Telephony Data and Other Intelligence Failures| Michael Maiello

Your iPhone always knows where it is, but you don’t always. Your cellular service provider always knows where your iPhone is. But you don’t always. The National Security Agency and various other government agencies operating under the rubric of the Directorate of National Intelligence always know where your iPhone is. But you don’t always.

IPhones have a way of slipping from my grasp, often in the presence of alcohol or other drugs. They are just so fun to play with while tipsy. You can look up that movie title that you just remembered you’d forgotten, text your wife, email your mom, and refuse all of your Outlook meeting requests without having to stop doing shots except long enough to pour. Sober, you risk stumbling upon the iPhone’s hidden banality.

Sober, your iPhone is a TV, a photo album, a mailbox, a Rolodex, a radio, and a whole bunch of novels, atlases, almanacs, travel books, and coupon pamphlets. It is nothing more than the contents your untidy aunt’s vestibule in outer Queens, minus the blind, epileptic Yorkie, and the bowl of candy of dubious provenance. Drunken, the iPhone is a technological marvel that rivals the Apollo space program. But drunkenly is how iPhone gets lost.

My iPhone 4S was lost when my son deposited it in the bag of trash that I had taken out to illegally dump in the corner basket one sodden evening. “Why didn’t I check the trash for my phone?” I would ask myself later. But, then, why would I? That next morning, I searched for it. I tore the apartment apart. I tried the “Find My Phone” app. But the phone was offline. I called AT&T. The phone had apparently updated from right outside our building, around 8 in the morning, when the garbage men came. I imagine my 4S, as it was tossed into the rusted metal bin of the sanitation truck that would be its mausoleum, reaching out a final time to belch its contents to bounce from tower to tower within and beyond the atmosphere, to reside in the cloud of iPhone backups, in communications purgatory. Oh, iPhone 4S, your body was made by man in China, you were designed by man in Cupertino, but your spirit shall reside in the ether until I can make my way to an AT&T store to purchase a new husk for you to animate with push notifications from <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>The Daily Beast.

“It’s alive!” I cried to the ceiling of the AT&T store on Lexington and 45th, as the iPhone 5 lit up with the soul of its ancestor. iPhone 5, I shall encase you in the finest armor and this time I shall pay for your life insurance so that, should anything happen to you, it will not take the work of two customer service representatives and a manager, all with a healthy disdain for their employer’s procedures, to break rule after rule so that I might replace you for less than $700. These people even gave me a stylus. The stylus remains packaged. It remains the stylus that AT&T paid for but can never again possess. It is the unbroken stylus of Prospero!

But iPhone 5, with its clever little plug that works with none of the other accessories, was not meant for a long life. On the night of the Gay Pride parade, it went missing from our West Village apartment. I remember playing with it, trying to make it download an episode of Super Hero Squad for myself, I mean, my son, but that’s it. It may have been dropped outside during a brief errand, or snatched from the windowsill where it charged. Its absence went unnoticed until morning when it became part of a frantic search that left me annoyed and late for work. Again, “FindMyPhone” was consulted and again, the phone was offline.

I imagined that it had died like its former self, squeaking out into the skies, transmitting its data to the cloud, to the Dropbox, and to the cosmos. My friends, you must never Snapchat a photo of your junk. Though it may disappear after ten seconds, the pattern of its photons can extend into space and, for all you know, might be visible to alien civilizations, the way we see the light of long dead stars from far away. Your sexy Snapchat might someday be a pornographic supernova viewed by an advanced and depraved interstellar empire. The truth is anybody up?

Now, the futile search begins for my lost companion. I call the phone throughout the day but am answered by my outgoing self on every first ring. I tell FindMyPhone to tell my phone, if activated, to lock and only allow the user to call or text my wife. I set the phone to erase its data – all of my photos and passwords and unread digital New Yorkers so that if somebody picks the lock, there will be nothing gained. I stand ready to call AT&T and have it bricked from their network, rendered useless to whoever might have stolen it.

