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A Portland Software Engineer Is Bringing the Pay Phone Back, Minus the “Pay” Part

In addition to their most basic function, the phones also have special features—one option offers to connect callers to a random concentration camp along the U.S.-Mexico border.

To the degree that anyone remembers what it was like to use a payphone, Futel's public telephones look exactly like the devices people of a certain age used to, say, summon their parents to pick them up from soccer practice, or make a clandestine call to their weed dealer.

It's not until you get up close and read the fine print that it becomes clear these are not just machines some bankrupt telecom company forgot to take off the street a decade ago.

"We believe that the time has come to greet each other not with our heads down, staring at our hands and begging for the permission of the minds that oversee our networks," reads part of the lengthy mission statement, "but proudly, standing tall, with our eyes open and aware of our surroundings."

The most important part is written in bigger letters: "NO COIN NEEDED FOR ANY CALLS."

Karl Anderson, a former software engineer, installed the first Futel phone five years ago, near the homeless camps along the Springwater Corridor. It was part art project, part act of subversion—democratizing communication in an era when it's taken for granted.

"The way I describe it is that it's 'radically accessible,'" he says. "All you need to be able to do is hear and talk."

Through grants, Anderson has expanded Futel to 10 booths in Portland, as well as Detroit and Ypsilanti, Mich., and Seaview, Wash., using hardware salvaged from Craigslist.

In addition to their most basic function, the phones also have special features. Some are political—one option offers to connect callers to the mayor's office, another to a random concentration camp along the U.S.-Mexico border. Others are social experiments: The Payphone Demultiplexer calls multiple payphones at once to see who picks up.

But the main draw, Anderson says, are the free person-to-person calls. Last year, 12,000 were placed through the Futel system.

"Everyone told me, 'No one needs a payphone,'" Anderson says. "But everyone uses it."

1. Because we're creating new neighborhoods…

2. Because we made voting even easier… 

3. Because a doomed building is now a temporary work of art… 

4. Because we're still No. 1 in semi-factual superlatives… 

5. Because you can finally get a beer for less than $10 at Moda Center… 

6. Because our news anchors don't take crap from internet trolls… 

7. Because University of Portland continues to turn out some of the best women's soccer players in the world… 

8. Because we are the champions of cyclocross…

9. … and roller derby… 

10. … and air guitar…

11. Because we're turning wastewater into beer…

12. … and beer into exercise…

13. Because a local punk legend is holding a permanent rummage sale in the basement of a record shop…

14. Because we let you stop and smell the weed…

15. Because we're a world hub for slap-tagging…

16. Because even Texans are impressed by our barbecue… 

17. … and you can get almost any style of pizza here… 

18. … and also, we've perfected the soy curl… 

19. Because we're dedicated to keeping our strippers healthy and limber…

20. Because our gynecologists are building a better speculum…

21. Because our airport keeps getting more awesome…

22. …and so does Movie Madness…

23. Because we're making Halloweens more inclusive…

24. Because the city's most daring developer is growing strawberry fields in the sky…

25. Because we're bringing the pay phone back, minus the "pay" part…

26. Because you can turn on the TV and see your neighbor compete in an eating contest against a bear…

27. Because hardcore foosball players finally have a home…

28. Because we're home to the largest astrology school in the United States… 

29. Because this is the best place in the country to be a witch… 

30. Because we believe no kitty should be left behind…

31. Because the barred owls are taking over…

32. Because the best Trail Blazer in history is playing in front of us…