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The Nation

For All Lost in the Shuffle, a Haven at the End of the Line

Grand Central Terminal has one of the best records of returning items left by commuters. But a 60% retrieval rate still leaves much behind.

November 25, 2005|Walter Hamilton | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It looks more like a police evidence room than a part of elegant Grand Central Terminal.

Arrayed along the drab, windowless room's three aisles of gray warehouse-style shelving are the prosaic -- countless coats, cellphones and purses -- alongside the uncommon -- wrapped gifts, a computer keyboard and a giant inflatable life raft.

Occasionally, there's the bizarre: prosthetic limbs, socks stuffed with cash and an ash-filled urn.

Judging from the 19,000 items that make their way to the room each year, it seems only a matter of time before most of the 125,000 commuters who stream in each day from Manhattan's northern suburbs will have to find their way to Grand Central's lost and found.

"It's inevitable," said lost-and-found manager Mike Nolan. "You may not have lost anything yet, but at some point it can happen to everybody."

After leaving her winter coat in a train's overhead rack, Jeannette Goldstein was delighted -- if a bit embarrassed -- to be reunited with it a couple of days later.

"This is not the first time" she'd been done in by the oft-overlooked rack, the Scarsdale, N.Y., woman confessed. "So I knew where to come."

About 60% of people find what they came for, Nolan said. That ranks among the best rates worldwide, said Paul Noguchi, an urban anthropologist at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

And it might be higher except for two seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

First, some people don't realize they've left things on the train.

"We get Christmas gifts all the time," Nolan said. "Believe it or not, people don't come back for them."

Second, some people don't try to retrieve their items, and a few even intentionally discard them.

That was the case with the urn containing the ashes, according to the Metro-North Railroad. A few months after the unclaimed ashes were discovered, someone called to say they were the remains of a man who'd ridden the train for 30 years. The man often got home late, blaming his tardiness on malfunctioning trains or catnaps that lasted beyond his stop.

Those turned out to be lies, however, to mask dalliances with a girlfriend. So after the man's death his widow thought the train an appropriate final resting spot.

As for the prosthetic limbs, they belonged to patients of a veterans' hospital.

"They'd go out drinking and tie one on, and for whatever reason would take off their leg or arm and leave it on the train," Nolan said.

The socks, which contained $9,999, belonged to a housekeeper from Peru.

In his five years running the lost and found, Nolan said, his strangest moment came in October 2003.

Two sets of false teeth came in that month. A man thought one pair was his and, waving off sanitary concerns, he asked to put them in his mouth.

"The guy was not hesitant," Nolan recalled. "He wanted to try the false teeth on. I was like, 'whoa.' "

Sure enough, the teeth belonged to the man.

The lost and found demonstrates the best and worst impulses of New Yorkers.

Someone turned in a $10 bill. Then again, Nolan said, people are more likely to keep an abandoned umbrella.

"If you leave your umbrella, chances are we don't get it," he said.

And some people -- dubbed "shoppers" by the staff -- come seeking items that aren't theirs, such as umbrellas on rainy days. They often retreat after being met with questions about when and how they lost the items.

The lost and found is a reflection of the East Coast's changing seasons. Hence, there's a box labeled "Nov. Scarfs and Gloves." Anyone losing those items a month earlier, however, would have had to rummage through "Oct. All Other Clothing."

The lost and found has existed since the terminal opened in 1913 and is, as such things go, cutting edge, said Noguchi, the urban anthropologist.

In 1995, Grand Central began tracking items via computer. It made a big leap two years ago by making the database searchable to type in, say, the color and brand name of a jacket to boost the odds of identifying the owner. Its counterparts in Tokyo and London have since followed suit, Noguchi said.

Still about 40% of items go unreturned, even though the four-person staff tries to find the owners. Partly for security reasons, they delve into pockets and open bags. Business cards and, ever so rarely, names and phone numbers sewn into coats are their best clues.

The lost and found holds onto most items for 90 days, after which the goods are donated to charity. In some cases, whoever turned in an item can claim it.

For people who can't find a favorite coat or a pricey cellphone, the lost and found can be the final stop in an exasperating search.

Robert Windsor turned his home upside down looking for a ski jacket before coming to the Grand Central lost and found last week. But it wasn't there, leaving Windsor with few other places to search.

"After not finding it here," he said. "I think my chances have dimmed significantly."

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