The MTA lost and found. Photograph by Sophie Haigney.
I was thinking, recently, of a scene from the animated movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The island of lost toys, I remembered, was a place in the North Pole where the stuffed bears and Hot Wheels cars and waddling wind-up penguins that disappear from children’s lives ended up. They lived happily in their own colony, tinged only slightly with the sad shadow of their severance from their human caretakers. I went to look up this scene, and it turned out I had misremembered it and had been doing so for years. There is no island of lost toys. In the movie it is the island of misfit toys—all the more poignant, for the toys are not lost but abandoned, because they don’t quite belong. Children don’t want them and so they find one another. Eventually this odd cast of characters comes together to teach Rudolph a lesson about the beauty of being a misfit; as we all know, that particular story ends happily ever after. But if the misfits have found one another, where do the lost toys go?
That question sort of answers itself: they’re lost. They’re unaccounted for. There are some possible explanations. Perhaps that treasured stuffed lion, worn around the ears, was forgotten on the red banquette at an Italian restaurant where the child was drawing in crayon on a paper tablecloth. Perhaps it fell between the seats of a Land Rover, or worse, into the bottomless netherland of “under the bed.” But even if these scenarios are plausible or true, they might be unverifiable, and so some things simply seem to be erased from earth. I lose things all the time—credit cards, keys, jackets, sunglasses, books, a necklace, two necklaces—actually, three necklaces, all of them gifts from people who loved me. Sometimes I joke that I practice nonattachment, the Buddhist thing, though the real explanation is that I am clumsy and careless. I do wonder where it is that my things have gone. I have always been bothered by this, so much so that it seems I invented and sustained a belief in a fictional Arctic island populated by reindeer where lost things might one day be restored.
I went a few weeks ago to the bowels of Penn Station. Squeezed underneath the A/C platform, behind a door decorated with colorful sketches of tennis rackets, cameras, basketballs, guitars, purses, light bulbs—all manner of cartoon odds and ends—is the MTA’s central lost and found. Normally, one sidles up to a glass window manned by an attendant and requests an item. If the item is there, you receive it and depart. Accompanied by Ron Young, who runs the New York City Transit lost and found and has been with the MTA for seventeen years, I was able to go behind the door. This area is the sort of purgatory where every single item that has been recovered from a New York City bus or subway is awaiting its possible return. On average, five to six hundred items come in each week.
In the front office, at desks with plastic dividers between them, four men and women were working in a way that I can only describe as methodical without even understanding the method. A man at the first desk was counting dollar bills. The woman behind him had sets of keys on her desk to be slipped into plastic sleeves along with identifying information. (Usually with keys there is none.) Someone else was typing into a massive spreadsheet.
Here is how the process usually works: someone forgets something on a bus or a train. Most commonly, it’s a wallet or a cell phone. It could be glasses, a book, a pair of shoes, X-rays, skis, a hat, a backpack, a banjo. These items are then found, usually by someone on the cleaning crew or a bus driver or a fellow passenger; they are catalogued on-site and packed into big burlap sacks, which are delivered weekly to the central lost and found. Upon arrival, the contents of each bag are reassessed (always by two people, Young tells me, so there can never be any questions of impropriety, of lost things gone doubly missing). The items are then broken down by category internally: Cash/Containing Cash, Wallets & IDs, Cell Phones, Large Items, and Miscellaneous. The front office—the men and women bent over the desks—make every attempt to find and contact the owner of the item. With a wallet, that’s often relatively easy. With sunglasses, nearly impossible. But every item is stored away, for varying lengths of time based on the object’s perceived value. (Some things get three months; others, three years.) If no one claims them—and most items do go unclaimed—they are then donated, auctioned off, or trashed. A different department takes care of that.
