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The Secret Life of Stuff We Lose on Subways

A tale of underground lost and found.

Image AP Photo/Richard Drew
The MTA lost and found in New York City back in 2007. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

In some ways, subway cars quickly shed any trace of the riders who jostled for space in their cramped quarters. Once passengers file out, the slate is clean, for a moment, before more crowd in. But sometimes—often, actually—we leave things behind.

Maybe you’d been swept up in something you were reading; maybe you’d dozed off. As the train pulls into your station, you’re scrambling to collect your stuff. Groceries, messenger bag, magazine—do you have your phone? Wait, didn’t you have a scarf? The doors slide shut behind you before you can go back to grab it.

Cell phones in the MTA lost and found. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

GuardianWitness recently issued a call for odes to all things lost on London’s public transit. The reactions testified to the fact that we carry a lot around with us—not just sketchbooks or passports or bassoons, but also the hope that a passion project will turn into a job, or that locking eyes with someone could lead to a meaningful relationship.

Some responses lamented losing works-in-progress, like portfolios or even a completed manuscript:

In October about 3 years ago I lost a silver coloured memory stick on the London Underground. I was, still am, devastated, gutted, discombobulated. My unfinished novel was on the memory stick. ... I can't bear the thought of somebody finding my memory stick and deleting my cherished work.

Others focused on romantic hopes dashed by a misplaced note, such as this one from a rider who forgot to ask his date’s last name:

I shall never forget the cackling laughter from TfL staff at Holborn tube station next evening, when I asked if anyone had handed in a mobile number written in lipstick on a napkin. One of them still smirks at me whenever I go through the gates in the morning…

And some, full of ennui, went the existential route, complaining that subway conditions stole their sanity:

Up until three years ago I traveled to work on a combination of tube and train (over 20 years in all), did my head in. The stress of trying to get on already overcrowded trains, canceled services...fellow passengers.

I’m not sure how to restore someone’s sanity. But there is a path for reuniting with the more tangible items.

In New York City, for instance, things left behind on buses or subways sometimes make their way to the Lost Property Unit offices beneath Penn Station. (There’s another outpost in Grand Central Terminal devoted just to items discarded on the Metro-North trains; it houses around 20,000 items each year.)

Umbrellas with claim tickets, waiting for their owners at the MTA lost and found. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Tags loop around a prosthetic wooden leg, a Razor scooter with green wheels, gummy, gap-toothed dentures, dozens of wood-handled umbrellas, and hundreds of wallets and phones. There are piles of loose keys, some sharing a ring with a crucifix or a tiny photo of a school kid, grinning, leaning against a tree in a collared shirt and vest. Forgotten coats lurch around the room on a conveyer belt, circling again and again, waiting for their owners to come looking.

Riders who lose an item can fill out an inquiry form. If that item makes its way to the unit, a representative will send an email or postcard and the passenger can bring ID to claim it.

The goods in the unit’s care are as diverse as the people who ride the train; there’s plenty for the urban anthropologist to excavate. FiveThirtyEight charted the inventory in 2014. It included 96 X-rays, 19 death certificates, and a few TVs and air conditioners. In one visit to the facility, The Huffington Post discovered a pet rabbit and “an ordinary-looking briefcase that was opened to reveal a dizzying array of adult toys.”

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

"We get false teeth almost every week," a supervisor explained. "How do you lose your teeth?"

Another clerk noted that reuniting people and their possessions can be extremely rewarding. "I've seen people cry when they get their stuff back and they're really, really elated," he said.

The best-case scenario is that you find your lost item—maybe a hand-knit scarf, or a sleek phone—and it hasn’t been trampled or torn or smashed. One clerk estimated the return rate at about 60 percent. As for the others? If they’re in passable condition, the New York City Transit’s Asset Recovery Group auctions them off.

Back in 2012, the MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz told the New York Daily News that the auctions net between $30,000 and $50,000 in annual revenue for the agency. Tech gadgets are typically kept around for about six months, while pricier jewelry and musical instruments might hang around for up to three years, Gothamist explained.

That’s how a scarf left behind on a subway car could find its way back there, dangled around someone else’s neck. And as you catch a glimpse of someone sprinting for the train, you might see it and wonder, for a moment, if it’s yours.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester is an associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.