Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

WMATA's Lost and Found is a land of keys, phones, Metro luggage, and curiosities

August 15, 2011 - 09:15 AM
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Several wallets had been lost in the past 30 days, including this one with an American Express card and Minnesota driver's license.13 Photos
Several wallets had been lost in the past 30 days, including this one with an American Express card and Minnesota driver's license. (Photo: Joshua Yospyn/TBD)

What does Metro's Lost and Found have to show off? A golf club, a silver helmet, Nike tennis shoes, a sparkly pink phone, a thin black cane and an elegant umbrella, multiple items of misplaced luggage. Look deeper and you'll spot a big toolbox and a hockey stick, the camera tripod and the BlackBerries, the tennis racket that some Metro rider never picked up when the big doors suddenly whooshed open. A Razor scooter sits nearby. It's all there out near a Green Line Metro station, waiting for owners gone missing. These outrageous items and more ... as well as lots and lots of orphaned keys, cell phones, and glasses, by far the most popular items lost on our commutes.

A visit to Metro's Hyattsville Lost and Found shows the full, unbelievable range of what the District's riders lose on the trains — the office receives more than 3,500 items a month if you can imagine the sight. Everything above is just a sampling of what turned up in August and July of this year.

I've long been curious about what forgotten trinkets and belongings fill Metro's Lost and Found and finally visited the location recently with photographer Joshua Yospyn (see his photos of the Lost and Found here). Where does Metro store these thousands of monthly acquisitions, turned in by friendly Metro riders and WMATA staff? The office, originally in Silver Spring, has existed in a compound in Hyattsville, Maryland since August, 2009, and hides in an eerily official building with small windows and scant color a few blocks from the Prince Georges Plaza Metro station. Surprisingly dense retail surrounds the office building, which is around the block from a Qdoba and across the street from such stores as Macy's and Target.

Walk into the 6505 Belcrest Road compound, ascend to the fifth floor, and turn to the end of the hall — a sign directs you into the Lost and Found lobby. The open room blinds you with white sterility and a lack of chairs. To the right you'll find a door leading into the glass customer service window as well as boxes containing keys and glasses for people to peruse. So many are lost and found that the Metro Lost and Found doesn't even enter them into its database.

"It takes two to five business days for [found] items to get here," says Lendy Castillo, manager of customer relations and director of the Lost and Found, which has a staff of four including Castillo. Friendly, patient, yet focused, the man, now in his 40s, spent the past six years working for WMATA. He showed me the desktop computer where he logs items into the database and help customers find their missing belongings.

But you better act fast. After 30 days, the Lost and Found auctions off, destroys, or gives away the items to keep the piles of lost items manageable by the small staff. I expected a treasure trove in Hyattsville but what I quickly discovered were countless, ordered boxes, carefully tagged with case numbers and with each box ordered by date. Inside the office are small boxes of keys, phones, and glasses but also big green crates also ordered by date along a big wall of shelves. The most surprising item? "A set of dentures," Castillo remarks.

Castillo walked me through the steps a Metro customer should take if he or she realizes they've lost something on the train.

"We want customers to log their lost item," Castillo tells me, describing the online form that customers can fill out. "It's quick, it's painless."

The Metro customer is always the person Castillo is quickest to praise. He emphasizes the way "the riding public" notices these lost items and submits them to the station manager. I wondered whether the people he encountered in the Lost and Found office ever displayed a bit of a temper — a lost item is cause for emotional frustration, and I suspected exasperation or anger was not entirely uncommon in the office. Castillo, ready with a smile in his blue shirt and tie, answered like a perfect diplomat and said, simply and honestly, that customers can be "very concerned." Castillo also wants riders to be aware of the coming school season and how to safeguard missing items. "Have the parents label the books, the backpacks," Castillo says. Those names and contact information can make all the difference in connecting a lost item with their owner. The office actively seeks out such identifiers when logging the lost items and is ready to send notes to alert the owners.

