some comfort in the repetition.
I tell you this story in order to illustrate why I understand the situation described in Maroon 5’s “Payphone.” The song’s protagonist is separated from his love and he spends what little he has left on a machine that he hopes will bridge the gap. Many young people can relate to the pathos I’m sure, but how many can relate to the events that concretize the song’s intent? I’m fairly sure that most people under 30 have only infrequently used a payphone and that many people in their teens and early 20s never have. Payphones, at any rate, are almost completely irrelevant to the lives of the vast majority of the people to whom this song was directed. It reminds me of Tom Waits’ incredible “Train Song,” a tune equally anachronistic. When was the last time you skipped town on a train, the trailing smoke a lingering reminder of everything you left behind evaporating into nothing? A payphone and a train can continue to function as metaphors of desperate loneliness despite the fact that they are no longer features of our everyday lives because culture always trails behind experience. Humans act in the world and culture provides the terms through which we understand what we did. That trains and payphones continue to be adequate figures speaks to the belated quality of culture, always interpreting the present through the categories of the past.