Into Thin AirPods
1:16 PM EDT on May 8, 2023
I’d like the record to show that I resisted getting AirPods for a long time.
Within weeks of their 2016 release, I began spotting them (to my semi-surprise, considering their price) in the ear canals of lots of people on public transit–a reliable barometer of how popular a new tech product will turn out to be. Despite my well-documented history of victimization by Apple products, I did want them. But I looked at the little free-floating, chickpea-sized buds, and their slick little case, and knew in my heart that I was born to lose them. Hypothetical futures of losing them over and over again played vividly in my head, as if the timeline had collapsed and I was losing them an infinite number of times and ways simultaneously. I’d lose them in preventable, passive ways (suddenly they’re somewhere behind me on a sidewalk); in heart-stopping, but ultimately impermanent ways (stumbling while hiking, causing a single pod to fall out of my ear, slide down a 15-foot incline, and come to rest between two several-foot-high boulders); and in careless, negligent ways (removing one bud to have a conversation, putting it my pocket, forgetting it, and washing that pair of pants).
So I didn’t buy them, didn’t buy them, didn’t buy them, trying to find strength in knowledge of myself and my limits. I’ve lost my wallet more times than is reasonable; I rely on my partner Seamus, in a very literal way, to find my glasses and phone and the car keys and other things that disappear themselves in the house on a daily basis. I knew I simply would not be a good steward of this Polly-Pocket-ass excuse for a listening device.
And then I rejoined a gym and decided I didn’t want to deal with my ancient Anker Bluetooth headset. I bought AirPods a little under a year ago, and preemptively said goodbye to them–hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
Then I lost my AirPods.
They fell out of my coat pocket, from whence they’d fallen several times before. Every time it happened I would get mad at myself, every time I would think I should really put these in another pocket, and every time I didn’t do it and didn’t do it, until they fell out of my pocket a final time and disappeared.
To the best of my knowledge, it happened in a locker room in the basement of a ski lodge. As soon as I realized they were gone, via an alert on my phone that said something along the lines of Your AirPods are suddenly gone, I drove right back to the lodge where I was sure I dropped them and searched. No luck.
I didn’t realize, until I’d driven back home, that I was getting the “AirPods left behind” alerts because they were connected to the “Find My” app in my phone. If I opened the app, I would see a detailed map of all of the Lord’s creation, and, within it, wherever the fuck it was that my AirPods were.
Indeed, when I did open the app, there the AirPods were—well, there they weren’t, but also there they were—pinging from a town about 30 minutes away in decent traffic. I zoomed in on the map until it resolved into individual residences. The AirPods appeared to be posted up on a dead end street, squarely in someone’s house. Find My wouldn’t commit to an address, but by cross-referencing Google Maps and a nearby BMW dealership, I was able to triangulate a building number.
The AirPods weren’t in the wind, as lost or stolen objects had been my entire life. They were right there. They were close. They were obtainable. I’d known going into this relationship that I would lose them; until this moment, I hadn’t thought about the possibility that I’d be able to redeem myself by finding them again.
This is the part where I say I’m aware that everyone—Apple, law enforcement, any friends with good judgment within earshot—strenuously discourages ever, under any circumstances, trying to do vigilante justice with the Find My app. If you so much as mention the possibility, like four people will jump out of the woodwork with stories about someone they knew who was shot or assaulted trying to confront a thief in the act. I’d like to emphasize that I’m firmly on the side of reason, and a steadfast believer that having crime done to me is not an occasion to show off how brave I am.
But! I have watched Veronica Mars so many times. I dream idly of mysterious cases falling into my lap, and solving them through the careful piecing together of data, clues, and information, plus the judicious application of wiles and streetwise know-how. And, honestly, I did want my ridiculously expensive AirPods back.
Which is not to say that I was committed to getting them back at any cost. Before I did anything, I made peace with the idea of pulling out of the dive for my own safety. I was prepared to settle for the Thrill of the Chase, and maybe just a glimpse of the perp. I’m explaining this to you because you look nervous; rest assured, I’m not the type of person to jump on the back of some menacing biker in a leather vest and demand my AirPods. Still—I also wouldn’t seek them if I thought there was no chance of getting them back.
I also wouldn’t do it if I thought there was some better, more reasonable path to justice. A few months prior to my own loss, my partner Seamus accidentally left his phone at a slot machine in Las Vegas. When he returned a few minutes later, the phone was gone. He had Find My activated, so we could see that the phone hadn’t, for instance, gotten kicked under a table, or been turned in at Lost and Found. It was at some fucking guy’s house in the suburbs. We could see it on the location map, clear as day. We told the Las Vegas police as much. “Yeah, we can’t do anything with that,” the cop intoned as we helplessly watched the location dot. And apathy is, honestly, the better response, cop-wise, then taking the search too seriously.
