Last weekend, I set out for the subway to meet some friends at a bar, equipped with an almost-dead phone. I could have, and most definitely should have, charged it when I was back at home — instead, I ignored the 10 percent battery warning.
At this point, I should have enacted iPhone triage, using my 10 percent battery for the most crucial tasks — like confirming the meeting spot via text, and providing my ETA — and then enabled airplane mode to conserve juice for an “emergency” and suffered without music on my 40-minute ride. I did not. I opened Google maps to check the train times. Then I fired up a walking song on Spotify, sent a few non-crucial texts, and refreshed my email. By the time I got to the subway, my phone was at 4 percent. So I played Dots on the ride. By the time I got to the bar, my phone was totally dead.
I’d been at home for, like, six hours. A home with outlets, with electricity for powering things. Instead of taking advantage of these amenities, however, I succumbed to my lack of self-control and foresight and made the all-too-common choice to screw myself over. And of course, I am not the only one: There are lots of us, and we are the iPhone zombies, reduced to wandering in and out of bars chirping, “Do you have an iPhone charger? Do you have an iPhone charger?” while vacillating between desperate nomophobia and enraged entitlement. Sometimes this means we befriend a random guy in the bar who has a fully charged Mophie case. Sometimes we crouch in a weird corner near an outlet while our friends drink elsewhere without us. (I once set up camp in a bar bathroom for 20 minutes to get some battery — nobody should spend 20 minutes in a bar bathroom.) Our phones have become our single tools of communication, navigation, time-telling, entertainment, and research. Is there any one thing we rely on more? When an iPhone dies, the only thing to do is panic. Panic, and maybe cry. Most often, though, we throw ourselves on the mercy of the bartender — the ones who bear the weight of our collective irresponsibility.
Anyway, I arrived at the bar with my dead phone last weekend and asked the most annoying question of all. “Can I just plug in my phone?” I began. “I’m late to meet a friend, but I can’t find her. My phone is dead, so I can’t even text her! Can I use your charger for 15 minutes? Oh also, a Budweiser, please?” No, said the bartender, citing fear of liability and liquids. After a minute of full-on begging, I shifted gears to enraged entitlement. “Are you kidding me?” I demanded. “But I see a charger right there. Nobody is even using it!” I stormed out, leaving my beer untouched. At the sports bar next door, Professor Thom’s, I discovered the concept of “pay-per-charge” stations, which the owners had installed to pacify needy, obnoxious people like me and, possibly, you.
“People are so entitled,” said Rose, the bartender at Professor Thom’s. “They won’t look you in the eye. It’s so off-putting and unattractive. And I hate to say it, but women are really the worst about it.”
She recalled how one girl kept asking if she could just check her text messages while her phone was charging behind the bar. A huge faux pas, according to Rose. “Listen, I’m not a runner. If you put it back here, you sacrifice your right to use it,” she said. “As long as you’re polite, I don’t mind. It’s the people that treat us like servants, not servers. That’s when I’m like, You can go fuck yourself.”
In general, if the bar isn't jam-packed (e.g., prime-time Saturday), the customer is pleasant, and there's a free cord available, bartenders are happy to help. The bartenders I’ve spoken to recently acknowledge that electricity-beggars — and our occasional bad behavior and temper tantrums — won’t be going away, so they’re trying to figure out better ways of dealing with us.
Some, like Professor Thom’s and Union Pool in Williamsburg, offer pay-per-charge phone lockers. (The iPhone-zombie cycle of laziness and irritation is exactly the sort of modern scourge — both reliably annoying and totally petty — that’s the perfect basis for a tech start-up, so it makes sense that one has already arisen. Brightbox, a service offering secure charging stations, was inspired by a founder’s time behind the bar.) Meanwhile, the Brass Monkey in Chelsea will charge phones, but keeps them in pint glasses for protection ever since a beer-soaked iPhone resulted in a bartender coughing up $450. Now, on any given night, there are almost a dozen iPhones lined up on the bar in glasses.
As one bartender at Iona in Williamsburg told me, “I hate when people ask, but what are you going to do? We’re in the service industry — so we provide a service.” Iona, even though it pains the bar's employees to do so, keeps a bin of chargers behind the bar for patrons to use, which I gleefully did — twice — one night I was there.
Before the age of smartphones, when people somehow survived and even managed to make plans to meet each other, I’ve been told you could call a bar and leave a message for someone, or perhaps just use the phone, free of charge. A neighborhood bar could be part answering service, part pay phone, part booze station — just what the community needed. Left Hand Path Bar in Bushwick offers a contemporary version of that ideal: The bar is designed with built-in USB ports and outlets, with the customers' predicted appreciation in mind. “We’re not like a Silicon Valley–wannabe hangout,” owner Travis Boettcher told me. “We’re a community bar, and this is something people need.” It’s BYOCharger, though — don’t ask if they have extras.
Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we’ll find ways to reclaim our autonomy and keep our own phone batteries charged as long as we need them. Maybe Apple will finally release a phone with a battery that lasts, or perhaps the phone-charging clothing that’s currently in development at places like Maytag will hit the market. Until that happens, Rose reminds me of the most important rule when begging to charge a dead phone: “Tip. You should absolutely tip. Absolutely. This isn’t in my job description. I don’t owe you anything.”