Repurposed pay phone entertains kids and grownups with jokes in DC - WTOP News

Dick Uliano |

Coin-operated pay telephones, once ubiquitous, in places ranging from gas stations to drug stores to street corners, have vanished from the landscape. But someone has figured a way to repurpose an old pay phone to dial up some smiles. 12 button pin pad

Repurposed pay phone entertains kids and grownups with jokes in DC - WTOP News

Near Lafayette Elementary School in D.C.’s Chevy Chase neighborhood, there’s an old-fashioned chrome and black steel telephone on a pole. Just like the old phones, it has a hard-plastic handset with a coiled metal cable attached at the bottom of the mouthpiece.

But wait, there’s something different about this pay phone, which popped up earlier this year on Northampton Street NW. It’s the lettering. Instead of P-H-O-N-E, the blue sign on this apparatus says J-O-K-E.

“OK, it says dial the number…I’m not sure what these numbers are here, press 1 for a knock-knock joke,” said Calvin Dillon, 13, an 8th grader at The Heights School of Potomac, as he experimented with the unusual device, with his dad nearby.

“Here we go, need a joke, dial Star 1,” his dad Justin explained and sure enough a voice came on “Knock knock,” “Who’s there?” “Lee,” “Lee who?” “I’m Lone-Lee without you, please let me in.”

Jokes like these are a hit with the kindergarteners at Lafayette, which is probably why substitute kindergarten teacher Don Rutledge created and installed the Joke Pay Phone in front of his house near the school.

“I thought it would be a fun project,” said Rutledge, a tinkerer who constructed a remote candy chute to deliver Halloween goodies during COVID and keeps a vehicle in the garage that looks like a big cupcake.

Rutledge bought the old phone online then removed most of what’s inside, replacing the old wires and ringer with a small computer and coded it so that when the phone’s touch tone pad is engaged the phone delivers content. For example. Press * 1 for a knock-knock joke; Press * 5 for crazy “fun facts”; Press *8 for “positive thoughts.”

“I’m always thinking of projects to do. So I thought that would be a good one, especially so close to the elementary school. I figured kids would really like it,” said Rutledge.

The device’s computer program allows kids to not just hear a joke but to leave a joke. The Joke Phone is connected to Rutledge’s home wi-fi Internet and so the phone even allows users to make free phone calls over the Internet.

“Well, what sense is a pay phone if it doesn’t make phone calls? Right? So, yeah, you can actually just dial a straight number. It will dial anywhere that costs less than a penny a minute,” he said.

“So you can call Thailand if you wanted to,” said Rutledge.

Even small kids carry cell phones these days, but Rutledge is amused to see kids pick up the old pay phone just to dial their parents walking a few steps ahead.

“They’ll be like, oh, my God, it works,” said Rutledge.

The kids’ parents may have recollections of pay phones in days gone by.

“They’re always taking pictures of their kids using the phone because it’s such a novel thing,” said Rutledge.

Neighbors walking by the phone on the quiet street said it’s been a delight.

“I think it’s great. I think it’s a nice bit of old fashioned community…We remember what it used to be like to have to wait in line for a pay phone, borrow a quarter for a pay phone,” said Justin Dillon.

“I think it’s just pretty cool because a lot of kids now just have phones and they’re just texting constantly and not even talking to each other even when they’re next to each other. But… you can just…call your dad and stuff…on this old fashioned, sort of like, weird phone thingy,” said Calvin Dillon.

Whether anchoring the news inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center or reporting from the scene in Maryland, Virginia or the District, Dick Uliano is always looking for the stories that really impact people's lives.

5425 Wisconsin Ave Chevy Chase, MD 20815

Repurposed pay phone entertains kids and grownups with jokes in DC - WTOP News

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