Whatever happened to that umbrella you left behind on a MARTA train? Or the book you laid down and forgot to pick up? Or, heaven forbid, the wallet that fell out of your purse or pocket as you scurried off the bus?
Chances are, if it wasn’t purloined by a passenger, it wound up at MARTA’s version of the island of misfit toys — the Lost and Found office at Five Points Rail Station.
The rectangular room of forgotten goods is not much larger than a walk-in closet. But it’s lined with shelves, cardboard boxes and shoe-box-sized storage bins. Two metal safes in a corner hold valuables like jewelry, although only one gold ring was being safeguarded on a recent weekday.
MARTA’s inventory is a curious mixture of the expected and the surprising.
You’ve got the usual stuff — cell phones, keys, power cords, books, hats, luggage. One bin is stuffed with spectacles and sunglasses. A small trash can is crammed full of umbrellas, wooden canes and walking sticks.
Bicycles, too, are aplenty. Anywhere from 15 to 30 a month come through the door and have to be stored elsewhere because they take up too much space
Here atop a shelf sits a pricey-looking cowboy hat. There, folded behind a door, rests a well-used baby stroller.
But talk to Jessica Guinn or James Willoughby, the two full-time “lost and found coordinators,” and they’ll tell you about the stranger stuff. Items you’d never expect a person to misplace, like a prosthetic leg. Or an oxygen tank. Even a set of dentures (“I don’t like to touch them,” Guinn says, wrinkling her nose. “I make James do it.”)
Willoughby has noticed one particular item that is often reported lost but rarely reported found — metal orthopedic walking sticks or canes. His theory? Other passengers snatch them up, because they can cost up to $100 or more new.
“That’s the unfortunate thing,” chimed in Roosevelt Stripling, who manages MARTA customer service along with the lost and found office. “We’ll have people get pretty belligerent with us. They swear MARTA has it. But if it was valuable to you, unfortunately somebody else may feel it’s valuable to them as well. So they may have retained it.”
Just because a misplaced item doesn’t turn up right away doesn’t mean it’s a goner, though. Sometimes it can take up to five days for items to be sent to Lost and Found, particularly if left on a bus.
Each bus driver turns in found items after returning to one of three MARTA garages around the metro Atlanta. Then, each garage packages and mails the items to Lost and Found. The mailings go out once or twice a week, depending on how many are collected.
If a customer realizes right away that an item was lost and contacts MARTA, sometimes arrangements can be made to return the item sooner. Staff may hold it aside at the nearest rail station or hand it off at a bus stop.
Each year, the Lost and Found office processes between 300 and 500 items. Only about a fifth to a quarter of them are ever retrieved. The rest are destroyed by shredding (if personal items like IDs, passports or credit cards) or given to the Salvation Army (if they can be reused) after about a month.
Unclaimed cash is kept for 30 days, and then deposited into the transit agency’s general fund. Last year, $2,200.83 went into MARTA coffers that way.
Sometimes an item might be retained longer than a month if it’s particularly valuable or if a customer cannot make arrangements to pick it up immediately. But that’s at the office’s discretion.
Stripling says the office makes every effort to contact property owners. When an address can be found in a purse, wallet, luggage tag or bag, the office mails out a postcard that reads “Please visit our office as soon as possible for information regarding an item that you may have lost on the MARTA bus or rail system.”
A word to the wise: anyone who appears in person at the office or calls regarding a lost item will be asked to confirm they are the rightful owner by describing it.
Such was the case with Curtis Campbell, a chef at Emory University. He went looking last week for a red cloth shopping bag that he left on the train at North Avenue station the previous night. Inside it were his apartment keys.
Luckily, the bag was there.
“Thank the Lord, ‘cause it’s $20 for a new apartment key and $10 for the mailbox key,” Campbell said, smiling and shaking his head. “Oh, that’s a blessing.”