Yes, It's Only A Phone, But It's Also Very Personal

Sondra Russell's daughter.

This this is just another embarrassing photo left on my missing iPhone. Sondra Russell/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sondra Russell/NPR

A couple days ago, I was enjoying a stolen hour, sharing a beer with a dear friend on the patio of a local restaurant. I set my iPhone on the table — as I usually do — to monitor the time, see incoming calls and be ready to show off photos of my daughter whenever (not) asked. It was hot out and my phone's black case was attracting more sun than was healthy, so I tucked it under a napkin to shield it from the damaging rays. As we got up to leave, I scanned the table, saw only a pile of white napkins, so without thinking I walked away without my iPhone.

I realized my mistake a few minutes later and rushed back to the restaurant. The manager was friendly but jaded. I got the feeling they get this all the time.

"I left my $400 phone on the table for just a minute! Has some kindly patron turned it in?" He gave me his card and little encouragement that I would ever see my phone again.

I was devastated.

In the few days since I lost my phone, a political career has ended, a revolution has raged, and people in my own city have died in a horrible metro accident, so, why can't I get over the loss of one little iPhone? It's just a pile of plastic and silicon! After a couple sleepless nights, it dawned on me. Apple wanted me to develop a personal relationship with my iPhone. They just didn't recognize the long term emotional consequences of their marketing plan.

Before the unfortunate event, my iPhone was by my side literally every minute of the day. At work, it was my connection to the world outside my cubicle. At night, it was the music box that put my daughter to sleep. On the weekend, it was my link to friends and family. In the mornings, it woke me up to my favorite song.

My iPhone was also a robust, multi-platform replacement for the memory box I used to keep as a kid. It held a timeline of photos of my daughter — from birth to toddler hood — including the one I took last Friday where her face is painted like a lion's. It held special voicemails I'd saved for months and iPod playlists I'd given embarrassing titles to like "Rockabilly Binge" and "Wonder Pets, We Love You!" It held every e-mail I'd read or sent for the last year, and at least a dozen text messages that ended with the phrase "ruv u."

The phone company suggested I check the call list and, lo and behold, someone used the phone this morning — a one minute call to a cell phone in a D.C. suburb. Not thinking it completely through, I called the number and heard a man's thick accent on the end of the line. "Someone took my phone and called you with it this morning. Can you help me?" He claimed he didn't understand English and hung up on me. I sat at my desk and shook.

I could call him back, but what would I say? I could call the restaurant again, or the police, but I suspect they would view the situation with the kind of perspective I should be applying myself. People are dying out there, Ms. Russell. Buy a new one and be more careful next time!

And they would be right. And, in truth, it's about not the phone; it's not about the money. It's the fact that my daughter's lion-painted face is likely staring out from a little black box sitting on some strange kitchen counter in some strange house in Falls Church, Virginia. And there's nothing I can do about it, except remind myself that to him, it's not personal. It's just an iPhone.

Sondra Russell is NPR's web metrics analyst.

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