I’m a finder. Staying alert to what’s going on around me means I find moments in time that need a little personal attention. That may include a FedEx deliverer struggling with a load of spilled boxes; a frail woman pushing groceries to her car; a tired mom with an even more tired kid stepping into a crowded subway. I must give off a finder vibe; once in New York an elderly, well-dressed woman on Park Avenue grabbed arm and said, “Help me get across the street.” And I did. If I don’t give the universe a push in the right direction at that moment, who will? I must have picked up that attitude from reading Raymond Chandler’s novels about LA investigator Philip Marlowe, sallying forth to right the wrongs of the world.
The same drive to act goes even more so with lost objects. They’re not so common, but they drop into my field of vision at times. I’ll snatch them up and treat them as a portal into an adventure. After all, a lost object implies a loser of that object, who typically has a very high level of interest in getting that object back. Finding the lost object starts an adventure of discovery, connection and a little mystery about the way the world works.
Not always. Some objects resist return. Nobody cares except me. When living in New York in the 1980s I found a briefcase brimming with test materials from the NYC Board of Education. I couldn’t decipher them but I thought the BOE would be a better judge of that. I made some calls, only to find nobody at the bureaucratic ziggurat on Court Street in Brooklyn particularly wanted this great find. I could have tossed the whole package, but I finally located an official in the sub-sub-sub-basement willing to take it off my hands. Case closed.
Decades later, I found a battered flip phone on Post Road East in Westport, Connecticut. A barely legible email address was taped to the back of the phone, so I fired off some messages to that. Nobody responded. I finally gave up and turned the phone in to an AT&T store to let them figure out if anybody wanted it.
At the other end of the attention spectrum, both wallets and iPhones have fallen under my scanning gaze. These steamer trunks of modern identity are invaluable and yet so easy to misplace. Their absence immediately becomes a crisis of finance, social connection (quick, what’s your best friend’s phone number?) and identity. In these cases, the adventure puts me into Marlowe mode, sallying forth to right the wrongs of misplaced objects. I become the confident private investigator who takes on the case for clients when they are at their most vulnerable and exposed and uncertain. Their identity depends, literally, on the kindness of strangers. My job is to be that stranger and be that kindness. That’s what Philip Marlowe would do.
The most recent cases both involved young people from Latin America forgetting a wallet and a phone, respectively, on the Metro-North Harlem line that I use for commuting.
I spotted the wallet under a train seat around 2 a.m. on January 1 several years ago, groggily returning home after a New Year’s Eve party. I was getting up to exit at my stop when I notice the wallet. Nobody else was around. There it sat. I looked around, nobody claimed it so I scooped it up.
At home, I emptied its contents on a table. U.S. cash, foreign credit cards and ID. Clearly this came from a visitor who let festivity run ahead of caution that cold and raucous night. The problem was, I couldn’t find a way to contact the owner. Everything pointed back to Brazil. I ran through the materials again and finally found a name and phone number. At 3 a.m., I decided I’d wait a while before calling to avoid freaking out the reveler.
I called that morning. The number was for the uncle of the teen who lost the wallet. We arranged to meet that afternoon at the Katonah train station, where the teen and his girlfriend (ahh, was she the 2 a.m. distraction?) gratefully accepted the wallet and gave me a bottle of wine.
More recently, I found an iPhone on the seat of the Harlem Line train, the station before I reached mine. I slipped it into my shirt pocket and minutes later I sat down at the same dining room table where I traditionally spread out materials and start down the trail of contact.
The phone had no security, so all I had to do was swipe and I was in—to everything. This alarmed me and I clicked around only long enough to find the phone owner’s name and his emails. The owner lived in Central America, in a city I had visited, so that gave the case a special twist. How many degrees of separation came between us? He must have been visiting the New York area and dropped the phone, I reasoned. I saw some frequently called numbers but decided to reach out via email, the better to explain myself.
I IM’d the phone’s owner and his wife on Facebook, and wrote to his home and business emails. No replies. I decided to let the case simmer. Then the phone rang that night. The screen showed somebody with the owner’s last name so I hit the talk button.
“Are you calling about the lost phone?” I said. “I’m the guy who found it.”
The caller was the sister-in-law of the phone’s owner. It turns out the owner’s son had been visiting his aunt and uncle near me, and the son was using the father’s phone. The son had left the phone on the train.
“I took a chance on calling and hoping a good Samaritan would answer,” she explained.
We arranged for a hand-off the next afternoon at the Katonah Public Library. At the appointed time the boy emerged from his aunt’s car and he bashfully approached me outside the library. I pretended to bobble the phone, then gave it to him. In return, I got a hefty bag of fragrant Central American coffee beans and a charming handwritten thank-you note. The boy’s aunt and I chatted awhile and then they were on their way.
That night the phone’s owner IM’d me on Facebook and thanked me for my attention to the matter. He had been reluctant to respond to my IM because he feared I might be a scammer. I could see his concern — who wouldn’t be wary of a message from somebody claiming to have a lost object? Ill intent abounds in our times, especially when technology is the connection. Anyway, the phone call and hand-off established that I was on the level.
He said my act actually took on more urgency than I imagined, because his son and the U.S. family were flying down to Central America on Saturday, and MTA lost-and-found probably would not have connected with the family before then.
We played the six degrees of Central American separation game and we did indeed know people in common in the capital, so that gave the connection extra sweetness. I mused about the times I had visited his country.
“I developed a taste for pupusas and Pollo Compero,” I wrote, and that got a laugh, as I flaunted the limits of my familiarity of the regional cuisine. The chat capped the case and that was that.
At this point, you may be thinking, “That’s great, but what about when YOU lose something, Van? You like to say ‘what goes around comes around.’ Does it really go down that way?”
Good question. Answer: Sometimes. I’ve left a gym bag, a sports coat and a shopping bag with my lunch packed in favorite Tupperware containers on the train from the suburbs. Despite logging the loss in the lost and found website, I’ve never got anything back. On the other hand, I forgot a credit card once in a Middle Eastern restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and that I got back.
Just last week, in a drowsy ride home, I didn’t put my wallet away after showing my ticket to the conductor. I left it on my lap. When I stretched and got up at the station before mine (the same station where I found the iPhone), I did my traditional patdown and realized my wallet wasn’t in my pocket. I didn’t find it on the seat, nor under my backpack. I searched under the seat and there it, was on the floor. A close call! I doubt anybody would have seen the wallet as the train sailed north to the end of the line. A car cleaner might have spied it and turned it in. I hope so.
In any case, I lost it AND I found it. Philip Marlowe would approve.