As our time in Vegas ticked down, we toyed with the idea of pulling up on the house ourselves. Then we realized Seamus had insurance that would allow him to replace his stolen phone for a relatively small fee. But to my mind, messing with the sort of casino lurker that would casually lift something as personal and expensive as a phone seemed like slightly less of a good idea than tracking down someone who had, just for instance, idly picked up a tiny pair of lost AirPods.
The next day, I hopped in the car and aimed it at the supposed location of the AirPods. I wasn’t really sure what I’d do when I got there; maybe someone would be watering their lawn out front, wearing AirPods, and I’d insouciantly call out from a safe distance, "Been to Big Bear recently?” As I approached, the location updated: The AirPods were now sitting squarely in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
I pulled up to the museum, paid for parking and bought a single ticket (extremely reasonably priced, and, it turns out, the exhibits were wonderful; please patronize your local museums!). Now that I was close, I realized that the Find My app had two additional finding-related functions: If I got close enough, I could press a button, and the AirPods would play a sound audible to the room. There was also a Marco Polo-ish feature that purported to tell me when the AirPods were “near” or “far away,” based on the Bluetooth signal. It seemed like either or both of those features would make it easy to identify the pods if I got within eye- or ear-shot of the thief.
The museum was big. Three floors, cavernous rooms, long hallways, sedate lighting. It was filled with families and young children. Being a serious-science museum, as opposed to a play-science museum, it had the hushed atmosphere of a library. Perfect, theoretically, for hearing the chime of a pilfered AirPod. As I entered, I pressed the “play sound” button, and the pinwheel started spinning, waiting to get in Bluetooth range of the AirPods.
I hustled to the location dot, in a far corner room of the museum. A second-floor track opened to the ground floor, which was annoying, because the dot could not display vertical location, but only a handful of groups were milling around. Suddenly, the Find My app connected. A set of buttons popped up offering to play sounds in the left or right AirPod. I picked Left and stood stock still listening for a sound, watching for potential reactions from the corners of my eyes. Nothing. The dot’s location seemed to be within only a few feet of me, even moving with me. I kept walking, inspecting the ears of every person I passed, looking for white plugs. I went up the second-floor track, and nearly ran into him—a teen boy of ungainly height, flanked by what appeared to be two parents and siblings, with one AirPod in each ear.
I tried to hide my excitement, and kept strolling at an inconspicuous pace consistent with being a totally normal museum visitor and not a vigilante taking the law into my own hands. But my attention was fixed not on the dinosaur models, but the AirPod location map. As I moved away, testing my hypothesis, the AirPod location seemed to stay with the teen. I turned around and passed the family again; the app offered again to play the sound.
I pressed Left and watched him closely, listening. No sound. Dammit. Then, suddenly, he removed the left AirPod from his ear.
My heart leapt into my throat. Maybe the AirPods “knew” they were in an ear, and only played the sound quietly? Maybe the sound was loud in his ear, but inaudible to me 20-ish feet away? The boy looked intently at his phone, tapping it. He showed the screen to his mother, who reacted neutrally. He kept the right AirPod in, and the family kept ambling among the dinosaur bones. I started frantically pounding the Play Sound button again, watching the pinwheel turn and turn, praying for it to connect. After a couple of minutes, it did. I smashed the button to play a sound in the right AirPod, and watched. And watched. Nothing happened. The right AirPod remained in the boy’s ear, and the family kept strolling.
By this time, I was doing what felt like a suspicious amount of hovering. I was hovering so much that it was getting to the point where I felt I owed them one of those little museum-specific apologetic head nods that say Haha we seem to be interested in the exact same things in the same order, except it would be weird to do that and then later square up to them and demand my AirPods back. So I tried to keep my distance, stopping to examine a giant triceratops skull as they cruised away behind me.
As I studied the triceratops’ weathered horns, I tried to assemble a mental dossier on this family. They had been skiing earlier in the week. Now they were visiting a museum on a weekday. While their nightly “home” location of a random house in the suburbs suggested they weren’t tourists, they might be visiting family or staying in an Airbnb.
I imagined the teen casually picking up the AirPods in the co-ed locker room where I had dropped them only moments before, putting them in his pocket, and later breaking them out to play some tunes in front of his parents. I pictured them nodding serenely, approving of their clever son who had somehow produced AirPods out of nowhere. I fumed. If I, as a child, had dared to ever turn up in our family home with so much as a Q-tip my parents couldn’t personally account for, they would have locked on to me like an ICBM. Where did you get that? Stealing is wrong! You go put/give/send that back where you found it right now.
