To the person who recently dropped a frying pan in the mailbox, the postal service is awaiting your call. Ditto for the two cans of horse hoof polish, the pair of wooden drumsticks, the gold Elgin watch, the silver shower-curtain hooks, the shopping bag full of Asian food, the dirty tennis shoes and the plastic baby bottle packed with little white jelly beans.
They are among the thousands of unclaimed items being kept in a storage room at the Santa Ana post office until postal workers find their owners or get tired of looking, whichever comes first.
"Don't ask me how they get here," said Carol K. Samaniego, manager of the Santa Ana Processing Center's consumer affairs department. "Just about the time you think you've seen it all, you see something new."
Like the artificial eyeball that turned up at the Van Nuys post office. Or the guns and animals--including cats and snakes--that regularly surprise carriers opening mailboxes in Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Among the hundreds of items that pass through Samaniego's office each week from Orange and portions of Los Angeles counties, the two most common are photographs and keys. Like almost everything else that ends up in her care, she said, they probably were dropped in a collection box by mistake, sent in packages that later broke open or were deposited by people who, unwittingly or maliciously, confused mailboxes with trash bins.
Whatever the reason, she says, unaddressed items dropped in mailboxes remain, by federal law, as part of the general mail stream until sorters at the post office set them aside. If you drop something in the mailbox by mistake, your postman can't just hand it back to you. Eventually the stuff ends up in the consumer affairs department, where nine staffers try to find out to whom it belongs.
If an item contains a name or phone number, or any sort of identification, the owner is contacted. Things like bank deposits, DMV registration materials or real estate documents are returned to the appropriate agencies. Cell phones and beepers are left on in hopes the owner will call. "One young visitor from Japan," Samaniego recalled, "lost his cell phone at Disneyland and somebody dropped it in a mailbox. He called us on his phone and we were able to return it to him."
Items valued at more than $10 that remain unclaimed for 30 days are sent to a postal recovery center in San Francisco, where they are kept for another three to six months before being sold, often on Ebay. All other items remain at the local post office for a year before being shredded or melted down.
That's obviously not possible with everything. Samaniego remembers, for instance, a bowling ball and a cake that ended up in the mail. Other unusual items have included false teeth, hearing aids, eyeglasses, garage door openers, license plates, a glass bong ("nobody claimed that one," she says) and a wedding ring with an attached note saying "I don't love you anymore, so you can have this back."
What she lives for, though, are the success stories, those all-too-rare instances when she can hand something back to someone who never expected to see it again.
She recalls, for instance, the elderly Orange County resident who thought that her six $10,000 savings bonds were in a safe deposit box when, in fact, she'd inadvertently deposited them in the mail. Or the young secretary who had mistakenly dropped payroll checks in a mail collection box. Her job was probably saved when Samaniego recovered them before the secretary's boss discovered them missing.
"I love it" when something like that happens, Samaniego says. "It's nice to see the smile on a person's face when you return something to them."
So if you're missing that frying pan--or, for that matter, a very special large glass bong--you can call Samaniego at (714) 662-6215.
She's waiting to hear from you.
Times staff writers Margaret Talev, Hang Nguyen and Irene Garcia contributed to this story.