Metro's Lost and Found has gone to great lengths to connect a missing item with its owner in the past. Castillo recounts an iPad that appeared among the piles. He briefly dipped into the owner's e-mails to help identify who had misplaced such an expensive piece of technology and before long discovered that the woman who owned it was now in Europe. "I called her travel agency in Istanbul," he says. "It was pretty neat how we were able to track her down."

Open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., the office receives 10 to 30 customers a day, either inquiring after lost goods or already contacted by staff. Two people entered while I was there, and both sought out sets of keys. WMATA employees were ready to hand them the recent, open bins of keys and glasses that customers can look through. And sure enough, a 15-year-old girl from southeast D.C. did locate her keys in the bin. Another older man couldn't report the same luck. A sense of fortunate chance helps in reuniting owners with what they've lost. One of my roommates told me he reported a book missing in recent weeks online but never heard back. To lose something on a Metro can be akin to dropping it into an abyss, and it seems like a miracle that items ever return to their sources — especially considering the sheer range on display. 

I spent much of my visit looking through a collection of lost items arrayed in a conference room on shelves and in many smaller boxes. Earbuds, an iPhone, BlackBerries, a throwback plastic watch, and many other loose items that a commuter could easily drop filled the boxes I looked through. Several wallets also rested in the boxes, often with drivers' licenses, credit cards, and in one case, even a social security card. One wallet contained two dollar bills as well as a Metro pass with $2.15 on it as well as a Target receipt (the owner had apparently spent $2.69 on ice cream, I learned).

Technology continues to help Metro's Lost and Found innovate. The office's database can now significantly narrow searches for lost items, matching the time of day, Metro line, and other details in the online missing reports with the tagged case reports of the belongings that come in. As for security concerns, all lost items first pass through corporate headquarters before reaching the Hyattsville office; that step, along with inspection by Metro station managers who first handle the objects in question, help ensure safety. What the office receives sometimes tends to have higher tech value these days, such as in the case of the iPad. "We're starting to get the Kindles in," Castillo tells me. When customers come to claim cell phones, the office confirms ownership via the cell's unique ESN number (they usually get between 300 and 450 cell phones a month now).

In June 2011, the average weekday ridership of Metro was just under 800,000 people, which affords a lot of opportunity for keys to drop, phones to slip, and messenger bags to vanish in the hustle. The idea that so much gets lost is no surprise at all, considering the number of bodies pushing in and around the system and onto the next station. The annual number of lost items, according to WMATA's proposed budget for the fiscal year 2012, amounts to 42,000 (PDF). That same document notes that Metro's Office of Customer Service — which handles the Lost and Found program in addition to fielding the 70,000 customer comments that arrive annually, managing Metro's central switchboard, maintaining the Trip Planner, and handling training for Metro's Customer Relationship Management System — spent $6.8 million in 2010 and had an approved 2011 budget of $7.3 million and 73 positions, three of which work at Lost and Found in addition to Castillo.

As reassuring as the notion that Metro is running a major Lost and Found devoted to collecting and returning riders' items, my visit to the Hyattsville office was also a little sad. I imagined all the "very concerned" emotions that these commuters likely have about these belongings. That sweet silver helmet sitting over on the metal cabinet, for instance. Who lost that? I can read the item's tag and know who recovered it and when. The tag gives the most basic of descriptions. I glanced at the many phones and wallets and wondered what their owners were thinking at the time, how far away they must have been from that distant Maryland location. I marveled that a staff of four carried the responsibility for all these pieces of daily human life, for their cataloging in big green boxes. Who would come and find them here? Some, apparently, which is a cause for some hope. Still, I also thought of the constant hourglass weighing over what I saw — every item only had 30 days until it would vanish from the Lost and Found office. The misfortune was magnified with the realization that some of the smaller items now lost on the Metro represent a greater share of a Metro rider's passions, whether a whole library on a Kindle or the digital world carried on a smartphone.

"I lose my cellphone — that's my life there," Castillo says, nodding. To run an office driven by loss must not always be an easy task.

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