The Case of the Missing Cell Phone

July 25, 2011

A couple of months ago, a got a new phone for the first time in five years. Given that I work with nerds, and live in a pretty affluent part of the richest country in the world, most people reacted to seeing my new phone with the following statement.

“Why didn’t you get an iPhone?”

Most people expect a better, probably more ideological reason than “I’m on a weird, manually negotiated plan with Verizon, and as a result, getting an iPhone would cost me a lot more money”, but that’s the only one I have. The iPhone looks cool, and I bet I would enjoy owning one, but I don’t, and that’s pretty much the end of that. Given that I’m not exactly lacking in the “Apple branded consumer electronics” department, I think I’m going to be okay. They aren’t making you move out of Fairfax County for not owning an iPhone… yet.

One thing that’s interesting, though, is that absolutely NO ONE I know is impressed by my new phone, other than me. Sometimes, this surprises me, but then I realize that I’ve been using a Samsung 400bxq or whatever it was called since they invented YouTube, and that I’m probably pretty easy to impress. Having a functioning web browser on your phone might still be recognized by many as the luxury that it is, but it’s not something that blows people’s minds anymore. The same goes for Facebook and MP3s and decent looking video capabilities.

I’m beyond okay with this. I’m thrilled. I’m a dork, and I love cutting edge technology and what-have-you, but it’s not a social outlet for me in any way whatsoever. Not only do I not need to have the coolest phone in the room, I actually find it undesirable to. I mean, who really wants to be known for the consumer products they own? What kind of an identity IS that? I’m the same way with musical equipment, another dorky universe that people take way, way too seriously. Most of the time, people see my bass — which I love — and want to know if it’s Mexican, or Japanese, or what kind of wood it’s made out of, or some dumb thing like that, so that they can tell me how much better the one from Norway that’s made out of titanium is. Every once in a while, someone tells me that I have the greatest bass in the world, and how much better it is than theirs, and I have pretty much the same disinterested reaction. I like it. It is what it is. 

But back to my phone. I’ve only lost one phone in my life; a $35 Cricket (a crappy regional carrier, if you haven’t heard of them) model from back when we were putting the screws to Verizon for a month or so. It wasn’t worth much, and we were getting rid of the service, so I was admittedly careless with the thing, and eventually I left it in someone’s car or something. Lesson learned. But other than that, I’m pretty careful with phones — which is why I was really surprised when I couldn’t find my new-ish phone the other day. 

Some background; the last time I remembered having it, I had just come inside with my bike (I was listening to music on it), and put it on our front counter. After that, I don’t know what happened, but I still had the charger and the little headphones that came with it. After about two weeks of not having a phone, and seeing if it would turn up, we started really tearing up our house (and cars) trying to find it, but to no avail. Usually, when I lose something, there’s a scenario in my mind that, however unlikely it seems, would explain the loss of whatever is missing. Here, though, I had nothing. Where the hell could I have put it? Where do I even go these days, anywhere? And who would want to steal a Palm Pre 2?

This is where things get interesting. We remembered that we had called the phone a day or so after I lost it, and that for some reason, it had rang. It’s a Palm, though, so it basically dies without a charger after about 16 hours of standby; how was it ringing? My wife, who is somehow both incredibly naive and frighteningly savvy, decided to do some digging, and started checking our phone bill. The bill itself wasn’t any different than normal (which is why we hadn’t noticed it before), but the call log was different than what we had expected. A few days after my last call on the phone… it started calling people. And texting people. A lot. Even weirder… they were LOCAL people.

No calls to France, or Mexico. No app purchases or anything like that. Just tons, and tons, and tons of texts and a few phone calls to people within a few miles of our neighborhood.

Being equally naive myself, it took a minute to dawn on me. Someone from our neighborhood HAD my phone? And was using it casually? What could they possibly be thinking? Surely, it wasn’t of any long term use; we’d obviously be suspending the account before we ended up paying for another month of service, and then what good would it do them? Why wasn’t it already sold on Ebay, if it was worth anything? And WAS it even worth anything? It was a freaking Palm, for crying out loud. It was, in phone terms, about as sexy and desirable as our Hondas.

As I stood there, pondering the infinite possibilities of all this, my wife decided to be more direct.

She started calling the numbers. 

Yep, no dallying around for her. She was direct, but friendly. Hello? Can I ask who this is? Have you happened to get any calls from a 401 number lately? All in her just slightly/maybe a little flirty voice I don’t think I’ve heard since college, or since she was trying to get our cable bill lowered before we cut the cord a few years ago. 

She took copious notes of her conversations, and very quickly, the picture started to get clearer. Everyone we called was an uncomfortable sounding high school boy; one of the nicer ones practically told her his life story. Name, hobbies, where he went to school, where he had been accepted to college, the whole bit. 

We Googled, and Googled, and Googled some more. In minutes, we had graduation lists, basketball team pictures, and a lot of names. But ultimately, my wife didn’t need much of it for anything other than satisfying our curiosity. Within an hour, she had convinced the thief — through one of his friends — to give up the phone, no questions asked. We got an address to pick it up (under a for sale sign, I kid you not) just a block or so from our house, and sure enough, there it was, no worse for wear. 

He blanked the phone (wise), but also forgot to tell his friends to stop calling and texting it (less wise), so within another 20 minutes, we had his name, age, and position on the local high school football team (6’2, 140lb sophomore tight end — hit the weight room, dawg). My wife even got him and another one of his friends to accept a Facebook friend request, which absolutely blew my mind. 

We laughed, and Palm is actually pretty good about restoring everything (IT’S IN THE CLOUD, MAN!!!!), so my phone is pretty much completely back to normal, minus a bazillion MP3s, which I’ll put back some day. But the really amazing thing here is just how disconnected I am from whatever teenage society is these days. I mean, seriously, what was this kid thinking? If you’re willing to take (possibly while I was playing basketball, that’s our current theory) my cell phone, and then use it indefinitely, even telling all your friends that this is your new number, how are you able to be convinced to RETURN it when we have absolutely no leverage? And if it’s because you’re just a nice, considerate, kid, then WHY DID YOU STEAL MY PHONE IN THE FIRST PLACE?

So many questions. Did you think we’d actually pay your imaginary cell phone bill for you? Did this phone (somehow) make you look cool to the other 16 year olds for a few minutes? Don’t all kids have cell phones now, especially in Fairfax County? Did you actually buy a proprietary charger for this cell phone, knowing it was going to be shut off in a few days? Or did you steal one of those from someone else?

I dunno. But thanks for not throwing it in a lake, I guess. That’s what my generation probably would have done.