But I don’t really believe it is stolen. I believe I have stupidly dropped it somewhere and that it will turn up. Well, it was stolen. I am fuming, but go to work without my phone. It’s like I went without a hand. Oh, iPhone. Did I compare you to my forgotten aunt’s sitting room in Queens? I am sorry, iPhone. Please come back. And bring Siri, who maybe I should talk to more often.

After work I go to Café Loupe to meet with some friends I had arranged to have drinks next to. Without my phone I am engaged in conversation and calm. I am not at work in absentia. My anger and frustration over it all is ebbing. Then, the reservations guy informs me that I have a phone call. At the bar, I have a phone call. The phone attached to the wall is summoning me. I could not have been more a man out of time than if I had lit cigar with a racist joke and slapped a waitress on the ass.

My wife, my hero, has been contacted by the man who has my phone. At first, she says, the guy is nice but kind of dumb. He wants to return the phone because he wants to “do the right thing because he has lost a phone before and he knows what it’s like.” He wants to meet my wife outside of the Path Station on 9th St. and 6th Avenue. My wife used FindMyPhone to verify that he is at a light rail station in Newark (very NSA!) but then she lost him – maybe he went underground? She embarked to retrieve the phone for me. But now the man has called again and asked if he would get a reward, which is creepy. Also, he is late. Also, she has our son with her. They are in a safe, public place and it is light out, but still. I am not far from her. I go. The next time he calls her, my wife says that I will be meeting him instead. He sounds different, though. He might be a different person. Also, he would rather meet a woman. “I’m coming for you, baby,” he says. Despite his wishes, my wife and I switch places. I wait for over an hour as the sun starts to set. The man never shows.

I have my wife’s phone now and she is at home with the computer. We can email. But, her phone is low on batteries. A phone in this circumstance will never be fully charged. After a very long wait, my wife tries FindMyPhone again. It is dark. She gets a ping. She found him. The phone is … right outside, or maybe inside, our apartment on Barrow and Hudson.

Our attempt to play NSA with FindMyPhone has now turned into Scream. I run very fast from 6th Avenue into the maw of the horror movie and arrive home, sweated through my casual office attire. There is no supernatural killer. FindMyPhone has not found my phone. It has found the computer running itself and is telling us that wherever you go, there you are.

I scream and curse. Why won’t FindMyPhone do what it says it does? Because, it turns out, it does exactly what it says it does. When I so cleverly set the phone to erase upon activation in the New Jersey Light Rail Station, it did what I asked and erased everything, including the FindMyPhone app, rendering itself untraceable.

My wife offers to make it better with a martini. But we are both disappointed. We thought everything was going to work out. Sometimes, you just want that. I feel guilty that she put herself in harm’s way to get the phone. I will just file an insurance claim. This is silly. My wife goes out to get some wine. We’re going to make a date out of it.

But when she returns, lugging wine bottles, the man contacts her again, by voice and text. He still wants to bring the phone back home. I text him back. He wants to meet in the Village. He is still in New Jersey. I suggest 7th Avenue and Christopher Street. He agrees. Now he wants $200. “That much?” I ask. “I thought you were trying to do the right thing.” He explains that he bought the phone for $200 but now he can’t sell it because all he can do is call and text me. He wants to sell it back to me for what he paid because nobody else will buy the hopelessly locked phone.

I take my wife’s phone, $20 and nothing else with me. I call the cops and tell them that I am to meet the person who says he has my stolen phone and where. They send a squad car with flashing lights to the meeting spot, so of course, the guy doesn’t show up there.

“Isn’t it insured?” asks the cop, unmoved by the drama of a case that would make a great episode of Law and Order: Smartphone Victims Unit. Every day, crimes are committed in the Big Apple store …

“Yes, it’s insured, but this guy’s been fucking with me, so now I want my phone back.”

The cops leave but say they will be in the area. Soon after I get a call. “Meet me on Hudson and Christopher.”

This is still a safe, well-trafficked place to meet. Though now I realize that I’m stupid for having my wife’s phone with me. It’s the only thing on me worth stealing and, if I get myself arrested, I will not be able to call my wife to let her know. So, either I have to take my phone from him by force, trick him into getting arrested, or both. The cops, meanwhile, are “in the area,” but I have no idea what that means.

