On the second floor of a big, yellow brick warehouse on Shannon Place, Anacostia, there is a narrow, battered gray wooden crate.
Stenciled on the top: "Examined by U.S. Customs. Baltimore. No sample taken." "This might be one of the most unusual items turned up to date," said Lt. Clifton J. Porter of the Metropolitan Police Department, his voice echoing slightly in the cavernous storage loft. "No one has come forward to claim it."
Porter, with the help of 15 police officers and five civilians, oversees the custody of stolen, lost or abandoned properties in Washington. Bending over, he opened the crate to reveal a four-foot-long dark coffin. Lifting the cover, he said, "Look, no one inside."
"We end up with every piece of property that comes into the custody of the police," Porter said. "Found items are turned in to local divisions and taken to us for listing and safekeeping. The article is run through a computer to see if it has been stolen; if not, we list it as found."
The City Council recently passed an act allowing unclaimed property to be returned to the finder after 60 days. Still, the warehouse contains "well over 100,000 items," according to Porter.
I looked around the huge building. I couldn't remember anything that I had lost recently, but I did have a raggedy raincoat stolen from my car. (The culprit smashed in a window, costing me far more money than the coat was worth). But a search of the bins was to no avail.
The place was loaded with cameras and watches. On a recent Sunday in The Washington Post's classified section, cameras led in items stolen or lost; there were l7 waiting for owners to claim them. There were 13 watches, five of them having been found in and around the Capitol, making one wonder what happens to time on the Hill.
The long shelves were packed, and areas of the floor had to be used for storing the tagged items: four purses, two containing money and two empty; a shoulder bag, many pairs of prescription eyeglasses, suitcases, briefcases, an overnight bag, a man's overcoat, a fancy Calvin Klein men's shirt, jeans, a pair of jogging pants. . . .
Bracelets, necklaces, rings and other jewelry were locked in a vault.
There were six televisions, a stereo, a tool kit, a hair dryer, a car radio, two small safes, a lawnmower, several power mowers, a saxophone, an electric guitar, a French horn. And silverwear still around from Bernard Welch's escapades.
A pair of aluminum doors found on the 200 block of 1st Street gave one cause to wonder.
A big sketch of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy with an autograph, "To Susan from Ted Kennedy," left in a taxi.
Weapons of all kinds: cudgels, a machete, knives, guns. Rows of cases containing pints and half pints of liquor. Enough beer for a college weekend.
Alongside a pinball machine, to prove that crooks will steal anything, were 72 brand-new supermarket shopping carts stolen in New Jersey and picked up in a truck in Washington.
Blown safes were set to one side, doors twisted off the hinges, the insides looking as if a miniature atomic bomb had gone off.
"We even had a term paper turned in -- we advertised and no one claimed it. It must have been important to someone," said Porter.
"We get a lot of articles from cab drivers. The odds are very much in their favor of getting them back in 60 days."
There are still honest people around -- a total of $1,295 had been turned in to the police by 11 finders.
Honesty can pay, like the time a young man came in to claim a Japanese television set after the allotted time period.
"We had no idea whether it worked or not and neither did he," Porter said. "We plugged it in and got a perfect picture. The whole thing only cost him $9," the price of advertising which the claimant picks up.
For reasons of positive identification, not all of the details on found property are given in advertisements -- the person claiming an item has to offer some proof that the item is his.
"Like the young man who came in claiming a bicycle that had been advertised," said Porter. "He didn't know the serial number, although he could describe the bike, and he remembered a temporary repair he had made recently -- he used a large screw under a pedal. We checked, and sure enough, it was there, so he took his bike and left."
The property division also handles cars and on a recent morning auctioned off 649.
"A lot of things that have been found have been someone else's trash," Porter said. "A guy puts his trash out, someone picks it up and throws it away, and another person thinks it has some value and turns it in. We end up with it and the owner thinks the trash man has it."
Checking back with Porter the other day, I asked whether anyone had come to claim the casket. "Not yet," he said, "but like everything else in here, when the time runs out it goes up for auction." This happens about once a year, he said. "We ran one last October at the Sheraton Washington -- 2,500 items went on the block, and we only returned back here with two of them."