May I Borrow Your Phone?

December 01 2012

I have a beard and long, uncut hair. I wear old hoodies and boots and beanies, and by the end of the day, I’m tired and don’t say much to people on the train. 

One day I was on my way to meet my wife at a different train station than usual, where she was going to pick me up so we could head over to her studio.

I pulled out my phone to call her, but unfortunately, the battery had been drained and my phone was laying lifeless in my palm. I was about 20 minutes from the station, and I needed to get in touch with Rachel.

Normally, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask anyone a question, however the question I needed to ask this time hinged on whether or not a person trusted me with their phone. Living in a smartphone dominated world means I wasn’t simply asking to borrow a phone, but rather, I was asking to be trusted with a device which had access to their Email, Calendar, Facebook, Twitter, financal institutions such as Mint or Paypal, Internet history, and of course, Letterpress games.

I scoped out the target, a middle-aged woman, who was sitting across the aisle. I took off my thick, dark-green jacket and beanie; my attempt to seem less threating. I start practicing my question.

  • Ma’am, can I please borrow your cell phone?” Too forward.
  • Excuse me. May I please borrow your phone?” Overly nice, she’d be suspicious.
  • Hi, excuse me, would you mind if I borrowed your phone for a quick call?” Perfect. Friendly, to the point. Just the right amount of information.

The train doors shut, and the next station wouldn’t be for 10 minutes. On this train line, that’s the longest between stops. She’ll know this, and realize I have nowhere to run. Plus, the conductor is standing right there! Now is my chance.

Leaning in my seat toward her, Hi, excuse me.” I said to the woman who was very interested in her book.

No response. Crap, I didn’t expect this. That book must be awesome.

A bit louder, Hi, ma’am?”

Nothing. Surely she can hear me, right?

The conductor and I make eye contact and we both shrug. 

Practically yelling, Excuse me, ma’am?” She looks up, thank God.

Hi, not sure if you could hear me not.” I fake laugh. She is not amused.

Remember the script, Ryan!

Would you mind if I borrowed your phone for a quick call? My phone is dead and I need to call my wife who’s waiting at the final stop.”

Crap, way too much information. There’s no way she’ll believe that.

…,” says the bookworm.

I’d… rather not.”

Nodding, I barely get out, Okay.”

What?! Two minutes before this train wreck of a conversation, I saw her sliding her fingertips around the device with the training of an Angry Birds veteran. 

Then I realized how much of a gamble this request was. I have no idea if I looked different (perhaps in an alternate universe where sans-beard, I worked in a suit and tie and had the charm of a prince), Jane McNotrust and I would be best friends. In that world we’d talk about the days when phone batteries lasted nothing short of a week and how phones only placed calls or maybe sent a text message.

But we don’t live there. We live in a world of consolidation and efficiency. Because of our investment into this idea of singular devices and connectibility, the request to call a loved one for less than 60 seconds, turns into a stress-inducing judgement call with much more to lose than just a cheap phone and some contact information.

After Jane left me high and dry, the conductor, having witnessed all this, chuckled and walked over. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone and handed it to me.

I quietly laughed, thanked him, and called my wife on his old Motorola Razr. The call quality was exceptional.