Young took me back to the area where the large items are stored. Strollers, tennis bags, a snowboard, a guitar in a case, a walker, a wheelchair, a Peppa Pig backpack, a Google gym bag. I wandered around for a while, taking notes, looking at the stuff. It was nothing special, really: not quite a junkyard feel, more like the storage closet behind a high school gym. There were curiosities which Young and others pointed out: old-school prosthetic legs, jumbled in a bin; a scale for weighing drugs; a vintage ammunition case; a bag full of old dentures. (Similar dentures had apparently recently been reclaimed.) And then umbrella after umbrella after umbrella.
At the end of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, the narrator, Ruth, and her aunt Sylvie burn down their house—disordered, decaying, packed to the brim with relics and junk—rather than leave their possessions behind. Robinson writes:
For even things lost in a house abide, like forgotten sorrows and incipient dreams, and many household things are of purely sentimental value, like the dim coil of thick hair, saved from my grandmother’s girlhood, which was kept in a hatbox on top of the wardrobe, along with my mother’s gray purse. In the equal light of disinterested scrutiny such things are not themselves. They are transformed into pure object, and are horrible, and must be burned.
This image always returns to me—the near violence Ruth experiences when these things lose their quality of memory and become “pure object.” I had a feeling, in the fluorescence of this basement, that we were in the land of pure object here.
We passed through the area devoted to smaller electronics. Thousands of cell phones were stored in old-school filing cabinets, grouped by the date of retrieval. Some were kept in a kind of cage, packaged together in plastic so that they formed a brick-like stack, iPhone on top of iPhone on top of iPhone. Ringtones and alarms were periodically going off, little chimes and blaring tones, some endlessly ringing like an out-of-whack ice cream truck. Young said he often marveled at their battery life, the way these phones could stay alive for months and months after they’d been found, since no one was using them day-to-day. Paradoxically, locked cell phones are one of the hardest items to trace—“black iPhone” is entirely useless as an identifier, Young told me, even if someone does take the trouble to call and request theirs back. Looking at these stacks of phones—most likely long since replaced by people like me who can’t last more than a day or two without one—and listening to them ringing out in a sort of half life, it was hard not to feel a little dispirited. The island of lost toys was more dejected than I’d imagined, the losses more final or interchangeable; after all, we replace our things all the time, without thinking much of the old ones. Most lost things simply don’t get found.
There are upbeat narratives that come out of the lost and found, though, the kind that often make for local news stories. Someone left their wedding dress on a train, and a woman in the front office thought to trace it to the dry cleaner whose tags were still on it. An urn of pet ashes, recently, was traced to a cemetery in Wisconsin, and eventually made its way back to the grateful owners. As we walked back toward the front, I was introduced to Veronica Santana, who’d recently made the local news because she had helped trace a naval aviation ID card of a World War II veteran back to his daughter, months after it had been left on the train. (The daughter had been bringing it to a special showing of Top Gun: Maverick for veterans.) And then of course there are wallets, driver’s licenses, backpacks, that are constantly and quietly being returned to their owners—a headache or a major crisis resolved for someone somewhere.
Ron Young told me that in more than ten years, they’ve never lost an item in the system after it’s been turned in, even as they’re storing ten thousand or more items at a time. This is sort of remarkable if you think about it, this vast bureaucratic system of tracking lostness, and all these exercises in keeping and care. There is something religious about all of this, something Christian, I really mean, even though it’s probably, certainly blasphemous to think about worldly possessions like that. But I am imagining little resurrection stories, just as I imagined my island of lost things—these objects restored to a kind of life when reunited with their owners. In this light of disinterested scrutiny, the bag of vintage golf clubs can be nothing but a set of clubs, green bag, not the newest model; their story has come to a kind of end. But actually perhaps it has been redirected here: in their path from intake to cataloguing to storage, these clubs take on a new and poignant set of possibilities. Return, renewal—unlikely but possible. What better fate for anything, or for anyone for that matter, than to be once lost and then found again?
Sophie Haigney is the web editor of The Paris Review.
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