We’ve all seen the SubTalk poster promoting New York City Transit’s Lost and Found unit. Because of the presence of dentures, a seemingly used razor blade and a set of prosthetic legs, the ad generally elicits a disbelieving chuckle. There’s no way anyone has ever lost a pair of legs on the subway, right?
In a City Critic piece in The Times this weekend, Ariel Kaminer went behind the scenes at Transit’s Lost and Found department underneath the A/C/E platform at 34th St. and 8th Ave and found that, yes, a long-forgotten set of legs is in residence. You can see the legs right here.
But that’s just a part of the sideshow. Kaminer’s article is a generally optimistic take on the lost-and-found unit. She intentionally loses a few items and mostly recovers them a few days later. Along the way, she meets one formerly forlorn straphanger who was able to reclaim a lost cell phone; another who retrieved his wallet with the $70 still inside; and a third who recovered a blue canvas bag with most of her identifying papers in it. It is seemingly a minor miracle of the subway system.
Of the Lost and Found system, now mostly handled via its website, Kaminer writes:
Usually it takes 7 to 10 days for an item to make its way from a station attendant’s booth to a dispatcher, and so on up the line, but the station pickups are once a week, so if you’ve just missed one, it can take longer; Lost Property agents assured me that everything but perishable food is turned in.
I waited 10 days, then went to see if anything had turned up. Having expected the equivalent of a big cardboard box, I was impressed to find an operation closer to the Dewey Decimal System. Everything was sorted according to category and the month lost, and logged in a searchable electronic database, with an additional file of paper receipts for good measure…
My lost items were not anywhere near that valuable, which was a good thing, because after almost two weeks, all I got was an automated e-mail notice Friday afternoon saying one of the items may have appeared. The Lost Property Unit had already closed for the week, but I saw enough teary-eyed success stories to feel optimistic about the whole lost trove. I have a feeling I haven’t seen the last of that “Star Wars” umbrella.
It’s a nice story for a Sunday column, but to me, it seems to be nothing more than just a story. Two years ago, an MTA Inspector General’s report condemned the lost and found operations. At the time, just 18 percent of lost items were recovered, and 23 of 26 intentionally lost items were never logged into the system. Since then, Transit has debuted its new web-based system, and the recovery rate may have gone up.
Personally, I had a tale of Lost and Found woe earlier this year when my sunglasses fell out of my backpack. I didn’t notice for a few hours that I had lost them and when I did come to this realization, I was distraught. I filled out the detailed online form — where I lost them, when, what color, what brand — and waited. A few days later, I received an e-mail that said, “Based on the information provided, there is a possible match with an item(s) that has been received at the Lost Property Unit. Please contact or visit the Lost Property Unit for further information.”
At first, I tried calling the Lost Property Unit but with no luck. The phone would ring and ring and ring with no answer. So I hopped the train to Penn Station, went inside this windowless room and issued my inquiry. The woman who helped came back with some sunglasses, but none of them were mine. Apparently, according to the woman staffing the LPU, the system, in getting my hopes, didn’t differentiate between glasses cases or rely on the extensive description I had provided. It was a “possible” match but not a definite.
I appreciate Kaminer’s tale. It’s heartwarming to think that if one of the millions of people who ride the subway every day happens to lose something, he or she might actually get back it. It’s also highly improbable. That lost Star Wars has a new home, and it most likely isn’t a storage bin at Transit’s Lost Property Unit.