The Favor

I don’t use a cell phone.  At first, it was because I really didn’t need one.  Then I thought that I could make a quiet personal statement about the silliness of instant access – glances down at a discreet cell phone in the lap, followed by a scrape of a chair as the owner gets up from dinner to retrieve a call, perhaps punctuated with an apologetic shrug of the shoulders.  While these basic complaints are still true, my avoidance of a cell phone is now just plain ridiculous – I am like the caveman Ooga Magook who has rejected the wheel and insists on carrying heavy loads with a yoke burdening his back.  Nowhere is this clearer than at the airport.

Last week I headed off for a birding field trip to the remote hills of Virginia.  In anticipation I had recharged the prepaid cell phone that I use solely for airport pickups, but then of course forgot it on the mudroom counter.  When Nick dropped me off, I said that I would probably next talk to him in five days from an airport pay phone, if I could find one.  While it might be possible to rely on the kindness of strangers to borrow a cell phone, I have found that people are generally more possessive of these phones.  There is a limited spectrum of favors that I feel comfortable asking of a complete stranger, ranging from borrowing a pen or a Kleenex, momentarily holding my place in line or switching seats on an airplane.  The next level of favors segues into uncomfortable personal territory.  Borrowing a cell phone would be in the same category as borrowing a pair of nail clippers for a particularly bothersome hang nail, but less intrusive than asking a stranger for a spare tampon.

I was now literally flying without a safety net.  As I stood in the clotted security line, I began to ponder the unintended consequences of reliance on cell phones.  One that particularly irks me is that now I are more apt to call an individual instead of a household.  Gone are those 2-3 minute conversations with other household members, such as children or spouses.  While not consequential individually, collectively these snippets provide a context for an ongoing relationship.  When I called my brother’s household the other day, the message on the house phone invited me to leave a message, but also warned me that they generally don’t listen to these messages anymore, relying primarily on their cell phones.  The cute little conversations with my nieces are probably gone as we orbit in non-overlapping worlds.

Similarly, I have limited opportunities to have conversations with my children’s friends.  If their friends come to our house for a pick-up, they simply call from the driveway.  It is no longer necessary for friends to ring the doorbell and introduce themselves for the parental once-over.  Remembering phone numbers is a lost art.  Growing up, everyone in our town had the same exchange – Cedar 4 – so all I had to do was remember 4 numbers.  And the elite numbers committed to my mental rolodex were a sign of a true friendship – Lucy/Helen/Susan were 5309/4086/0979 respectively.  Our town has now expanded to multiple exchanges and cell phones can have all sorts of different area codes.  So the simple four digit number has mushroomed to a challenging 10.  There is also no directory assistance for cell phone numbers, so sometimes I am forced to leave a futile message on the home phone.

Nick remembers that the home phones of his childhood were located in public places such as the kitchen counter or TV room.  There was no guarantee of a private conversation.  Even if you yanked the phone into the bathroom and locked the door, a sibling could quietly pick up the receiver and eavesdrop.   Cell phone calls are completely private, which I suppose is an advantage.  However, based on crime procedural shows, you cannot count on privacy in terms of your location.  Apparently it is possible for the police to figure out the location of your cell phone by tracking pinging cell towers.

I was now through airport security, and as I headed toward the gate, I scouted the location of a pay phone for the return flight.  I finally found a single pay phone at gate B6 and tucked away its location for my return flight.  Where there used to be banks of pay phones, there are now work stations where travelers can recharge and check emails.  Gone is the opportunity to randomly swab your finger through the coin trough along a row of pay favor coinphones.  And gone is the spurt of joy if you found the rare abandoned quarter and the excited flush of thinking that you could become one of those naturally lucky people,  and that anything was possible.  Years ago in college I found a dollar bill on the lecture hall steps at exactly the same time as another student.  We stood up with the dollar stretching tautly between us, and as I gently tugged, I thought the best solution might be to rip the dollar in half.  However, without saying a word, the other student reached into his pocket and handed me two quarters and took the dollar for himself.  This was entirely fair, but I was not in it for the money.  It was the lucky dollar I wanted, not the grimy quarters.