I choose a spot outside of Brooklyn Industries as my base. I back up against the brick wall so I can see the street in both directions and the back of my head is not exposed to cowardly bashing. There are three guys across the street, doing nothing, hanging out by the tree. I get the call. “See those guys? Those are my back up.”

“Why do you need back up?” I ask. “Who brings back up to do a guy a favor?”

“I’m here,” he says. “Up the street. “

I look and a guy on a phone, in a green shirt, is pointing at me and jumping up and down. I run towards him and he bolts in the other direction.

Wait? He’s running? He doesn’t want to fight? And I am chasing? Why am I chasing when I could have taken his picture? Oh, because I am a howling monkey who wants to smash this guy’s face in. But, wait, this animal temper thing is messing with my sophisticated Scooby Doo plan of retrieving the phone and getting the guy arrested. I call 911 as I charge after the thief but dialing means taking my eyes off of him for too long and he’s gone. His “back up” such as it was, is also gone.

The police arrive later and briefly harass the wrong guy because the guy because he is wearing a green shirt. The guy hisses that I am “filing a false report.” But all I did was say “green shirt.”

“You said it’s insured,” the cop said.

“Sorry to bother you,” I finally say. I am seething.

“It’s not a bother,” says the cop.

But it totally is. I feel stupid and angry. I send a bunch of texts to my old phone calling the guy a gutless coward who lacks balls and other organs of courage (like a spleen). I do feel a little better because, hey, he ran.

As I’m walking home, he calls me. “I’m back in Jersey, you lose,” he says. But he doesn’t get his $200. So, I win. I am still fuming and mean the rest of the night. I am bad company and a bad father. I am torn up by the spent energy, wasted time, and my fast and pointless trip to the dark side of temper and temerity. What sense of privilege gave me the idea to use the NYPD as a posse? How stupid was it to go outside to get into a fight over a phone? Father of the year, right? Husband of the year, right?

Besides, it’s insured. I had been paying $6 a month for insurance of the last laugh.

I file the insurance claim online. Last laugh, time. They are out of iPhone 5s. I scream. I call. The insurance division closed 5 minutes ago. I have to wait until morning.

In the morning, I call and am given good news. They overnight replacement phones for their valued customers. I could have my phone tomorrow, were it in stock. I am transferred to a supervisor. Her name is Sparkle. I will not speak to Sparkle. I will not explain the concept of a contractual insurance obligation to an extra from <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>Rainbow Brite. I demand a supervisor with a normal name. But Jeff can’t help me either, because Jeff is a douche.

I spend the morning emailing and calling every executive I can find contact information for. Finally, because they want me to go away, they agree to let me buy a full priced iPhone at the AT&T store on Lexington and 45th, and they overnight me a reimbursement check. As my new phone reincarnates with the soul of the lost, the nice lady at the AT&T store says, “You know, the insurance should have covered the lost case, too. You should tell them about that.”

But, no. There is no further case to be made for continuing this debacle. It is just a phone. It’s not like somebody stole my car. That would be totally different, right? If it had been a car, I could have used my phone to track its GPS, NSA style, while tracing its movements through Easypass transactions, luring the car thief into a trap of law enforcement and maybe Ninjas … Wait? Cars are insured, too?


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Michael Maiello (also known as “Destor23”) is a New York based columnist, performer, fiction author and playwright. He is the author of Shuts & Failures, Rejected New Yorker Pieces (Also Rejected by McSweeney’s!). He worked for ten years at Forbes Media, writing and editing for both Forbes Magazine and Forbes.com and also appeared frequently on CNBC, Fox News, Fox Business News, CNN and MSNBC.  He is also the author of the 2004 book Buy The Rumor, Sell The Fact: 85 Wall Street Maxims and What They Really Mean. He has performed stand up comedy at The Laugh Factory, The Comic Strip and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Mama D’s Arts Bordello and The Lost and Found Show. He has had four plays published (Night of Faith and Waiting For Death by Playscripts.com; Principia and Troy! Troy! Troy! by The New York Theatre Experience/ indiethieatrenow). He has written for The Daily, Reuters, Esquire, McSweeney’s, the Liar’s Leaguereading series, theNewerYork.

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