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My Taxi Driver Was a Hero When I Needed It Most

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Gani, a taxi driver in New York City, at the end of a long adventure.  (Gabe Meline/KQED)

This week, as we near the end of 2022, the writers and editors of KQED Arts & Culture are reflecting on One Beautiful Thing from the year. Here, recounting a seemingly hopeless quest to retrieve a lost bag in New York City, editor Gabe Meline remains in awe at the kindness of strangers.

There I was, in a city of 8 million people, after 12 hours of travel, standing on Lexington Avenue and hoping for a New York miracle. I’d only been in Manhattan for an hour, and already I was flagging down a taxi late at night and shouting “Follow that cab!”

Well, more accurately: “Follow that little dot on this tiny map.” Meaning the GPS-enabled dot moving around a screen as part of the Find My iPhone feature. The dot indicating that somewhere out there, in one of New York City’s other 13,000 taxi cabs, sat my daughter’s blue bag that she’d left behind, containing her diary, school laptop, notebooks, iPhone and AirPods she’d bought with her saved-up allowance.

The daughter who at that very moment was curled up on the hotel bed, regretting her thoughtlessness, in tears.

I was a small-town dad in a huge, unfamiliar metropolis, with maybe half an idea of what I was doing, at best. But I couldn’t stand to see her crying. I had to get that bag back.

An explanation is in order: at the airport terminal, we’d had to switch to another taxicab to get a ride into Manhattan. Our first taxi driver quoted us a fare higher than what dispatch told us it should cost, and when I asked why, he promptly threw us out of his cab. He and I exchanged some four-letter words, and we piled into the next waiting taxi.

It wasn’t until getting to our hotel, an hour later, that we realized the first taxi driver had sped away with the bag inside.

a blue handbag, sitting against a white linen background

I called Central Taxi Hold at JFK for help. “You got the medallion number?” the director asked. I didn’t. “Well, tell us the credit card number you used for your fare, and we can trace the medallion number,” he said. No dice: we hadn’t ridden in the taxi, let alone paid any fare. “Oh, well then… you may be waitin’ for it to turn up in lost and found. If he turns it in, that is.”

While I called 311, my wife remembered she’d set up tracking on our daughter’s phone in case of emergencies, and pulled up its map, excited to discover a little dot that refreshed every 15 seconds or so, traveling around the streets of midtown. Talking to the woman working 311, after we’d exhausted all possible options, I offhandedly remarked, “I’m half-tempted to get another cab and have them chase after this dot on the map.”

“Well,” she said, “that’s probably what a New Yorker would do.”

Challenge accepted.

The first taxi driver that pulled over laughed at my wild goose chase, but the second said, “Yeah. Get in.” His name was Gani. And so began our three-hour hunt for the missing bag.

After a couple rounds in Manhattan, we followed the dot across the Queensboro Bridge into Queens. All the way back to JFK. We scanned the traffic around us and closely trailed the dot as our getaway taxi driver bypassed Central Taxi Hold, went straight to a terminal, picked up a fare, and — to my despair — quickly got on the freeway and headed again into Manhattan.

I was carsick from staring at a phone, and operating on three hours of sleep the night before. I texted my wife and daughter: “If we can’t catch him in Manhattan I may have to give up for the night. I can’t go all the way out to JFK again.”

Gani had other plans. Up to that point, our conversation had been about how to intercept the cab. I learned all about New York’s taxicab regulations, many of which our getaway cab driver was brazenly ignoring, which didn’t fill me with hope.

But while driving around Manhattan for the second time, Gani asked about my daughter. “She’s 13,” I said. Old enough that she doesn’t cry anymore, I said. Except for tonight.

I looked up and noticed that the fare meter wasn’t running anymore. The dot on the map headed across the Queensboro Bridge yet again, and Gani followed. I assured him that it was OK to call it a night and drop me off at the hotel, but he wasn’t having it. “We will get your bag back,” he said confidently, pulling onto the bridge onramp. “We should be able to stop him at the airport this time.”

We did not stop him at the airport.

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But we did happen to spot a good luck omen when we returned to JFK, outside an airport terminal: the woman who’d been working dispatch two hours earlier. Gani jerked the steering wheel to pull over while I quickly hopped out, pen and notebook in hand, to barrage her with questions. Did she remember us, having to switch cabs? Did she know the driver? Could she tell us anything to help get our bag back?

In short order, we had the cab driver’s phone number and medallion number. Central Taxi Hold ran the number, and discovered that he wasn’t even supposed to be on the clock that night. Probably working side jobs and illegally pocketing the fares.

With renewed vigor, Gani again followed the dot as it moved along the freeway, back toward Manhattan for the second time since our chase began. We called the phone number repeatedly — no answer. This rogue taxi driver was clearly avoiding us; he’d had our bag for five hours, and seemed to have no intention of turning it in to lost and found.

Gani tried another tact via text: “We have your medallion number and we know where you are.” He picked up our next call. And so, just when I had lost all faith, it was over in a flash.

At around midnight on 34th and 1st, the runaway cab driver pulled over, handed us the bag, and drove off. I checked the contents; all there. Incredible. Out of all the far-fetched, improbable plans, ours had actually worked. “I … I can’t believe that really happened,” I muttered from the passenger seat.

Gani just laughed — and, slapping his palm on the steering wheel, announced: “Welcome to New York!”

A man and a teenage girl, holding a small blue bag, pose together outside a yellow taxicab on the busy streets on New York City
Gani and the author’s daughter, reunited at last with her lost bag. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

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