Only moments had passed, but I’d lost them. I panicked. The museum was full of dark rooms and blind corners. I stalked around until I spotted the family again, including the teen, one AirPod still in his ear. I checked my app; again, me and the AirPod location dot and this teen all seemed to be right on top of each other. I followed them in the most casual way possible through the Ice Age, past gems and minerals, insects. Every so often, the app would again offer to Play Sound. I alternated left and right AirPods, but never heard a peep. I despaired thinking of how tech existed that could allow me to do Mission: Impossible-style tricks—connect my phone’s microphone to the AirPods, putting me directly in the thief’s ears so I could ask what he thought of the P-22 mountain lion exhibit, may he rest in peace—but all Apple gave me was a couple beep-boop buttons.
I texted a group chat that I had lost my AirPods, but was hot on the trail of the thief in a natural history museum, as if my life were a damn Hitchcock movie. I told them I thought I had eyes on the perp, but couldn’t be sure. “Confront!!” they urged. “Apprehend the teen!!! You of all people can take him!!” But what if I was wrong? I couldn’t ruin some nice adorable family’s Friday afternoon, even if it was just to ask a few innocent questions like, “Hey—you guys look like you ski. Do you ski? What about stealing? Do you steal?”
I decided I’d try to connect to the AirPods, which were showing up in my list of available Bluetooth devices, thinking I’d play some very loud music into the thief’s ears and bamboozle him into outing himself. I didn’t wait for the connection to resolve before I hit play on Spotify, which is how I ended up playing several seconds of “Do You Think About Us?” by The Night Game on my iPhone’s speakers for all of the museum to hear.
I was growing desperate, and frankly tired of an AirPod hunt interrupting what had now become an otherwise peaceful time looking at sabertooth tiger dioramas. Nothing was working. Up to this point, I had been trying to convincingly play the role of “passionate solo museum visitor,” because I didn’t want the thief to know that I, the AirPods’ rightful owner, knew the AirPods were missing, and that they’d been stolen, and that he was the thief. But I also wasn’t getting smoking-gun evidence from the boy, or his phone, that his AirPods were in fact my AirPods; certainly not enough signals to make me comfortable with confronting him. His mother annoyingly refused to help me out by making a passing observation like It’s so wild that you happened to win those free AirPods in that mysterious raffle in Big Bear. It was time to raise the stakes.
I decided to try activating “Lost Mode.” Lost Mode pops up a message that says “This item is lost. Please contact me,” on the thief’s phone, with a phone number or email. It locks the AirPods from being assigned to a new Apple ID, but it does not, as far as I could tell, entirely prevent them from being used at all. Still, it would hopefully force some kind of push alert, or at least a text or notification, that would categorically reveal the teen had stolen the very AirPods through which he’d been playing the music he had been enjoying during his museum visit.
I triggered Lost Mode. Again, I stood motionless—probably much like a T-1000—and carefully watched the teen’s phone screen in the dark of the museum’s North American diorama room. He was pointing his camera around, trying to get a good angle on another photo of his mother, whom he had been sweetly cheesing with all afternoon. I softened, I admit, toward this unrepentant adolescent criminal who was also so kind to, and appreciative of the company of, his mother. Eventually, without any apparent notification, he took his photo, put his phone away, and drifted with his family back to the hall. God damn it!
I stood framed in the diffuse light of a diorama of taxidermied walruses. At this point, I had to consider that I might have had the wrong guy. But the location dot was moving so precisely in tandem with the family and myself. No other parties, so far as I could tell, were moving along with us. No one else was using AirPods that I could see. Did Lost Mode not produce a notification? Maybe it was a text, or an email, or a pop-up? I tried to Google what all the Find My interventions were supposed to look and sound like. But my single bar of phone reception wasn’t sufficient to wade through all the SEO cruft of How to Use the Find My to Find Your AirPods [47 pages of overly simplified text instructions on everything I’d already just done].
I checked the map, and my heart leapt again when it showed the location was now just outside the front of the museum. They were leaving. I rushed out, frantically circling the terraced courtyard. No sign of them. As I circled, the dot didn’t follow me; it seemed to have come to rest exactly where a trash can sat. I asked a nearby attendant if we could check the garbage for my stolen AirPods. The nearly-empty bag yielded nothing. 15, 20, 25 minutes passed, and the dot stopped updating. From what I could tell, this may have meant that the thief had put the AirPods away. The trail had gone cold.
