Lost and Found by Storey Clayton

People are forgetful.  Drunk people doubly so.

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Uber’s introductory instructional video advises drivers to confirm that everyone has all their belongings when exiting the vehicle each and every time you drop someone off.  This is one of many such policies that sounds good in theory and completely breaks down in practice.  The moment of drop-off is a critical time for the rider experience:  they are about to decide both whether or not to tip and how to rate you as a driver.  Muddying up this time with a nagging motherly “make sure you’ve got everything!” is a real opportunity cost vs. a more meaningful sentiment that shows you’ve been attentively engaged in your mutual conversation or even a standard but deeply felt “have a great night!”

More problematically, such nagging tends to have an empirically self-defeating impact.  While the occasional passenger does take this suggestion to heart and actually make sure they have all their stuff, most relegate this advice to the same part of their brain as Internet advertising, airport PA announcements, and NO TURN ON RED signs.  In other words, we ignore it.  The more we are exposed to these kinds of stimuli, the more we build them into the background soundtrack of our life and refuse to pay it any mind.  Just as the constant subway refrain “stand back, doors are closing” does nothing to deter people from squeezing in (or even encourages them to faster), so does the admonition to “make sure you’ve got everything!” generally just reassure people that of course they’ve got everything.

It’s an anecdotal sample size, admittedly, but most of the important stuff has been left behind after I’ve encouraged people to make sure they have all their stuff.  I’ve since made a conscious effort to not say this too often.

Before I began driving for Uber, I imagined that I might park and get out to deliberately check the back seat after each ride, both for spills and for lost items.  Once I realized how busy Uber driving truly is, and then especially once they started queueing up chains of rides sequentially based on your last drop-off point, this notion became totally absurd.  And while I’ve caught several phones and a couple of keys by glancing back over my shoulder as people are exiting or shortly after, usually it’s up to the next rider to let me know that a prior rider left something behind.

The kindly soul will usually get in the seat, discover the lost item (almost always a phone), and go “Oh, someone left their phone!” as they hand it up to me.  I profusely thank them for letting me know and usually ask where they found it.  If it’s on the seat, I can be reasonably sure it was left by the rider immediately prior (unless it’s on a seat that was unoccupied by said rider).  If it’s on the floor, then we’re in decidedly more trouble.  In one instance, the phone was somehow on the floor under the floor-mat of the back, driver’s side seat.  I had no idea which of the ten rides I’d given that night had yielded that phone.

Being able to identify the match-up of rider and phone is critical to returning the phone quickly.  Uber makes it easy to report a lost item as long as you know which ride it was lost on.  You can click on any ride you’ve given in the past and report the lost item and permit the rider to contact you on your real number and then make arrangements to return the phone.  Uber is very clear that return time is unpaid and no one is supposed to extract money or favors in exchange for this return process.  Nevertheless, many riders have told me horror stories of drivers holding their phones and other items hostage, demanding payment or refusing to bring it to them for days on end.  Many were afraid to report these drivers until they’d retrieved their lost goods.

Riders are also able to report lost items and initiate the process of retrieval, which you pretty much have to rely on if you, as a driver, really have no idea who lost the item.  I have almost always been the first person to report a lost item, though two people called me on the same night seeking their lost phones, neither of which I had.

These incidents, combined with horror stories of other drivers and the profuse thanks of riders when I’ve returned their phones, have all combined to give rise to a paranoid concern I have about the ethics of other riders.  It’s possible that those guys who called looking for their phones did not actually lose their phones at the bar or somewhere else that night, but did in fact leave them in my car.  And that a subsequent rider just pocketed the phone for themselves instead of handing it to me.  When I’ve shared this concern with others, they all think I’m crazy, but if a driver can keep a phone or hold it hostage, why not another rider?  Given how many phones have been lost in my time driving, it seems less likely that no one has ever stolen a phone from a prior rider.

It is standard to tip a driver returning a lost phone, somewhat commensurate with the effort required to make the return, though it ends up more commensurate with the means of the tipper and the value they place on their phone.  One morning, I woke up still in possession of a phone that I’d reported to the correct rider, but I knew belonged to one of the women accompanying him, making it uncertain that she would get the message.  I was composing an e-mail to a person named in pop-up e-mail notifications on the phone, trying to backtrack the phone to her when it rang.  I picked it up and it was her very surprised friend who’d also been in the car that night, unaware she’d lost this phone.  She went and found the phone’s owner and I agreed to take the streetcar to her hotel since my fiancée currently had the car.  She had about forty minutes to spare before getting in another Uber to catch a flight home when I handed her the phone in her ritzy hotel lobby.  Impressed by my effort and grateful for the timing, she handed me fifty bucks and invited me to coffee.  I declined the coffee and asked if she was sure about the fifty.  “You have no idea how grateful I am,” she replied.

