John Kelly
John Kelly

I came, I saw, I conquered: Behind the scenes at the Dulles lost-and-found

John Kelly/The Washington Post - Joyce Bergin and Ken Lett work in the lost and found at Dulles.

Everybody knows that when you see something, you should say something. When I looked inside a black plastic bag sitting in a Smarte Carte at Dulles Airport, what I said was: “Woo-hoo! I got some free wine!”

But had I? How ironclad is the concept of finders keepers, losers weepers?

Some background: In April my daughter and I dropped My Lovely Wife off at Dulles. I’m naturally nosy, so when I saw the unattended shopping bag in the parking lot I looked in it. Inside were two bottles of 2010 Muscat du Valais and a receipt for 34 euros from a duty-free shop at the Geneva airport.

I immediately conjured up the most likely scenario: A Swiss alphorn virtuoso had flown into Dulles and brought wine as a gift for the people putting him up. In the confusion over how best to fit his eight-foot-long alphorn into his host’s Prius, the duty-free bag was forgotten.

My wife thought there was no way the owner was returning for it. What jet-lagged person would drive back after a nine-hour flight just to see if his not-particularly-expensive wine was still sitting in the Dulles parking lot?

It’s yours, she said.

I agonized. What if this was a setup by one of those hidden-camera shows that hope to catch us in our all-too-human pettiness and greed? Though I could already taste the sweet muscat on my lips, I decided to turn in the wine to lost-and-found.

That’s when I learned that if no one claimed the wine within two months, it would be mine. I counted down the days.

Last week, I went back for it and met Joyce Bergin and Ken Lett, who work at the Dulles lost-and-found. Well, one of the lost-and-founds. There’s another one for the TSA (for all the pocket contents left at the frisking stations). And each airline has its own. Joyce and Ken oversee stuff found in the terminal.

As you’d expect, they get a lot of keys, a lot of wallets, a lot of cellphones. Sometimes they get toys, including those well-worn toys and blankets that are used to pacify children.

“That makes me sad,” Joyce said. “Poor little kids.”

They once got a new toilet. Joyce thinks that some passengers don’t understand what they are allowed to board with. Their luggage has already gone through, an airline official tells them that a toilet does not qualify as a carry-on, and so they just leave it behind.

Then it goes to lost-and-found.

As did the three boxes of condoms. Not little boxes of condoms — big boxes, each containing 2,000 prophylactics. Joyce said they were for an AIDS conference in Africa and speculates that the owners left them on the curb, assuming they would be checked in.

I imagine somewhere in Kampala, this conversation took place:

“I thought you had the condoms.”

“I thought you had the condoms!”

Joyce took me behind the scenes. All sorts of possessions were stacked on shelves: tennis rackets, fishing poles, poster tubes, a pool cue, a sombrero, a bottle of Banana Boat sunscreen.

Any prosthetic legs? No, Ken said. But lots of wheelchairs and crutches. “Apparently a lot of miracles happen at this airport,” he said.

The lost-and-found staff does all it can to reunite owners with their possessions, checking contact lists on cellphones, getting help from IT to read laptops and tablets.

After three months, the cheaper unclaimed items are disposed of. The pricier ones are auctioned at No one who works at lost-and-found is allowed to claim the items. But the finders can. Ken said that has increased the number of items that are turned in. If offered the possibility of eventually getting something, people tend to do the right thing.

“Then they can say, ‘I did everything legally,’ ” Ken said.

I did everything legally. When I got home, I put my wine in the fridge. That night I had it with my dinner. À votre santé!

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