Later that night, the AirPods were back sitting squarely in that house in the suburbs. Seamus, a True Crime head, peppered me with questions about my investigation, demanding to know what I found out and when. I hadn’t confronted the teen, either out of reasonable caution or petty cowardice. I told him I hadn’t been able to produce unequivocal evidence–a beeping gun–proving that what I thought were mine, were actually mine. “I think I’ve kind of painted myself into a corner,” I told him, “where I wouldn’t confront someone who looks like they would murder me, but I also wouldn’t confront someone who looks too nice. Everyone is going to be one or the other.”
“I’ll confront anyone,” he said. As a tall and broad-shouldered man, albeit an exceptionally gentle and friendly one, much of what he does is reflexively taken as confrontational anyway.
I looked at the map again, and thought about where they might go next. I realized that even if I hadn’t managed to tackle anyone to the ground, with total certainty of their crimes, maybe the museum trip wasn’t entirely a waste of time: If I could spot the same person using the AirPods in a different location, that had to be slightly better evidence than the Find My location alone.
“If we tried to find him again, would you confront him?” I said, eager to make the burden of giving final closure to this deranged experiment someone else’s responsibility.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said.
The next day we descended with entirely too much purpose on a Wal-Mart in one of California’s trademark mega-strip malls, once again following the dot. Find My app open, we began sweeping the store for the family I’d seen yesterday.
And once again, the dot seemed to be following my precise location, as if the thief and I were holding hands and skipping merrily from the towel aisle to electronics and back. But in many sections, there was no one around me; every time I passed someone, I checked their ears for AirPods. The app seemed to be telling me my AirPods were wherever I was; it wasn’t actually Finding My anything.
Suddenly, near the pharmacy, the display changed—the AirPods had gone from “far” to “near.” I didn’t see any sign of the museum family, but it didn’t matter. I told it to Play Sound in the left AirPod, and listened. Nothing. I circled the crowded pharmacy area looking for any AirPods at all. Nothing, and no one visibly having their eardrums blown out by an AirPod crying out for rescue. I was, at least theoretically, within yards of the thief for the second time. But this time I couldn’t even identify a single possible suspect, let alone a likely one.
The location stopped updating for 20 minutes, then the AirPods resurfaced at Marshalls. We rushed over and searched for a familiar face, or any AirPod in any ear. Once again the app connected enough to offer to play a sound, and I did, but heard nothing even in this quieter store. The location blinked again, and then the AirPods reappeared at the very center of a Reebok store in an outlet mall. Outlet shopping—a classic last stop for tourists.
We turned the corner into the outlet mall and were confronted with its absolutely oceanic parking lot. The sidewalks teemed with people and shopping bags. As soon as I got in range, the dot again picked up my location and juddered on my heels, mocking me through Nike, Swarovski, Oakley, Adidas, Gap, Ugg, Columbia, Hanes. Some of the thousands of people there were wearing AirPods. The Find My app had at least finally stopped pretending it could try to help by playing a sound on the AirPods. I was as close as I’d ever been, but still far, far away.
Later that night, the AirPods pinged from the LAX airport. The next day, they were sitting peacefully in a residential area outside Mexico City.
I knew in my soul I would lose my AirPods. Apple knew it, too; why else make and market a whole infrastructure purporting to help us find our fiddly little devices again? Sell enough tiny, expensive, interchangeable, ubiquitous little gadgets and you can turn finding yours into its own product category and marketing differentiator. Sure, Apple does not officially endorse vigilantism with the Find My app. But I’m not the only one who’s been seduced into playing Find My detective. What else are we supposed to do when some random guy in a locker room snatches a little device that promises to be easily findable? AirPods are practically designed to be stolen. But I wouldn’t have guessed how they are seemingly also designed to be just-barely-not-quite found again.
The AirPods are, to this day, in Lost mode. Somewhere out there, the thief’s phone is prompting them to “Please contact me” about them. It’s been two months, and I remain uncontacted. Every once in a while I open Find My to see if the thief has had enough shame and/or mercy to at least disconnect the AirPods from my account, so that I can no longer track their location. Whether out of hubris, cowardice, or ignorance, they have yet to give a single shit that I can see, with just-barely-not-enough precision, exactly where in the world they continue to enjoy my stolen AirPods. Sometimes I turn Lost Mode off and turn it back on again, not because I expect this brazen criminal to have a change of heart, but because I hope that it is annoying. It will never be as annoying as knowing that I could traipse the entire globe like Carmen Sandiego and, with the assistance of allegedly cutting-edge technology, come within a hundred feet of my rightful AirPods, but never closer.
But I obviously wouldn’t go to Mexico for another shot at finding them. That would be crazy. Right?