I left my iPad on a plane the other day. The crazy thing about it — as if there needs to be an extra layer of crazy about leaving a hugely expensive and personal and professionally vital device on an airplane — was that I thought about it five minutes before I did it. Not after. BEFORE. I put the iPad in the front seat pocket just as the plane was in its final descent, and I thought: “You know, I better remember this. I’ve got all my numbers and notes and work ideas and unfinished novels and secrets of the golf swing on this. It would be incredibly stupid to leave this iPad on the plane.”
Then, five or ten minutes later, I did exactly that. The phone rang, the guy next to me was in a hurry, the guy behind me … stop making excuses, I completely lost my mind, that’s what happened. I flat forgot it. I walked off the plane and forgot the thing in the seat pocket. And then I checked my messages and made a couple of calls and didn’t think about it until I got home. The second I got home, I DID think about it, and not for the first time, and not for the last, a single thought crashed down as if spoken in deep tones by a movie narrator: “This is the dumbest person on the face of the earth.”
They say that, in moments of emergency, people can have burst of superhuman strength. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that in moments of dumbest-person-on-the-face-of-the-earth self-fury, people can make a lot of panicked phone calls very rapidly. In the next seven minutes or so I called the airport, the airline, baggage claim, customer service, lost and found, Apple, Regis Philbin (so he could yell at me), the Cleveland police department (to see if they had found my bicycle, which was stolen when I was 13) and David Wallechinsky (author of the Book of Lists so he could tell me where I ranked on the “worst things people have ever left on planes” list). My wife, Margo, at the same time, made at least as many calls.
At the Olympics, sportswriters sometimes toss around this rather cynical term — maybe it’s an old one, I don’t know — “Helpful without helping.” This is the kind person who doesn’t know where the busses are but REALLY wishes they did, the sweet volunteer who would love nothing more than to open the gate so you didn’t have to walk 1.8 miles around to get to another entrance but, alas, cannot, the impossibly cheerful clerk who has no choice but to tell you that every restaurant in a 200 mile radius is closed for the evening and the vending machines are broken. The people on the phone were helpful without helping, an oddly pleasant frustration (or oddly frustrating pleasantry). They were sympathetic to almost comical extremes and made it clear they would do anything in the entire world to get my me back my iPad … other than, you know, actually getting me back my iPad.
The charming part was that our almost-11-year-old daughter Elizabeth kept saying all the time: “I’m sure a nice person will turn it in,” which is exactly what you would want your almost 11-year-old daughter to say.
Finally, we had a stunning breakthrough. Margo reached someone who checked with someone who talked with someone who knew someone who had met someone who was related to someone who said YES an iPad was actually turned in. What? Really? Unbelievable! Then the moment of triumph: Did your iPad have a red case? Yes! OK, we have it! Just like that. It was thrilling and joyous, hugs and celebrations, and Elizabeth was saying: “I TOLD you someone would turn it in,” and I have to say I was happier for her than I was for getting my iPad back. I was so delighted I brought Elizabeth with me to the airport, and the trip was filled with music (“Call Me Maybe!”) and laughter … even the car seemed to be skipping. “See, there are a lot of good people, Daddy,” she was saying to me, and it made me so happy that she was right.
We got to the airport and wandered past a few grumpy people who had their luggage lost … I felt their pain, I have been in that line more than a few times. But not this time. We went to the counter, and we found the woman who had found the iPad, and you could tell that SHE was almost as happy as Elizabeth, almost as happy as I was. Something in this crazy and unpredictable world had worked. A good person had done a good thing. A connection had been made. A successful reunion had been arranged. And she went to the back and brought out the iPad, in its red case, just as pretty as could …
… of course, it wasn’t my iPad.
Well, you knew that was coming, right? As soon as I saw the iPad, covered in the wrong shade of red, I knew. As soon as Elizabeth saw it, she knew. Well, that stung. The woman who had been so happy to be the Ed Harris of this rescue mission, well, her shoulders dropped. “Are you sure?” she asked, as if I might have been mistaken, as if I might be willing to take this iPad and love it like my own. I was sure. Then came the inevitable follow. No, she said, no other iPad had been turned in. No, she said, the plane was not still here. I asked if it was possible that they had missed the iPad … she said that she doubted it, that they clean the planes thoroughly. But she did tell me that the plane was going next to Jackson, Mississippi and that, if I wanted, I could call the airport there and have them meet the plane at the gate.
