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.