It was New Year’s Eve. She had been drinking. It was late. And that was the moment the world chose to welcome Sarah LaRose to the not-so-exclusive club of people who have dropped their iPhone into a toilet.
As LaRose told her story to Curt Ingram, he nodded politely. He knows this story. If there’s a way to break an iPhone, Ingram - known as “iPhone Curt’’ to his growing legion of devotees - has probably heard of it, and probably fixed it.
He is part of the expanding mini-industry of repairmen working outside the realm of Apple, whose warranty does not cover “damage caused by accident,’’ such as liquid contact or broken screens.
“In other words, the things people actually do to their phones,’’ LaRose said as she waited in Ingram’s Brighton shop for him to take a look at hers, which was still misbehaving weeks after the toilet bowl incident.
Apple’s “Genius Bar’’ handles each accident on a case-by-case basis, and the company is known for replacing broken phones for free, even though it is not obligated to do so. But there are still enough people walking out of Apple stores with bad news - often that they need to buy a new phone - that Ingram’s business is booming.
His second-floor studio in Brighton Center is a comic cross between an old watchmaker’s shop, an emergency room, and a therapist’s office, complete with a couch and a cat. In this growing age of smartphone dependence, the 45-year-old Ingram says, a broken iPhone is an emotionally stressful problem that must be fixed, immediately.
“There are lots of people who won’t leave the room while we’re working on their phones,’’ he said. “They’re so attached to their phone they don’t know what to do without it.’’
Ingram, who has the wholesome handsomeness of a cartoon quarterback, has become a mini-celebrity in Brighton, which is known for, among other things, young people behaving like young people. “I always get recognized in bars,’’ he said; that’s also where a lot of his business originates.
“I had a whiskey in one had and my phone in the other, and we were running for the T and I slipped on some snow,’’ Jacob Anderson, a graduate student at nearby Boston College, said recently as he waited for Ingram to replace the shattered screen of his iPhone4 for $100. “But I saved my drink. I have priorities.’’
There are, Ingram will tell you, many ways to break an iPhone. But there are a few that come up over and over again. At the top of that list are women who drop it into a toilet, and the story almost always goes like this: They had it in a back pocket and it slid out when they sat down. This happened to his girlfriend and business partner, Amy Rubin, when they were at Ingram’s parents’ house.
Another big one is the accidental drop kick: Phone falls from shoulder hug, person tries to catch it on his foot like a hacky sack, and instead boots it hard, shattering the glass. Broken screens account for a quarter of Ingram’s business, and he has replaced so many of them that they fill trash bins in a back room. Rubin is thinking about using them to wallpaper the shop; she has already turned a couple of dozen into a mobile that twinkles overhead.
They get left on car roofs; they get thrown by small children; and they get knocked out of hands that are “annoyingly waving a text message’’ in a girlfriend’s face. At least that’s what happened to Peter Racheotes, a realtor. “It hit the marble floor. The screen smashed. And my eyes went wet,’’ he said, only half joking.
Indeed, fighting couples are a regular source of business for Ingram. They are easy to spot, because by the time they get to his shop, “they’re all lovey dovey,’’ he said. And often, with their makeup texts out of the way, the couples are reluctant to talk about what happened, but Ingram said he can always tell who threw the phone.
“If it was the guy, it’s not heavily damaged because he’ll crank it into the couch or something soft. But if it was the girl’’ - often because the guy wouldn’t give her the code to unlock his phone - “it’s destroyed.’’
Ingram came to be iPhone Curt somewhat by accident. When the original iPhone came out in 2007, Ingram, a former programmer and lifelong tinkerer, had a friend whose wife was very good at breaking her screen - which, at the time, cost $299 to fix at Apple. The third time she broke it, he asked her if he could take a look at it, fixed it cheaper, and placed an ad on Craigslist to see if any others needed fixing.
Having a non-Apple-authorized technician open a phone can void the warranty, but most of his customers were people who had done something dumb to their phones and voided the warranty themselves. The demand was instant, and iPhone Curt was born.
For years, he worked out of his house in Needham - “I think my neighbors thought we were drug dealers because young kids would pull in and leave 45 minutes later,’’ he said - and even made house calls with a leather satchel, as a country doctor would. But the business grew so much that they moved into the Brighton space 2 1/2 years ago.
Ingram and another technician do the repairs, and Rubin, who could play the cartoon cheerleader, greets customers, listens to their accident stories, and throws in a playful “Oh, no’’ every now and again for psychic support. Then she shows them to their line of iPhone cases, something many people avoid because the device itself is so elegant.
Ingram is, himself, an iPhone “nudist.’’ He doesn’t like the way it feels in a case. Plus, if it cracks, he can fix it, easily; the thing that really worries him, though, is water, especially of the toilet kind.
“It doesn’t just get wet, it gets submerged,’’ he said. “Plus, you might have second thoughts about grabbing it.’’
He can spot the second-guessers easily; they come in holding the phone between their thumb and forefinger like a dirty diaper.
LaRose, though, was not one of those.
“I did not hesitate,’’ she said. This is her iPhone we’re talking about.