The ride back home wasn’t much fun. Oh, Elizabeth was still chirping, “A nice person will turn it in.” But this suddenly seemed significantly less likely, the touching but guileless hopes of a young girl. I did call the Jackson airport. They were almost unreasonably helpful. Yes, of course they would meet the plane at the gate. Yes, absolutely, they would tell the flight attendant exactly where I had left the iPad. Yes, they would come through. The woman I spoke with there was astonishingly enthusiastic … in a weird way she sounded as if she had already FOUND the iPad. That felt good. There was confidence here. There was this “It will turn up” positivity. The odds suddenly seemed to be getting better. Hey, why not? Maybe they did miss it in cleanup. Maybe it was still on the plane. Maybe the iPad had sunk into the seat pocket where it was just waiting to be retrieved by the good people of Jackson, Miss. Maybe.
“Daddy, a good person will turn it in.”
“Sir, the plane arrives in 15 minutes, call us back in 20 minutes and we’ll tell you about your iPad.”
Twenty minutes later, I called back. There was no answer. For some reason, I took this as a good sign. I imagined the woman up at the gate, congratulating the flight attendant for rescuing my iPad, maybe pinning a medal or two, maybe filming an airline commercial around this triumphant moment. After a few minutes, I called back. This time a man answered. I began to tell him the story, but he clearly knew it. He sounded somber. Yes, they had met the plane at the gate. Yes, they had talked to the flight attendant. Yes, they had gone to my seat and looked in the front pocket.
The iPad was gone.
I was joking above, of course, when I talked about calling the Cleveland police department about my bicycle being stolen at 13. I don’t obsess about it. Much. But a bicycle getting stolen really is an awful experience for a kid … it was a stolen bicycle that pushed Muhammad Ali into boxing, a stolen bicycle that is at the heart of the agonizing masterpiece, “The Bicycle Thief.” When my bike was stolen — the thing I had bought with saved pennies made on my paper route, like some ridiculous kid’s story from the Great Depression — it left its mark. I mean, it wasn’t horribly traumatic or anything … eventually I saved up enough to buy a beat up old bike at a yard sale.
But it was one of those moments — and there are many throughout childhood, into college, into early adulthood, into mid-life, on and on — when the world becomes just a little bit darker place. I told Elizabeth that the iPad was gone. I told her it wasn’t anyone else’s fault; it was my fault for leaving it on the plane. I don’t think she took it too bad, considering. She said, “I still say some nice person will return it.” I nodded and went to the Internet to figure out how to untangle the iPad from its various connections … there are ways to lock an iPad from the road, to wipe its memory clean, to disconnect its Kindle connection, to turn off its Verizon subscription and so on. There are ways, but they are not particularly easy to figure out, and I set up an appointment at the Apple Store to have them guide me through the steps …
We were all walking out the door to go to the Apple Store. And I got an email.
“Hello Joe: I found your iPad on a flight to Jackson MS today and would like to return it to you… Please send me your address and I will mail it to you when I return to Charlotte Friday.. Take care!!”
The man’s name was John. Two days later, I met his wife Fran at the school where she teaches, and she returned my iPad. It’s not a big story, of course. It’s not really a story about anything at all, except a middle-aged goofball who is losing his memory and faculties and leaves behind expensive electronics. I can buy another iPad … and knowing my obsession with new Apple technology, I probably will as soon as the new comes out. Still it was just a nice reminder that a lot of people will try … not just John and Fran, but also the woman who thought she found it and the people at the Jackson airport who went out of their way and the various others who made an extra call just to help out an idiot who left his iPad on a plane.
And the best part of all was when I brought the iPad home, and lent it to Elizabeth so she and Katie could play the Simpsons Game, and Elizabeth looked up with that knowing look she has already perfected and said, “See. I told you so.”
Find My iPad Update: A few people asked about the Find My iPad feature … and it does indeed work and quite well. However, for you to find it, the iPad has to be online, either through WIFI or the 3G. And, of course, when you take your iPad on the plane … you cannot have it on either. So while I did set it up to send me an email when it went online, I could not actually locate the iPad.