payphoneMark Thomas runs payphone-project.com. (Photo: Margaret Keady for The New York Times)

The pay phone’s long goodbye paused for an especially poignant moment today, when AT&T stopped believing after 129 years:

AT&T Inc. announced today plans to exit the shrinking pay phone business by the end of 2008.

Ma Bell’s ties to the pay phone stretch back to the very beginning. Bloomberg News recalls that AT&T’s predecessors were responsible for both the first pay phone in 1878 and then an improvement 11 years later. The first was paid via a clerk; the second took coins.

AT&T’s news release simply said that “this is the right time for us to take this step on behalf of our customers, employees and stockholders.”

But was it the right time for everyone else?

The Lede can relate to a San Jose Mercury News columnist’s surprise at the shocking decline of the pay phone, but not until our newfangled cell phones failed us first:

Do you realize how difficult it has become to locate a pay phone? Do you know that it costs 50 cents now to make a call on a pay phone? Furthermore, do you know how difficult it is to find someone at Valley Fair who will give you change for a dollar to use the pay phone?

Inconvenience may make our blood boil, but it’s inspiration that stirs the heart and demands that fans pay respects before pay phones are relegated to pop culture history.

No one seems to have more pay-phone passion than Mark Thomas, the proprietor of payphone-project.com, a site that has been bearing witness to the decline by compiling links to news stories on today’s theme.

“Who knew AT&T was still *in* the payphone business?” he said of AT&T’s announcement.

Perhaps Mr. Thomas has already come to terms with what appears to be an imminent extinction. In 2004, he provided a eulogy of sorts in comments to The New York Times:

“Pay phones are lifelines for the down and out; their booths are rainy-day cocoons,” he said. “You lose those, and you lose a lot of windows onto the human condition.”

Feel free to offer your own eulogy in the comment area below.