Mojave Phone Booth

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
At their peak in the mid-nineties, there were about two and a half million payphones in the US. The adoption of cell phones has brought that number down further and further every year. The fully enclosed, outdoor telephone box, you know the one that’s Superman changes in, that is exceptionally rare. Only four of those are left in New York City. After several decades, these little pieces of single-use architecture just disappeared from the landscape. They simply weren’t popular enough to justify their existence, but there’s always an exception to the rule. 20 years ago, a man discovered a phone booth in the middle of the desert. That became his obsession. An obsession that he then passed on to the world at large. From the great radio program, ‘Snap Judgment’ of Oakland, California, producer Joe Rosenberg tells the story of a very special phone booth in the middle of nowhere.

Joe Rosenberg:
Okay, so this story starts out back in the mid-nineties in Phoenix, with Godfrey Daniels.

Doc Daniels:
My given name is Godfrey Daniels, but I go by Doc.

Joe Rosenberg:
He’s heading back home after seeing this band ‘Girl Trouble’ and after the concert, someone hands him a copy of their zine. Remember zines? If not, don’t worry. They’re kind of like a pre-internet miniature magazine.

Doc Daniels:
So as I was walking home, I was kind of flipping through it and on about the third or fourth page, there were a couple of letters to the editor and one of them mentioned that there was a phone booth in the Mojave desert, miles and miles from any pavement, just sitting by itself.

Joe Rosenberg:
And this, for Doc, just made no sense.

Doc Daniels:
I wasn’t sure that I believed it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Why? Why not?

Doc Daniels:
Well, I didn’t have any reason to believe it. I mean, I don’t know if in the age of cell phones, if it’s the same, but when you were out in the desert in those days, you were on your own. You couldn’t call people. So the idea that there could be this phone booth just sitting out in an un-contactable place, it was kind of like if somebody was on the moon and you could talk to somebody on the moon.

Joe Rosenberg:
Where did he say it was exactly? Like what was the nearest recognizable landmark?

Doc Daniels:
He didn’t say. It was a really short little paragraph. There wasn’t any solid information really, other than the number.

Joe Rosenberg:
And so when Doc got home he thought, okay, why not give it a shot?

Doc Daniels:
And I jabbed in the number and it just rang and I let it ring for a long time and I was just imagining making a phone ring out where presumably no one could hear it except the coyotes. But then there was also in the back of your mind, the thought, “what if?” Like what if somebody wandering by? Who would be out there? Who would pick up? It just really grabbed me. And so I hung up and then I just kept thinking about it. I kept thinking about it all night long. I was thinking about it as I fell asleep and it just somehow got me into its clutches.

Joe Rosenberg:
And so the next morning?

Doc Daniels:
I called again. I just kind of became obsessed.

Joe Rosenberg:
Soon Doc found himself calling your phone all the time. When friends visited his house, he’d twist their arm and make them call it. He even put up a post-it note on the bathroom mirror.

Doc Daniels:
It just said, ‘Did you remember to call the Mojave desert today?’ but it turned out I didn’t need it because I used to call many times a day.

Joe Rosenberg:
Like how many times?

Doc Daniels:
If I was supposed to be working, I was probably calling at least once an hour. And again, this is all assuming that it actually existed, which I had no proof of.

Joe Rosenberg:
Like on speakerphone or like you would stop everything?

Doc Daniels:
No, no, no, no, because that would require explanations. I would just, have the phone kind of cradle against my ear, just listening to it ring.

Joe Rosenberg:
Doc knew it was weird to keep calling a number with no one on the other end, but if he was ever pressed about it, he’d say it was like being a ham radio operator. One little person sending the signal as far as he could into the ether, wondering if another little person was out there listening in, waiting to be contacted in that un-contactable place.

Doc Daniels:
So I figured I would be doing this forever. I really didn’t think anybody would ever pick up the phone.

Joe Rosenberg:
But then, just one month after we started calling…

Doc Daniels:
Just doing my daily call and I got a busy signal.

Doc Daniels:
“No way.”

Joe Rosenberg:
So Doc actually managed to record that call.

Doc Daniels:
I look like I’m an idiot because I keep saying, “Wow”.

Doc Daniels:
“No way.” And I thought I must’ve missed dialed. So I dialed it again and it was a busy signal again.

Doc Daniels:
I realized, either something has gone wrong with the phone company here or somebody is using the Mojave phone booth right now. I was totally hyperactive. My main thing was I didn’t want them to get away. Like I was thinking, I need to catch it right when they hang up that phone, so I just re-dialed, re-dialed, and then it rang and it rang. It rang four or five times and I thought, ah crap. And then I heard a voice say “Hello.”

Joe Rosenberg:
Sadly, Doc was only able to properly record his own words at this now historic moment.

