Smart Phone, Dumb Owner

Back when I had a primitive flip phone, I didn’t care about letting strangers make calls on my phone. What’s the big deal?

But now that I have a flashy, expensive smart phone, I’m a little more reticent to hand it to people I don’t know.

It’s not just the value of the phone itself that has me worried. It’s all the personal data stored on it. I feel like I’m opening the door to my bedroom whenever I hand my phone over, right there on the street.

Usually, I let people make their calls anyway. But there have been exceptions.

Outside the library in downtown Waterloo, Iowa was an example. That whole day was weird. To get to the library, I had to walk through what turned out to be the black side of town.

Who even thought random Iowa cities had black and white sides of town?

I noticed all the tell-tale signs of Rust Belt disinvestment. I vividly remember passing by a small clothing store in an ancient looking brick building with white siding. A few months later, I saw in the news that it’d burned down. The owners had been relying on space heaters to keep the building warm, an unfortunate fact suspected of causing the fire.

When I finally reach the library – it’s in the old post office, a beautiful, classical tan structure – the first thing I do is head to the local history section. And, surprisingly enough, there was a slim book from the ’60s outlining a plan to integrate Waterloo.

The findings were depressing. They pretty much decided that the only way to stop white flight in Waterloo, from what I understood, was to somehow distribute blacks evenly across every neighborhood.

You had to make white flight literally impossible to prevent it. That was, in their minds, the only realistic solution.


Downtown Waterloo is like a museum of the past. The ’40-’70s feel right within your grasp. Photo by David Wilson.

But I digress. This is about my cell phone, right?

So, yeah – the very second I leave the library, a younger guy with blond hair and some cuts and bruises on his face makes a beeline for me from somewhere inside.

“Hey, can I use your phone to make a call? I really need to make a call.”

He seems wired, desperate. I got a bad feeling.

I’d been using my phone in the library, and it weirds me out that he’d obviously noticed, but didn’t ask about it until we were outside. The eerily quiet, windswept streets on that brisk morning only add to my uncertainty.

“Sorry, I don’t have any minutes left,” I lie.

Besides, if the guy really needed help, he was at the library. It’s not like I was abandoning him in the middle of nowhere.

I could see by the look in his eyes that he didn’t agree with my assessment of the situation.

Well, whatever.

I got into another similar situation in Dallas, waiting for the light rail line at the Pearl/Arts District Station downtown. This was before I learned to never pull my phone out when I’m waiting for a train. You might as well put a blue beacon on your head and hold up a sign that reads Free Phone Calls.


Dallas light rail. New and clean. Photo by jefzila.

In this instance, almost the second the screen lights up on my phone, a drug-addled looking man in his 40s or 50s asks me if he can please, please make a call. I look at him, and then at the old Dallas High School, surrounded by barbwire, the doors boarded up.

Should I?

A pigeon pecks near our feet.

“Sure, here, I’ll put you on speakerphone,” I say.

In retrospect, I was kind of being an asshole, but the pushiness of people downtown that day was getting on my nerves. I’d just gotten done dealing with a guy that wanted me to buy stuff at 7-Eleven for him, because he wasn’t allowed in.

Anyway, the guy’s phone conversation basically amounted to assuring his women that he’d gotten the drugs and would be back soon.

“Babe, don’t say that. I’m on speakerphone.”

Yeah, that was really urgent, guy.

It got me to wondering: should I be letting strangers use my phone in the first place? Am I being a jerk or paranoid when I say no?

What do you think?


One thought on “Smart Phone, Dumb Owner

  1. You pose some good questions here, George, and I think that you are correct not to let strangers make calls on your phone. I have been in that situation once and firmly said “No” to the guy. I had the feeling that he was going to run off with my phone. He was less than happy and actually looked shocked that he didn’t get the answer that he wanted.

    These days data is being logged everywhere for however much time and we don’t need the hassle of a letter or a knock on the door to explain the who/what/why/where/when of someone else’s phone call or email.

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