John James didn’t realize he had left more than $100,000 of jewelry and other valuables in the back seat of a taxi until he reached for his bag to show off the treasured photographs he’d taken with a few of his late friends: the actress Sylvia Sidney, writer Dominick Dunne and broadcaster Alistair Cooke.
Mr. James had just returned to his apartment Sunday afternoon from an office near Madison Square Park, where he’d picked up a tote bag holding the photographs, just over $200 in cash and the jewelry. He said he planned to carry them on the Amtrak Acela train that night to a bank in Delaware, where his family has two homes.
But when Mr. James got out of his cab outside the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park Sunday afternoon, he left the bag in the back seat.
Mr. James lives at the club’s landmarked headquarters, the Samuel Tilden mansion at 15 Gramercy Park South. His twin brother, O. Aldon James, is the president. Among its members are Martin Scorcese, Uma Thurman and Robert Redford, according to the club’s website.
When Mr. James realized his mistake, he said he felt “complete shock and disbelief.”
He called a friend who had worked in city government who told him to stay calm, they’d find the bag. Crucially, Mr. James had taken his receipt from the driver, Zubiru Jalloh.
Mr. Jalloh was on his way uptown to pray at the Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street. After dropping off Mr. James, he stopped to pick up a passenger in a wheelchair. When he tried to help her into the back of his Ford Crown Victoria, he saw the bag. Inside was a large piece of jewelry with stones that looked like diamonds. “Boy, it’s big,” he said Monday.
He took it to his apartment in Crown Heights to leave with his wife until the owner called or he could take it to a police precinct.
“My wife told me: ‘This thing is very valuable. Make sure you keep this one until you find the owner,'” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr. James and his friends were contacting the Taxi and Limousine Commission and other city officials. Because they had the receipt with Mr. Jalloh’s medallion number, he was easy to track down. At first Mr. Jalloh was suspicious that Mr. James was the owner—he thought the bag looked like it belonged to a woman—but Mr. James knew its contents and his face matched some of those in the pictures.
On Monday, the pair reunited outside the National Arts Club. Mr. James gave Mr. Jalloh a reward of 10 $100 bills and invited him to the club’s Valentine’s Day party scheduled for Monday night. Mr. Jalloh said he reluctantly took the money but declined the invitation.
“My religion told me whenever you find peoples’ property, return it back to them,” he said.
Once, a passenger had given him $20 for returning a lost camera. Previously, that was the largest reward he had received for returning lost property in his seven years as a cabbie.
Mr. James, meanwhile, plans to reconsider the way he travels with valuables: “I’m thinking now of having a private car and driver when I do these things.”
Most people really are honest.