I successfully met my birding group in Charlottesville, and off we went.  Two days into the trip, I decided that it would be appropriate to call home and give Nick the hotel phone number in case of emergency.  However, this seedy hotel, whose brochure proudly noted its (untouched) “classic 1950s style” architecture, did not provide telephones in the hotel room or the hotel lobby.  Instead I was directed across the street to the pay phone at the gas station.  I trudged over, only to discover that the phone had been ripped off of the wall. favor ripped out phone My grip on communication was now very tenuous.  I felt untethered, like the pioneer who goes off on a prolonged hunting trip, and when he gets home everything has changed – a plague of locusts has passed through, his wife is hearing voices and the dog got crushed beneath the wagon wheel.

Two days later I was on my way home and anticipating all of its comforts, including my land line.  But first I knew that I had to finesse the airport pick up without the use of a cell phone.  Before I got on the plane, I made sure to get a couple of dollars in change, but I knew the best strategy was to befriend a seatmate and borrow a cell phone.  This went against my standard airline behavior of burying my head in a book to eliminate any possibility of being yoked to a relentlessly gabby neighbor.   I scoped out the possibilities next to my seat in row 25, among all the other losers in seating group 5.  There wasn’t much potential.  The person on the window seat was already asleep, and the middle seat was vacant.  The person across the aisle was possible, but this geography was not ideal.  My strategy was to take advantage of the forced intimacy of economy seating.  How could anyone refuse a favor if elbows were grazing and thighs abutting?  And then the middle seat arrived and this nice looking young man became my mark.

I was willing to bide my time to make my move, but then the captain announced that we would be delayed on the tarmac indefinitely due to bad weather, and I knew that I should make a call home.  I glanced over at my mark, and was ecstatic to see that he was watching the Blackhawks playoff game in the tiny little screen embedded in the seat in front.  Here was common ground.  “Are you a Hawks fan, and is that a live playoff game?” I asked.

“Yes, but not for long,” he said.  “This plane is equipped with direct TV, but this is a preview.  To keep on watching you have to swipe your credit card for 6 bucks.”

We then chatted about our shared interest in hockey just long enough for me to spring the question.  “Would it be all right if I borrowed your cell phone to make a quick call to my husband to let him know that the plane has been delayed?”

He said no problem, and as I made the call the screen went dark on the hockey game.  I said, “Hey why don’t I swipe my card on your TV and then we can both watch the hockey game?”  Certainly a friendly and generous gesture, although my secret agenda was to establish such a bond that I would feel no compunction in asking for a second crack at the cell phone when we landed.

“Thanks, but I shouldn’t be watching the game,” he said, “I really need to study.”  I looked down and noticed he was highlighting a book on nephrology and sensed additional common ground.  It turns out that he was a resident at Rush University in Chicago, my alma mater, and as we chatted further about my good old days in medical school, I established myself as a commiserating mother figure.  When we landed he passed me his cell phone without any prompting.

Now I was almost at the finish line with one more hurdle to face.  The departure gate had demanded that everyone in seating section 5 and above check their carry-on bags since this full flight had limited overhead bin space.  Unfortunately, the bags would be delivered to baggage claim.  Therefore a smooth airport pick up would require one more call to notify Nick that I had successfully retrieved my bag.  My new friend said I could certainly use his cell phone again at baggage claim, but his bag came out first, and I could hardly ask him to wait for mine – maybe if we had been thigh to thigh for four hours or more, but a 90 minute flight did not warrant this level of favor.

Stranded again, with a bulging pocket of change but no pay phone in sight.  I spotted a uniformed woman at a desk and boldly asked for the favor.  She looked up and said, “There used to be so many pay phones around, I really understand your problem,” and she pushed the phone towards me.  Minutes later, the smooth airport pick up was completed and I was whizzing home.  Turns out that the kindness of strangers is not a bad way to go.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

Gone are the days when there were pay phones *******

And a local call was only ten cents or at most twenty.

With no cell phone, I knew the airport pick-up would be difficult to complete

Especially since I didn’t have a **** *** as I settled in my cramped seat.

But I decided I could ask a favor from a stranger especially since our thighs touched.

And if that is the only ******* I have to pay, it’s one that I don’t mind so much.







Aplenty, plan yet, penalty

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