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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

April 12, 2014 at 8:22 PM

When the world is your phone charger: The things we do for plugs

(Photo by Raymond Bryson on Flickr, creative commons)

(Photo by Raymond Bryson on Flickr, creative commons)

I saw the old man approach out of the corner of my eye.

He looked at me, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. Then at my phone, held to my ear. Then at the tree lining the sidewalk that my phone was plugged in to, a power outlet at its base gripping both my charger and the string of lights the folks at University Village had hung on its branches.

Then he shook his head, muttered under his breath and moved on.

Oops, I thought. Busted.

It is amazing the places to which we’ll stoop — sometimes literally — to charge our devices in a pinch. Like Twitter user @paultergeist, who spotted a utility outlet near the ceiling of a commuter train. Or Gabriel Cruz, who hoped he wouldn’t get electrocuted as he charged at an outlet by a water hose while standing on a ledge outside KeyArena.

Or me, who realized that day a couple weeks ago that my phone’s battery was at 4 percent, I had a call in 2½ minutes, and the weirdness of parking my butt by a random tree at a busy mall for an hour was something I could live with.

As long as it’s been about the phones, it’s been about the power. An empty stomach is bearable for a little while. But a drained phone? Forget it.

You’d think we’d hold on to our chargers better than we do.

“It’s definitely one of the most common things guests leave in their rooms,” said Tawny Paperd, director of sales and marketing at Hotel 1000 in downtown Seattle.

If no one claims all those lost chargers after 90 days — and the hotel contacts the guests who’ve left them — they go into a “share bin” at the concierge desk. Ask, and you can use one. Ask nicely, and the concierge will even baby-sit your charging phone while you go out on the town.

Nothing is worse, after all, than being made immobile by your mobile phone.

So more and more people swear by these phone battery packs. Have you seen these? They’re extra bricks of power you can plug your phone into when an outlet isn’t convenient. Mophie is a popular brand. A pack starts at $25.

“To me that is worth the peace of mind of not having to find someone else’s outlet, and not being stuck at that outlet for 20-30 minutes trying to charge up, interrupting my day,” Seattle gadget writer Andru Edwards, who travels with a couple of packs, wrote me on Facebook.

Of course, he has to remember to keep those charged, too.

If you’re good, you’ve developed a spatial radar that helps you zero in on likely outlets in the wild. Barb Chamberlain knows to check a room’s perimeter, then any and all support pillars.

But if an outlet is out in public, does that make it OK to use?

Seattle Parks and Recreation doesn’t keep count of how many outlets it has installed in the city’s 6,400 acres of public parks. Many are locked and secured. Others don’t get turned on unless someone’s renting the space for an event. But many others are open, operational and unregulated.

People use them. I’ve used them. So far, at least, the parks department doesn’t mind.

“It’s not really been a problem,” said spokeswoman Joelle Hammerstad. There was that one time a group of teens started getting into trouble hanging out by a park outlet that had to be shut off, but still.

Charging an iPhone 5 for a whole year costs about 41 cents, on average, and less here in Washington, where electricity is cheap.

A Seattle City Light spokesman advised that you should ask permission before using someone else’s power, but noted the low cost.

Because honestly: If someone wants to charge you with theft for plugging your phone in to their open outlet, they might as well be charging you for picking up a penny off the floor.

Sarasota, Fla., came under fire when it arrested a homeless man for charging his phone in a park in 2012. A judge threw out the case. In Bangor, Maine, in 2011, a homeless man was arrested for charging his phone at an outlet behind some flowers. The case was dropped.

When Seattle Center locked up many of its wayward outlets in the Armory in 2012, a group of homeless men claimed it was partly because the Center didn’t want the men to hang around areas where new restaurants and services would attract bigger crowds.
Power draws people. All people.

It seems an easy enough thing to share.

Thanks to everyone who shared their power hungry stories on Facebook last week!

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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