Doc Daniels:
But as many times as I had called, I had given remarkably little thought, if any, to what I would say, you know? I said, “Hello, are you in the Mojave desert?” And she said, “Yeah”, and I said, “You are? Okay, this is going to sound like a strange question. Why are you in the middle of the Mojave desert?” She said, “I’m making my calls.” “Oh, like you live out there and you don’t have a phone?”

Joe Rosenberg:
I got to say, when I looked at the transcript, it was kind of funny cause you think everything’s cool. You’re like…

Doc Daniels:
“So what do you do up there?”

Joe Rosenberg:
and she’s like, “Cinder mining.”

Doc Daniels:
“What do you do with cinder?”

Joe Rosenberg:
And she’s like, “Cinder blocks”. And you’re like, “That’s so cool.”

Doc Daniels:
“That’s so cool. That’s just so cool. Somebody finally answered.”

Doc Daniels:
And she said that she never heard the phone ring before.

Joe Rosenberg:
And can you tell me her name?

Doc Daniels:
Yeah, her name is Lorene.

Doc Daniels:
“Lorene, it’s nice to meet you. If the phone’s ever ringing again, pick it up. It’ll be me. All right. Nice meeting you, bye-bye.”

Joe Rosenberg:
Was there any sense of disappointment?

Doc Daniels:
No. No. Disappointment about what? Not at all.

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, let me put it this way. It’s almost kind of like the idea that this phone is ringing out there in the desert and anyone could pick up, but then finally someone picks up and it’s just Lorene.

Doc Daniels:
Oh no, no. See, I look at it the exact opposite way. Somebody did pick up and I had no right to expect anyone ever would. So this was great to hear a human voice in place of the ringing, you know? I mean this was a payoff. It just encouraged me more. And the instant I hung up, I kicked myself because I had forgotten to ask her what was probably the most important question, which is, where was the phone booth? But of course, I had no way to get in touch with her except to find the thing.

Joe Rosenberg:
So Doc calls around, does some sleuthing and a few months later gets his hands on the equivalent of an ‘X marks the spot’ map showing the supposed location of the Mojave phone booth.

Doc Daniels:
So I thought, “Oh, we’re all set”. So my friend and I took off and traveled all day for the Mojave desert and this is in the middle of August, and so it’s scorching hot, just scorching hot. Basically, as far as you could see, you saw Joshua trees and then we saw this little dirt path that was marked “Danger, Danger, Warning, Not Maintained, blah, blah, blah.” That was the road we were supposed to take.

Doc Daniels:
So we were just going along, going along. And the first I thought, “Oh this is not bad at all.” But the further along that we went, the road would narrow. And the thing was that the sun was going down and in the daytime, you’ve got these grand, huge vistas and you kind of have a sense of where you are. But when the darkness drops, it’s just whatever you can see right in front of you.

Doc Daniels:
And we were ringed by storms. There was lightning almost in every direction. So I started to think if we have any kind of a problem unless we do find the phone booth, we have a way of letting people know we’re really in trouble. But at a certain point, just barely in the reach of the headlights, I thought I saw a line of telephone poles and there was a little jut to the left and then a little jut to the right and I brought the van to a stop with the headlights, just shine it right on the Mojave phone booth. It was really quite a moment. And there’s bullet holes in it. There’s no glass, it’s all busted out. It’s kind of a wreck, you know? But to me, it was just beautiful.

Doc Daniels:
I needed to hear that phone ring. I needed to hear what I had been causing to happen all this time out there. So I called my friend’s pager and here I am out in the Mojave, surrounded by Joshua trees and lightning and desert. And now there’s a familiar ring. It was just… And it was so loud. It was really loud. The bell was just crazy loud. For me, that was kind of the moment, hearing that phone ring. It was everything that I had been imagining when I was calling.

Joe Rosenberg:
After that, Doc thought the story was over. He did keep calling the booth, after all, someone else could pick up. But that was just for him. He never really expected anyone else to care until he did something which would not have seemed risky back in 1997, but which today is obviously very, very dangerous. He gave the booth a webpage.

Doc Daniels:
And in those days, the internet, there wasn’t that much on it, so I thought that was about as far as it would go.

Joe Rosenberg:
But yeah, that’s not what happened.

Doc Daniels:
Next thing you know, I had to go to my P.O. Box and there would be clippings about the lobby phone booth from newspapers in languages that I didn’t read. It just spread. So I thought, “Well, this is unexpected.”

Joe Rosenberg:
And so when Doc and his friends returned to the booth about a year after his initial visit, when they got there, this phone way out in the middle of nowhere, which Lorene had said she’d never heard ring. It was ringing off the hook.