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Most tips are in the $10-20 range, though the return that required the most overall effort is the only one for which I was not tipped.  This was the only wallet that’s ever been lost in my car, belonging to a young college student returning home from a bar.  I found the wallet at the end of the night, under a seat, so it was inconclusive which rider had left it.  Her ID didn’t match any of the names I recalled from that night’s journeys.  Inspection of the wallet revealed just how important this item was to her life:  the contents included a driver’s license, fake ID, credit cards, student ID, cash, and health insurance card.  The address on the real ID was a swanky Uptown spot that didn’t match my recollection of any of the drop-off locations from the night, but several young women had accompanied men to their places that evening.

I drove to the address on the ID the next day (a Sunday), finding a For Sale sign in front of the empty domicile.  I called the realtor on the For Sale sign and, thankfully, she was busy enough to be working weekends.  I explained the situation and offered the name on the ID, saying she was listed as living at that address.  “Maybe you know her and they are just selling the house?” I said, somewhat lamely.  “Maybe it’s her parents?”  The realtor confirmed that the last name was a match and she thought they had a daughter, so she’d get in touch.  Three hours later, I got a call from the young woman, who gushed thanks and insisted that her boyfriend come to my apartment to pick it up rather than me making any more effort.

He did and made a very overt and deliberate point of checking every compartment of the wallet for key items, which I both understand and was a little offended by.  Then he drove off without tipping, I would imagine because he did come to me, after all.

Usually returning the phone or other lost item is done the same night, since people miss their phones quickly.  In a handful of cases, I’ve even knocked on the door of the most recent drop-off after driving just a few blocks away and glancing back to see a phone sitting there.  One such instance at 1:00 AM led to the people almost attacking me – I could hear their nervous trepidation approaching the door.  Not only were they relieved to see it was me, they were overjoyed to see that I had their phone.  They gave me ten bucks and a big hug.

But often phone returns carry on till the next morning, especially since Uber’s primary way of contacting people is through an app on their… phone.  The phone that was wedged under the floor-mat had just been discovered by a rider and I was trying to discern who may have left it when a phone call came in during the ride.  I didn’t recognize the number and I usually ignore calls on rides, but I told the riders “Maybe it’s the person who lost this,” holding up the phone.

It was. They said where I’d picked them up (about five rides earlier) and I confirmed where I’d dropped them off, remembering the ride.  I said I had to drop someone else off first and then I’d be on my way down there; it would take about fifteen minutes.  Traffic was heavy on the busy Saturday night as I finally pulled up to the New Orleans French Quarter Courtyard.  They didn’t pick up when I tried to call the number that had called, but they were standing outside the hotel, smoking.  I rolled down my window to hand them the phone, and received a $100 bill in return.

“You sure?” I asked, incredulous at the Benjamin in my fingers.  The phone was, after all, pretty beaten up and several model years old.

“You have no idea what this phone is worth to me.  You saved my life.”

“Okay.  Thanks!”

“Thank you!”

That was my best return experience, catapulting an already lucrative night into near-record territory (at least before Mardi Gras).  This was my worst:

I picked up a guy deep in the Bywater, almost to the Ninth Ward, on an especially dark Thursday night.  He limped to the car with a light bag and, looking back at the door as though he could make sure it was locked from long distance, braced his arms and sort of flung himself into the car.  He was heading to the bus station.

“You okay?” I inquired.

“Not really,” he said.  “Still recovering from a motorcycle accident.”

“Ouch,” I winced.

“You have no idea.”

He proceeded to tell me a harrowing and miraculous tale of the accident.  How he’d collided with a car in an intersection and been vaulted onto the roof of the car, passing out almost immediately.  Witnesses told him later that they’d seen his body atop the car and that the driver spent the next few minutes trying to speed and stop, swerving erratically in an attempt to throw him bodily from the vehicle so she could escape the scene.  She ultimately succeeded, flinging him off the car and onto the pavement.  A crowd had by now gathered and responded, but no one was completely sure of the license plate.  They called an ambulance and he somehow survived, but listed a series of maladies and ailments that included breaks, punctures, and tears in nearly every part of his body.  He’d endured six months of recovery, including grueling physical therapy, and was finally healthy enough to travel, though he was dreading the bus ride to come.

He was heading out to Houston to see his daughter, who he hadn’t seen since two months before the accident.  He’d almost died in the meantime, been unable to walk for a while, and all this time had no contact with her.  She was in late grade school, just hitting the double-digit years, doing well, the joy of his entire existence.  He said, at one point, that it had nearly killed him to be away from her so long, almost more than the injuries of the accident, the collision, the fall.

We made a real connection.  We bonded over incredulity at bad drivers, at the power of forcing oneself to rehabilitate from something flattening.  We couldn’t believe the inhumanity of a driver in that moment to be so selfish as to further endanger a life just to escape culpability.  I was reminded how moments of crisis truly define us, how anyone can be good when times are easy, but it’s our low-chip moments that make us moral beings.  I said this to him and he heartily agreed.

And then he was off to the bus station and I was left in my little post-ride glow I get a couple times a night from a real connection, from meeting a really good or heartening person and having a truly reaffirming conversation.  I think I even said aloud to myself “this is why I do this.”  And then went off to the next queued ride.

