Marcin Muchalski says he didn’t believe the man pointing a gun at him and demanding his cell phone was really going to shoot him. Unfortunately, he was wrong. But a bullet to the leg later, the 26-year-old Muchalski was bleeding onto the Williamsburg Bridge walkway at 7 a.m. on Easter Sunday and still refusing to hand over the phone.
There are very few situations in which this sort of behavior would seem the slightest bit reasonable (and it’s fairly clear that Muchalski’s phone didn’t contain the country’s nuclear codes). Yet this isn’t the first time the potential loss of a cell phone has distorted a New Yorker’s judgment. In February, 19-year-old Lina Villegas was killed by a subway train while trying to recover her phone from the tracks. Four months earlier, another dropped cell phone resulted in 41-year-old Edwin Gallart’s having his arm extricated from a Metro-North train toilet with the jaws of life.
In Muchalski’s quick mental calculation, performed quite literally under the gun, the inconveniences of getting a new phone (a Nokia 3390, which retails for $74.99) somehow made the risk of being shot acceptable. But his reaction was also strangely understandable.
What was ten years ago a novelty item has now become an essential object. The paradox of the urban cell phone, though, is that it both liberates and enslaves its owner. Cell-phone users are free to do a number of things the phoneless are not—like showing up late to dinner, or rescheduling appointments on the fly. They are, in short, free to be more irresponsible adults.
The price they pay is dependency on a little piece of fallible electronic gadgetry that may malfunction, get lost, or, in extreme cases, be demanded at gunpoint. A cell phone dead or gone tends to produce a range of unpleasant emotions. The user experiences the alienation that comes with being unable to contact people at all times in all places. He or she may also feel the sense of loss that accompanies the departure of an assiduously compiled address book full of loved ones, hated enemies, and the professional contacts in between. The bereaved are also assaulted by the wave of insecurity that results from the inability to call for help.
Muchalski perhaps feared the latter when he held on to his Nokia. And he likely felt some degree of vindication when, limping from the bullet wound, he managed to flee and call the police—on his cell phone—who promptly arrested his assailant.