Doc Daniels:
You didn’t even have to call anybody. It was just as soon as you would hang up the phone, it would start ringing again. It was just crazy. You’d pick it up and you know, “Who’s this person going to be? Where are they going to be?” And you had no idea. It could be somebody from Vietnam or Iran or just anywhere. Some people would call and you couldn’t talk to them because they didn’t speak English. And again, most of the time it wasn’t about the content. You’re not really saying anything. It’s really not the point. It’s just the connection. An old trucker guy called and I think he just wanted to be listened to. He wanted to tell stories about his trucking days and he didn’t seem to have anybody to tell them to.

Joe Rosenberg:
How many calls did you end up taking that day?

Doc Daniels:
It would be over a hundred, guaranteed. And admittedly, you hear the phone ring and after a while, it’d be like, “You get it. No, you get it. It’s your turn. You get it.” We eventually had to take it off the hook so we could sleep.

Joe Rosenberg:
And they put it back on the hook the next morning, so they could leave?

Doc Daniels:
There wouldn’t have been a way to leave in silence. I mean you were going to have to drive – since it was ringing all the time – you were going to have to drive away from a ringing phone.

Joe Rosenberg:
And people weren’t just calling the booth.

Man:
“Mojave desert phone booth?”

Joe Rosenberg:
They were visiting, traveling all the way out to the desert just for the honor of informing callers that, yes, the phone booth was real.

Man:
“It’s more than real. It’s a reality.”

Joe Rosenberg:
This is from a short documentary made about the booth. It’s just a montage of people from all over the place taking calls from all over the place.

Excerpt from Mojave Mirage:
[We’re here. Where are you?
England.]

[We are from Switzerland.]

[Australia.
Right on, bro.]

Doc Daniels:
You were presenting yourself to the world in a way. Anybody who wanted to could call you. There was no control over who could call that phone.

Excerpt from Mojave Mirage:
[No. No, I don’t speak German.]

[You used to work for the circus so are you quadriplegic or paraplegic?
Quad.
Wait a minute, you got fired from the circus because your best friend slept with somebody else.]

[How long were you in a coma?
A couple of weeks.
Yeah, me too. I was in a coma for a couple of weeks, yeah.]

Doc Daniels:
Everybody wants to tell their story and they want someone to listen to their story.

Man:
“It’s kind of fun. You should come out and do that.”

Joe Rosenberg:
Did you like the fact that it became popular or would you have preferred it to remain-

Doc Daniels:
No, at first, I liked it. The hesitation came about just because once something like that gets out of control, then you know that the equal and opposite reaction is going to come. The only question was when?

Doc Daniels:
And then in May of 2000, Lorene’s brother, on the way out to the mine stopped and answered the phone because it was ringing of course, and talked to some guy in England who said he was sitting there with his fiance eating, having tea and crumpets, and he talked to him for a little while and then continued on to Lorene’s, and then in the morning when they were leaving, the booth was gone.

Joe Rosenberg:
In this case, an equal and opposite reaction had come in the form of the National Park Service. Turned out the booth was almost smack dab in the center of a new national preserve and the phone had laid dormant, it hadn’t been a problem. The park officials hadn’t taken kindly to all the new foot traffic, or for that matter, the ringing. By the time Doc figured out what was happening, it was already too late.

Joe Rosenberg:
Did you go out and see this for yourself?

Doc Daniels:
No. No. I didn’t go out until I think about 2009-2010. Long, long after. I mean, once I knew it was gone, I didn’t want to go out.

Joe Rosenberg:
Why not?

Doc Daniels:
It’d just be too sad, you know? I mean, had a lot of fun there. It was funny too, is that people did keep going out and they would go and visit the concrete pad that the booth had stood on and a guy made a really nice tombstone for the booth and everything that anybody brought out there, the park service hauled off and eventually they came out and broke up the concrete pad and took that away too.

Joe Rosenberg:
So it was like, it was never there.

Doc Daniels:
Yeah. When I was there, the only thing left was a few pieces of glass from the broken windows.

Doc Daniels:
Then people would say, “Yeah, well it’s not your phone booth now.” And I would say, “Yeah, I know it’s not my phone booth, but it’s my fault.” You know, it wasn’t as though I set out to make the phone booth famous. Far from it. It’s just had I known, I might not have done it. I mean, I might still, I don’t know, but I might not have.

Joe Rosenberg:
Would the booth even hold the same appeal today given that we can now reach anyone, anywhere?

Doc Daniels:
No, I mean that’s something that I have thought about is whether it could have happened even five years later, and I just don’t think it would have. I mean that was kind of the magic of being in contact in an un-contactable place and I don’t think you have that feeling now.

Joe Rosenberg:
Did you ever try calling the number again after that?

Doc Daniels:
Oh, of course. Come on, Joe. Of course, I did. I mean they let it ring for a long time. I mean they left just… Even though the phone was not there.

