Taking lessons from a taxi driver

I’m currently in D.C. for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. I’ve been in town since Tuesday night and will leave tomorrow afternoon. Aside from conference activities, I’ve mostly been doing other work, as the beginning of the semester is a very busy time of year. But I carved out this morning–just the morning–to visit the Holocaust Museum, the MLK Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. I know, that’s a challenging set of museums and memorials. Between what is memorialized at the museum and the challenges faced by Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., the balance is heavily weighted in favor of a darker side of human experience. But I had my reasons for choosing those three today, and I took my camera along for the first time this week (for those of you who aren’t familiar with academic conferences, our panels are not exactly worthy of photos).

I caught at cab around the corner from my hotel (not at my hotel) and asked for a ride to the Holocaust Museum. The driver, who was African, was very nice, but at one point had a bit of a brain cramp, went on autopilot for a minute, and drove me to Arlington National Cemetery. When he realized that, he did quite an unexpected and sudden u-turn, fast enough that I fell out of my seat and my things scattered a bit on the floor of his minivan. We got back on track and he was very apologetic for the delay and the sudden turn, but I told him it was no big deal, that I wasn’t in any hurry. And I collected all of my scattered things. Or so I thought.

When we got to the Holocaust Museum, my driver told me not to worry about my trash–a small paper bag from the coffee shop at the hotel–because he would just take care of it. So I thanked him and left that bag in the car.

It wasn’t until the taxi was long gone from the Holocaust Museum and I was at the museum’s security checkpoint that I realized I didn’t have my camera. There were three places it could possibly be: 1) The coffee shop at my hotel; 2) the taxi; 3) the trash can on the street where I had just dumped the rest of my coffee because it’s not allowed inside the museum.

Now may be a good time to mention two things: 1) I’ve been a lazy bum this year when it comes to actually getting my photos off the card and onto the computer, mainly because of space issues on my hard drive. So it wasn’t just a missing camera (though I really like that camera!). There were a lot of photos missing, too. 2) I *hate* losing things and sort of obsess over doing everything possible to find them before I can move on.

So I actually opened up the trash can on the sidewalk and started picking through it. No camera. I called the DC Taxicab Commission to leave my information with lost and found. Then, for good measure, I filled out their online form with the very same information. I called my credit card company to see what information they might have on file about my transaction because I hadn’t asked for a receipt given that a ride to a museum isn’t a reimbursable expense for me. All they could tell me for now was the amount and the time, which I already knew. Then I called the hotel and added my info to the lost and found list at the security office. That was all I could do at that point.

Normally, I would have had a hard time not thinking about that lost camera, but there’s nothing normal about visiting the Holocaust Museum. I spent the next two hours overwhelmed by the atrocities memorialized there. I carried with me an information card about a concentration camp survivor whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis. I walked through a train car like the ones used to transport Jews to ghettos and camps. I studied some of the most horrifying photos I’ve ever seen. Afterward, I walked to the MLK and Lincoln Memorials, lingering for a while to consider the legacies of those men. But soon it was time to get back to my hotel.

I caught a cab outside the Lincoln Memorial, but before getting in I asked the advice of the cab drivers standing around chatting with each other. While I had mostly forgotten about the camera for the morning (remembering it, though, every time I used my phone to take a photo), I wanted to know if they thoughtI had any chance of finding it. “Yes,” they replied, “Lots of us like to work the same spot as much as possible. If your driver started the morning at the Hilton, maybe he likes to work the Hilton. Let’s get you back there fast because his shift may be ending soon!” So one of the drivers gave me fastest cab ride through DC that I’ve ever had.

We got back to the hotel, to that very corner where I had caught the cab this morning, and a van closely matching the one from the morning was parked near the front of the line. My driver pulled right up, shouted to the other drivers that I was looking for a camera that might be in that van, and I got out to check for myself. But it wasn’t the right van, and no particular driver came to mind when I asked these guys whether they might have had some idea who might have driven me to the Holocaust Museum.

During our discussion, the drivers all of a sudden started debating whether or not the camera was likely to be turned in to the Taxicab Commission. Some were sure that a subsequent passenger was likely to have stolen the camera, while others said that passengers usually handed them found items. Some said that they themselves never turned in anything, that they just didn’t have the time. Others said they give the things they find to their bosses and hope their bosses turn those things in. Others said that they always turn found items over to the Commission’s lost and found. One of them said, to the nodding approval of many others in our conversation, “Eh, people don’t do that. I’m sorry, but your camera is probably lost for good.” As I thanked them and walked away, one of them said, “Hey! Your driver: He’s probably out there looking for you right now. He wants to give it back.” “You think so?” I asked. “Of course! That’s what I would do!” I walked away sure that this particular driver was just trying to make me feel better. There was no way my driver was out there looking for me. The city is huge, the cabs and riders are many, and time is precious–he can’t waste time looking for me when he could be picking up other paying customers. The others were right. People don’t do that.

I got to work on some things that needed to get done but also had the advantage of taking my mind off the lost camera. I’d done everything I could to find it and figured that it was just gone or, best case scenario, I’d get a call from the Taxicab Commission in a few days or weeks.

Then my phone rang. “Mr. Toly, did you perhaps leave a camera in a taxi this morning?” “Yes!” I said. “The driver has brought it back and is here at the bellman’s desk waiting for you.”

I headed down to the lobby immediately and found my driver from this morning standing at the bellman’s desk with my camera. The bellman had tracked down my room number after finding my name in the camera case on a folded up Michigan fishing license from earlier this summer.

It turns out that my driver had been looking all over for me. He had actually returned to the Holocaust Museum and gone in to find me, but couldn’t. He said he had been keeping an eye out for me all day. Then, finally, at the end of the day, still trying to get the camera back to me, he took a look at that trash, at the crumpled paper bag from the hotel coffee shop, and wondered if I was staying in that same hotel. So he drove to the hotel, took the camera in to the bellman’s desk, and asked for help finding me. He tried to apologize to me for not finding me earlier, but of course I told him that it was my fault for leaving my camera in his van.

When I offered to tip him generously–hoping at the very least to cover his lost time–for going out of his way to find me, he refused. Wouldn’t hear it. Just shook my hand and backed away to the door, saying, “No. No. God bless you! God bless you! God bless you!” I was stunned. I guess people do do that. What a lesson this driver taught me. God blessed me indeed.

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