Published: January 24, 2020 1:30:40 pm
Written by Sandra E Garcia
Recently, after having dinner in Midtown Manhattan, I put on my AirPods Pro as I walked to the subway station. I began getting hot, so I gently pulled off my red beanie while at 58th Street and Broadway. Then it happened.
The AirPod in my right ear fell out. By the time I realised it, the headphone was about to hit the concrete. I tried to catch it, but it fell past my reach.
It bounced off a metal chair, then disappeared through a subway grate and into the abyss.
Many New Yorkers have nightmares of a fire escape ladder or scaffolding falling on them, or even falling into a pothole. But more and more often, the average New Yorker worries most about losing their AirPods, the ubiquitous white wireless headphones from Apple that cost at least $159.
From September to December of last year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that it had recovered 2,194 items dropped through subway grates — 1,220 of them earbuds or AirPods.
AirPods are meant to discreetly fit in an earlobe and stay there, but they sometimes don’t. Many people who own a pair eventually end up losing them.
Thousands of New Yorkers lose tech on the subway tracks or through a subway grate, an MTA spokeswoman, Meredith Daniels, would tell me later. Would I join those thousands of people?
I cartoonishly frowned thinking about how the entire event happened in only a few seconds but felt longer as I watched, seemingly, in slow motion. I tried looking through the subway grate, but it was dark and I could not see below.
My brain started speeding through ways that I could retrieve the AirPod. Eventually I realized that I would need the MTA’s help. And with the agency’s reputation for being unreliable, I knew this was going to be a Hail Mary.
First, I walked into the train station and asked the woman in the subway booth for help. She told me to call 511 in the morning.
I asked if she meant 311, but she pointed to a sticker on the booth’s thick plastic partition that read “511.” I have been steadily riding the subway since 2002 and have never heard of 511.
I quickly learned that dialing 511 connects New Yorkers with the state’s travel information line. Through a series of prompts, a person can be directed to rail and transit schedules and the lost and found, among other things. The service has existed since 2011 and is funded by the New York State Department of Transportation.
So at 7:30 the next morning, I called 511. A woman asked me where the grate was in order to make sure it was owned by the MTA — some belong to the owners of nearby buildings. I was lucky. My AirPod fell through an MTA grate.
The woman asked me how quickly I could get to the grate. “Now,” I told her. She then explained that an MTA. employee could get there in 45 minutes.
I arrived there 30 minutes after the call. But an hour passed and no one showed up.
Resigned to never getting the earbud back, I contacted Apple and was told it costs $90 to replace a missing or lost AirPod. I quietly resolved that I would not pay for a replacement that I would likely lose again.
Instead, I decided to buy some flowers at a nearby Whole Foods to pick myself up.
As I was waiting to pay for a bunch of eucalyptus and bright pink tulips, my phone rang.
“Hello?” I dourly answered.
“Where are you?” the voice answered. “I’m with the MTA I am at the subway grate.”
I dropped my flowers and eucalyptus and ran back over to the area. A man, who said his name was King, was standing over the grate. After I showed him where my AirPod had fallen, King opened the grate and climbed down a ladder on the inside.
Shortly after rummaging through leaves and paper, he poked his head out of the hole and extended his hand. He was holding my AirPod.
I gasped. King had slightly restored my faith in the MTA I knew that my next train would probably be delayed, but in that moment I didn’t care. The MTA had taken care of me this time.
After I thanked King, he replied, “This is what I do.”
I learned that King was right. Recovering lost items is one of the things the MTA does.
Usually it works like this: When customers drop something onto the tracks, or less often through grates, they contact a station agent or someone at the booth, Daniels said.
“Track personnel are then dispatched to retrieve the item,” she said, adding that customers do not always inquire about items that are found.
Items that are retrieved but are not claimed end up in the MTA’s lost and found, she said.
But not everyone who loses something down a grate or on the train tracks is lucky enough to get it back. Last year, more than 7,000 cellphones, tablets, laptops and headphones were found throughout the subway system by MTA staff members, Daniels said.
One afternoon, as I walked to The New York Times building with both of my AirPods tucked in my ears, it happened again — but this time, not to me.
I watched as a man, mouth agape, appeared horrified as one of his AirPods fell toward a subway grate. But the AirPod was too big to fit through this one. The man, Jeremy Garfield, 46, picked it up off the sidewalk and glanced around in disbelief — a look I recognised — and kept walking.
I ran after him.
Garfield told me he would not have tried to retrieve his AirPod if it had fallen through the grate.
“There is no way, in that grate?” Garfield said to me incredulously. “I got lucky.”