Marse Shobe waited patiently near the pay phone at the Beyond Hope Resort.
One person after another strayed out of the nearby campground to chat on the remote, change-swallowing machine.
Shobe finally pointed to the GTE emblem on her shirt, nuzzled in next to a busy caller and emptied the coin-filled phone.
“People are like ticks coming out of the woods in areas like this. In some places I am interrupting their business and they ask me to hurry,” she laughed. “Most people are surprised how much pay phones get used.”
Shobe (pronounced show-bee) has worked 26 years for GTE, the past six as a coin telephone collector in Bonner and Boundary counties.
She’s racked up 183,000 miles on her van running between more than 250 phones, gathering quarters and tales of pay telephone people.
One thing is clear, she said. The advent of cellular phones isn’t putting pay phones on the endangered species list. People still find them convenient and a bargain, especially in rural areas.
“Each evening we have three or four people sitting around waiting to use the pay phones,” said Linda Berwick, co-owner of the Naples General Store. “The phone booths are not dead yet by any means.”
Some Naples residents live miles back in the woods. It’s too expensive to run telephone lines to their homes. Cellular telephone reception can be iffy and the calls are pricey.
“People find it easier to just use the pay phone,” Berwick said. “We have a lot of people stop in just for the phone.”
This winter Shobe couldn’t keep a path shoveled around the phones in Naples. People were climbing up a snow berm as high as the telephone booth to make their regular calls.
Berwick’s two pay phones and one down the road at Deep Creek were choked with quarters during Randy Weaver’s 1992 standoff with federal agents.
When media swarmed the remote area those were the only public phones available.
Shobe has learned a few things about pay phone customers during her rounds.
“People can be very filthy,” she grinned.
Customers tend to munch while they talk, leaving banana and orange peels mostly. The top of the phone often is the final resting place for soda cans and beer bottles.
Only a few phones have been broken into. The culprits never have been successful. One machine was ripped off the wall and destroyed but the coin box never cracked.
“The funny part was it only had one quarter in it anyway,” she said.
While cracking open out-of-order phones herself, Shobe’s had a few surprises. Lizards and the remains of a mouse for starters. The mouse squeezed in through a small hole but never got out of the maze of machinery.
“I haven’t found any snakes yet. That would be the end of my career.” Black widows are rare but a pay phone full of cockroaches somehow arrived in a shipment to the local GTE office.
“We spent weeks trying to kill them” Shobe said.
Some people try to use slugs instead of real quarters in the phones. And occasionally Shobe will find a coin slot jammed with string attached to a quarter. The old trick of slipping the coin in and pulling it back out doesn’t work on the new phones.
Other angry pay phone users stuff chewing gum into ear pieces and coin slots or yank handsets completely off of the phone.
Shobe pulled a pay phone out of the Luby Bay campground at Priest Lake recently because of vandalism. It was used for target practice one too many times.
“The phone was literally shot out. It had a bullet hole in it and the booth was shot up.”
That doesn’t anger Shobe as much as missing phone directories. She packs stacks of them with her now.
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