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Not five minutes later, before I’d even reached the next pickup location, he called me.  Said I’d just dropped him off and he thought he’d left his wallet in my car.  I pulled over immediately and said I’d have to do a thorough check of the car and could he hold on?

I tore the car apart.  I looked under every seat and every floor mat.  I stuck my hand in the crevice between the seats and the seat backs, ran it the entire length of the back bench.  I looked in places he was never near:  the trunk, the glovebox, the driver door pouch.  I took five full minutes to search, then even searched around the doors I’d opened to conduct the search.  There was nothing.

I told him I couldn’t find it.  I tried to explain how thoroughly I’d searched.  I asked if he’d checked the curb where I’d dropped him off – it might have slipped out.  He said he’d checked.  I asked if he was sure he had it when he left his house.  He said he was.  I sighed heavily.

I know he wanted to believe me, but I also know he didn’t.  He had that edge to his voice, the edge of a man who has just this year lived through a woman speeding and suddenly stopping her car in an attempt to fling his unconscious body from its roof.  The edge of deeply harbored distrust and resentment mixed with the fatalism that comes from even one’s triumphs being suddenly and inexplicably ruined.  I apologized again and again, which only fueled his burgeoning terseness, as though he could tell my apology was not for being unable to find the wallet, but for keeping it and lying about it.

I gave about ten more rides that night, wracking my brains for what I could do to fix this situation.  I was heartbroken by the idea of him being unable to take his bus and see his daughter, or having his trip seriously impeded by going without a wallet.  I felt the incredible shame of somehow contributing to it, and worse of making such a connection with the guy only to have him lose faith in me just minutes from drop-off, that I’d become a part of the ongoing narrative in his life that the world was out to get him no matter what he did.  This was made all the worse for the depth of my attempt at empathy, for how much I’d concurred with his assessment of the driver who’d almost ended his life.  I didn’t have the wallet, but he would go to his grave believing I did.

At least, I realized, until he found the wallet again, assuming he’d just left it at home.  I spent some minutes reassured by this image, until I considered he might have dropped it just before entering my car.  In this scenario, we’d be relying on the kindness of a neighbor to discover the wallet and the luck of it being someone kind to make the discovery.  I spent much of the night considering trying to go back to his place and find the wallet myself so I could bring it to him at the bus depot.

I wrestled with this notion for hours.  It was fraught, of course.  For one, I couldn’t be sure I remembered the exact address of his house and I remember the pickup spot being a little off from where I’d actually gotten him.  So, I would be spending about twenty minutes casing a few different places to find a wallet on a porch or near a curb, when I might still end up in the wrong place entirely.

Then, let’s say I find the wallet.  I then bring it to him in the bus station, only confirming his suspicion that I’d had it the whole time.  Sure, I can tell him the story of going back to his place and finding it to bring to him, and there’s a very small chance that if he believes me, that becomes incredibly restorative to his faith in humanity.  But given that he already doesn’t believe that I don’t have the wallet, what’s he going to think when I do show up with it and tell him some crazy over-the-top story?

Now, of course, I know that what matters here is not what the guy thinks of me.  And I try really hard to suspend my focus on that as an element of what I should do.  What matters is this guy’s ability to take his trip, see his daughter, and continue to have hope for his life.  But in some ways, this last part is related to what he thinks of me.  If I do something that confirms for him that I stole his wallet (or at least pretended not to have it for a while to try to steal it), the change of heart isn’t that heartwarming.  But if he just finds it on his own later, then he knows I didn’t take it and he has his wallet, which is a win-win.

But I’m running the risk of him losing his wallet to someone who discovers it on his porch, of helping make the tangible difference between him having his wallet stolen and not.  And that haunts me to this day.  Because I ultimately decided I was too uncertain of where he lived to attempt the rescue.  And what if he’d gone back to try to find the wallet and found me there traipsing around his door?  Especially if neither of us could then find the wallet?  This seemed easily like the worst-case scenario, especially at 4:00 on a dark morning.

But I regret not going back, not trying.  There’s not a great chance I could’ve helped, but the greatest chance of help would have been to go back and look.

I’m sorry I didn’t go back to try to find your wallet on your doorstep.  And I’m really sorry if you never found it.  I hope you and your daughter are doing well.

 

Complete list of items lost in my car:  phones (15+), Mardi Gras bead strands (4), keepsake bar glasses (3), packs of cigarettes (2), earrings (2), huge barkeeper’s churchkey, mix CD, AirBNB housekey, bracelet, 40-oz. alcohol container with personalized label for a 40th birthday, NBA All-Star commemorative umbrella.  (Does not include several tourist brochures, water bottles, ticket stubs, empty drink cups, and mint wrappers which I understand as discarded and not lost.)

 

Storey Clayton

 


 

Storey Clayton is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. His work is forthcoming in Barely South Review and Blood and Bourbon and recently appeared in Eunoia Review and Montana Mouthful. You can learn more about Storey at his personal website, The Blue Pyramid (bluepyramid.org).

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