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."

32 Reasons to love Portland (wesley Lapointe)
32 Reasons to love Portland (wesley Lapointe)