Guy walks into a lost-and-found, says: “I lost fifty bucks. There’s a reward.” Clerk hands him a form, says, “Fill it out.” Guy writes: “Reward. Lost $50. If found, just keep it.”
— Lost-and-found humor
While hurrying to get off a Metro train, if you were to leave behind your keys or cellphone — or, say, your prosthetic leg or the alligator head that you paid a taxidermist to stuff — chances are it would wind up in the transit office staffed by Yvette Carter and three other women, each with the job title of “lost-and-found technician.”
Or say you forgot your specimen case filled with little dead sea critters.
On the fifth floor of a nondescript, eight-story cubicle warren in Hyattsville, where Carter and her co-workers spend their days cataloguing the large, ever-revolving inventory of mostly mundane stuff that riders lose in the Metro system — eyeglasses, book bags, umbrellas — every so often something odd and memorable shows up.
A while back, for instance:
“They were specimens that a scientist was carrying from the University of North Carolina,” said Carter, seated in her workstation one recent morning. Arrayed on her small desk were the contents of yet another found wallet, one of the 243 in the past four weeks.
“He had brought his specimens to the Smithsonian,” she recalled. “I wouldn’t say they were insects — I don’t know what terminology to use exactly — but he had them all set up in this big case, and he left the case accidentally on the train.”
(Related: The 1,442 items lost on Metro last month)
This is about as exciting as it gets in the lost-and-found repository of America’s second-busiest subway. “You know how when you go to the ocean, and sometimes there are these tiny, sand-looking creatures you see crawling around?” Carter said, her voice lilted with wonder. “Those type of things. He had them all labeled in the drawers, and you could read what the names were. Whatever they were. I can’t remember them.”
Anyway, “it was really, really interesting.”
Each workday, passengers take about 750,000 trips on Metro’s six subway lines, using 91 stations, and roughly 460,000 trips on 307 bus routes. It stands to reason that some of those folks will be distracted, careless, absentminded or plain unlucky.
Almost every hour, train operators, bus drivers, station workers, customers and transit police officers find things and turn them in.
“The top items are keys and glasses,” said Jeremy Franklin, a Metro manager whose domain includes the central lost-and-found office. There, in a 20-by-20-foot storage room, racks and shelves and drawers and bins are crammed with people’s belongings, hundreds upon hundreds of items. Except for keys and eyewear, each piece of property has an attached paper ticket noting where, when and by whom it was found.
“Keys, probably 300 to 350 sets a month come in,” Franklin said. “Glasses, 300 or so pairs a month. After that, cellphones. We get 275 to 300 cellphones a month. Wallets, around 200 a month.”
Here was a Rite Aid bag containing two big canisters of Muscle Milk protein powder, found by employee Harrison at 7:30 a.m., Oct. 26, on bus No. 3023. Here was a man’s sweater, beige and orange, along with a pressed pair of blue jeans, in plastic bags from Smile Dry Cleaners, found Sept. 17 at 11:20 a.m. by an Orange Line rider.
Also an Eskimo doll; a child’s scooter; an unopened package of six Hanes T-shirts (white, size medium); a tool box; a yoga mat; textbooks (“Civil Procedure,” “Quantum Physics”); novels (“Inferno,” “And the Mountains Echoed”); bicycle helmets; barber shears; and a three-ring school binder with algebra and history notes scribbled by a boy named Isaiah.
“We do get the baby strollers,” said Phyllis Cooper, who works in the office. “We got a baby crib once, I remember. But not the babies yet. So that’s a good thing.”
In a corner there’s a bucket for long, narrow stuff, umbrellas mostly, plus canes, a fold-up easel, a set of curtain rods and what might be a telescope secured in a hard plastic tube.
And backpacks — scores of them, mainly lost by kids: a Little Mermaid backpack, a Spider-Man, an Iron Man, a Doctor Who — bearing no name tags, just some wrinkled worksheets, a flag football schedule, a couple of dried-out pens, a fistful of candy wrappers and a tiny bottle of gold glitter nail polish.
When a newly found item arrives, Carter or one of her co-workers — Cooper, April Allred or Kimberly Taylor — will log a description of the property into a database (except for eyewear and keys, which typically aren’t distinctive enough). If you’ve lost something in the transit system, you can visit wmata.com/about_metro/lost_found/what.cfm and enter a bunch of details. The computer will search for a match.