Joe Rosenberg:
But would that even make sense because you’re not even making a phone ring anymore in the desert, you’re just making a kind of a…

Doc Daniels:
Oh sure, I would know that. But still, it would be like listening to a song that meant something to you. I don’t know. I guess I did just like calling out to the booth and hearing it ring in the end.

Roman Mars:
The Mojave phone booth was produced by Joe Rosenberg for Oakland’s own ‘Snap Judgment’ in 2014. Doc has a book coming out about all this called ‘Adventures With the Mojave Phone Booth’. We’ll have a link on our website. Today, if you call the Mojave phone booth number, that’s (760) 733-9969, you’ll connect to a conference line where you can talk to people from around the world. If no one’s on the conference line, it plays a recording of the book, ‘Exploding the Phone’, which is a really great book. You should listen to it. But for the next week, you might just find someone from 99pi on the conference line. That’s (760) 733-9969.

  1. Kit kendrick

    Sadly I got a recording that the line was a conference and to press 1 through 9 and then whatever I entered it hung up on me.

  2. Michael Steeves

    The appeal of this phone booth was very much like the joy of “DXing” on ham radio, contacting unusual, usually remote, locations just for the sake of it.

    Occasionally a group will organize an expedition to a rare location. When they go on the air they will find a “pileup” of stations wanting to talk to them. Why? The thrill of talking to someone in a remote, exotic location.

    All the emotions expressed about the Mojave phone booth reminded me of my days in ham radio 30 years ago.

  3. Emy

    Love your podcast, but a friend and I are wondering… Why is Jad Abumrad’s voice distorted and squirrely in this audio?

  4. Evan

    Great episode! There is a song at the 3:30 mark that I am trying to recall the name of. Maybe it is Dan Deacon? It doesn’t look like it is on the music credits…can you tell us what it is?

  5. Dan

    Just added the number to my contacts as “Mojave Phone Booth” I’ll never be bored on a road trip again.

  6. Longlivethewww

    Why did you consider making a website for the booth as “very, very dangerous”?
    I know you’re supposed to be scared of everything nowadays, but this remark seemed just paranoid and annoying.
    Other than that great story.

  7. Don Birren

    I wonder if the phone booth would have qualified as a Thomasson — useless and maintained — until it was removed.

  8. Nolan Gray

    Just a heads up, there’s uncredited music in this episode. Dan Deacon near the end is one I noticed. Looking forward to seeing the others. Great episode.

  9. Neil

    “cinder miner who had no phone of her own”

    – what did Loreen do for a phone after the booth was removed?

  10. Wow.

    When I was a little kid, my father (who passed away one year ago) had gone on a long ride into the desert with his brother. He came back, and showed us a picture of (I believe) this telephone booth, saying “It was so far from anywhere- it was so bizarre.”

    That was 1976.

    I do not know whether this is the same booth, but I thank you for reviving that memory.

  11. Jack

    What’s the song that starts at 13:42? I know I’ve heard that song but I can’t remember where and it’s driving me insane.

  12. Sna Hna

    Why did the interviewer inhale helium before asking each question? Is he in the witness protection program?

  13. Agustin

    I just wanted to let you all people know that as soon as I finished listening this episode, I called the Phone Boot Number, and I got to talk for while with a couple of people.

    It was nice…

  14. K Mill

    I really liked this episode but it does sound a little like this guy completely ruined the only outgoing calling that Loraine and whoever else had for the time. I mean if now it was ringing off the hook, Loraine would never have been able to make another outgoing call on what was made to seem like her only phone option…

  15. Peter Tsemberides

    Hey, anyone find or know the secret to this phone booth. Every time I call, I get a text stating”Welcome to the Mojave. The secret has been lost. Find it.”I am at a dead end, but I think you may need to put in a 2 or 3 digit code.

    1. Peter Tsemberides

      ** Update **
      Never mind my last comment, the phone ended up being used for the yearly Cicada 3301 contest and it ended up being step t in the competition. I’m not in this competition, but a lot of people are. It still works like normal but has a bit more traffic now, which is good in my opinion.

  16. Brian Underhill

    I love this I call to just listen to the music I wanna find who does the music I have some suggestions

  17. Chris Babbitt

    I just got a text from the Mojave Phonebooth that reads..
    “The end draws near… 2e59ec4fcc9ae44ae6ce1d9f07322371ebaee4ec2e2f3ccbc028f928eade0d9e”… Spooky!!

  18. Oksana S.

    Called from overseas. It rang, connected, and then I received a message saying the party was not accepting calls at that time. An unfortunate ending.

  19. Leon O.

    Just tried calling from the UK. I got the same message as another user “The party is not accepting calls at this time.”

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