In the large list of calamities that could happen to you on a given day (let’s not dwell on the possibilities), forgetting your wallet at home is a pretty minor one.
1. I live about 45 minutes outside of Austin and didn’t realize the wallet was missing until I was long gone. I couldn’t just run home on a break and retrieve it.
2. I didn’t have any cash of any kind around. There was no $20 bill hiding in my car’s glove compartment or an envelope of petty cash in my desk. I was without dollars, completely.
But I am resourceful and I am a technologically capable man about town in the year 2017. So this should be no problem, right? I have an iPhone and I have Apple Pay, with one of my credit cards housed in the digital guts of my device, like a tiny and very accommodating financier. I imagine him a little guy who wears a monocole and says things like, “Care for a spot of Starbuck’s, sir? I think the Flat White sounds agreeable, don’t you?”
I decided to see how long I could last for the day using only Apple Pay and not asking co-workers for a loan or, say, selling my blood. (Do people really buy blood? Is that a thing?)
My first stop was Company Kitchen, the semi-automated snack area at my workplace where you grab stuff and pay for these items at an ATM-like kiosk. Company Kitchen has a thumbprint reader and it knows my thumb well from dozens of purchases of Topo Chico drinks and maybe lots of bags of chips. Don’t judge.
I rolled up to Company Kitchen to see if lunch might be in order. My Company Kitchen balance was 52 cents, not enough to buy anything, really. I was getting hungry and my thumb would not save me. I considered ordering food from a delivery service such as Favor or UberEATS, which I have installed in my phone with a credit card enabled. But I wasn’t going to be in one place long enough to wait 30 minutes to an hour; I had an appointment to keep.
The next stop, hunger growing, was a local mall for an Apple Store Genius Bar visit. My computer mouse got mangled in an unfortunate drop and my iPhone battery has been inconsistent lately. I asked the Apple employee who was helping me where someone could use Apple Pay at the mall since Apple doesn’t sell anything edible in its store. “Well, you’ve got Starbucks and Chick-fil-A and…” He took a thoughtful pause, “…that’s about it.”
I looked on Apple’s website to make sure I might not be missing another nearby Apple Pay-friendly eating option. Nope. He was right.
Armed with an excuse to eat fast food without my kids around, I ordered a chicken salad sandwich, a light lemonade and some waffle fries. I paid with my phone by tapping it on the pay terminal and mashing my thumb on the home button. Easy. Fast. But, unfortunately, not a widely available option given all the food choices around the mall and in the food court.
I had an event in the evening and wasn’t able to start commuting home until close to 10 p.m. that night. I was starting to get hungry again, but made myself wait to eat until I got home. All I had to do was get there. Which was a problem as my car, a Prius, was already edging toward empty.
Let me tell you something about owning a Prius; it makes you feel like you have conquered energy. Even when the tank is on empty, the gas gauge blinking and beeping at you in a miniature panic, you know you’ve got at least 20 or 30 miles before the situation gets dire. You can go quite a ways on no gas.
My empty indicator went off before I’d even left Austin. Could I really make it 50 miles on fumes? I wasn’t sure I was willing to find out.
About 20 miles into my trip, I began to get panicky, my devil-may-care Prius attitude replaced by sweaty fear. I pulled over to see what my gas station options might be with Apple Pay. Exxon and Chevron accept Apple Pay, but it seemed like every station I passed was Valero or Shell. I finally pulled over at a Shell station, hoping against hope that some agreement had been brokered with Apple and new pay terminals installed since the last time I checked. Nope. The cashier was more than adamant: no Apple Pay. No gas.
I wondered if pulling over, shutting down my engine, and starting it back up was going to waste more gas than if I had just kept going. I had visions of tow trucks and embarassing calls to my wife and needing to be bailed out. It didn’t feel great.
I ransacked my car, looking for any loose change under the floor mats, in the plastic storage compartment between the seats, in the glove compartment. A collection of pennies, a few quarters and some grimy nickels and dimes began to add up. I found a token from Pizza Piper Pizza and stared at it in my hand in disgust. In all, I collected $1.50 in usable coinage. I took it to the cashier. I got enough gas to maybe get home and the cashier got to grudgingly count out a handful of coins.
The next 30 minutes were filled with anxiety. But I thought I could make it.
I finally got off on my exit, where there’s an Exxon station. I decided to give it a try, filling up my tank so I wouldn’t be in such a panic taking my kids to school the next morning. A sign placed on all the pumps read, “CREDIT/DEBIT DOWN. PLEASE PREPAY CASH INSIDE.”
Here’s the thing about mobile payments: they are clearly the future. They’re easy, convenient, and more intuitive to use than carrying around pieces of plastic and paper.
But mobile payments are far from ubiquitous. After I mentioned my predicament online, friends suggested great local coffee shops, restaurants and delivery services that accept Apple Pay. But even though it’s getting more common, Apple Pay never seems to be at the right pay terminal. It’s never a problem you don’t have to think about, or the purely in-the-moment experience Apple probably hopes its users are having.
Apple Pay, and alternatives such as Android Pay and Samsung Pay, aren’t always where you want them when you need them. It only takes a day of scrambling for a meal and a tank of gas to show that we’ve got a long way to go.