Then maybe you’ll get a phone call, e-mail or postcard saying your fluffy green scarf or leather-bound Bible appears to have been found, and you can go in and take a look.
If there’s a name and address with an item, one of the women of lost-and-found will reach out to the owner right away. That’s why briefcases, laptops and wallets often are quickly returned. Any cash in a wallet is put in an envelope marked with the wallet’s ticket number and locked in a safe in the storage room, Franklin said.
As for keys and eyewear, forget about it. They’re heaped in a half-dozen bins, each nearly as big as a bankers box. You’re welcome to stop by and rummage.
“Generally we get between 1,000 and 1,200 items a month,” Franklin said, “and we usually try to turn that over every 30 days.” He said about 30 percent of what comes in is reclaimed within a few weeks. The rest is auctioned off, donated to charity or destroyed. Anything in an orphaned wallet that might be used by an identity thief is fed into a shredder in the storage room, and leftover cash goes into Metro’s pocket.
“Probably $25,000 a year,” he said.
As stuff is disposed of, more flows in. And where mobile devices are concerned, the advance of technology is evident.
“A big increase in the smartphones, because there are so many of them now, it’s unbelievable,” said Cooper, who, with 15 years on the job, is the senior lost-and-found technician. “It used to be the pagers and the PalmPilots. We very seldom get pagers and PalmPilots anymore. And the BlackBerrys. Same thing.”
On rare occasions, one of the women will shake a lost backpack, and a gun or drugs will spill out, which livens up the day. “I’ve seen dentures, too, and also a prosthetic leg,” said Allred. “The teeth got destroyed. Nobody ever came to pick those up. But the gentleman did come to get his leg that he left on the bus.” It happened last summer. “I don’t know if this was an extra leg, because when he came in, he was walking fine.”
After a moment, Carter looked up and said, “Alligator head,” and the others burst out laughing. “It had been to the taxidermist,” she said. “When we dumped the bag, it fell out, frightened everyone.” The head was a good three feet long, she said. “Me, I jumped back and went, ‘Ooooo!’ I mean, it had the teeth, had the eyes.”
This was years ago.
She said, “No one ever came for it.”
“We get probably 20, 30 people a day in here,” said Franklin, standing near the customer window, which is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays to Fridays.
“Sometimes 50,” Allred said.
First in line on a recent morning: Tanyel Brown, 24, who lives at Fort Belvoir, works in catering and was due to give birth in a week. The canvas pouch that she left on a bus held most of her medical and insurance information.
Behind her, in a charcoal blazer and yellow bow tie, stood Randall Wagner, a 60-year-old physician and the chief medical officer at Washington Adventist Hospital, who forgot his glasses on a train. And in back of him waited Lawrence Shelton, 51, a nursing aide from Bowie, who lost the only ignition key he had for his motorcycle, possibly on a bus.
Allred pointed to a bin overflowing with keys — a spaghetti bowl of chains, rings and lanyards — and Shelton dug in, searching for his plastic Honda fob.
He saw keys with a miniature flashlight, with a tiny bottle opener, with a little whistle, with a thumb-size library card. One lanyard: “I LOVE JESUS.” Another: “GOD IS AWESOME.” He saw a funky fob in the shape of a palm tree from Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas; he saw a ring with so many keys, it must have been lost by a jailer.
He saw hundreds of keys and finally gave up.
“Going to be 300 bucks for a locksmith,” he said, moping away.
Ask Allred why she enjoys her work (“I love it”), and she’ll say: “What I like best is reuniting people with their items. It makes them happy, and it makes me happy.”
Brown got her pouch back. “Thank you, thank you, thank out,” she practically sang to Allred, who was smiling behind the counter.
Turning to Wagner, Allred said, “Okay, so we’ll let you do your own search,” and she fetched a bin filled with eyewear. “Marvelous; what a delight,” the doctor muttered under his breath. Then, pleasantly, with a cordial nod: “Thanks.”
And there were his glasses, right on top, in a metallic blue case.
“Yeeesss! Incredible!” He was aghast; he was beaming. “I mean, you can’t buy that!”
“Okay,” said Allred. “Perfect.”