Tucked away in the labyrinth of Penn Station is a window you won't notice until you need it. Behind it there are tequila bottles, laptops, electric guitars, and a drone. There are Louis Vuitton bags, romance novels, and hundreds of cellphones. Nothing behind the window is on display, and nothing is for sale, but something there might already belong to you. All these items have been forgotten, lost, or abandoned along the Long Island Rail Road, and for months they sit there under aseptic fluorescent lights, waiting for someone to come and claim them.
"Books never come back," Henry Felton said as he propped a surfboard against a shelf of laptops. "The books that I get, people aren't looking for. And the ones people are looking for, they never come in. People come in for nothing things like a shopping bag of toilet paper or a coffee cup. But the most expensive things—an iPhone 6—nobody's come in for it yet." Felton is the supervisor of the Long Island Rail Road Lost & Found; it's his job to collect, catalog, and try to return everything that comes in from the trains and stations. His work affords him a keyhole view into the private worlds of others. "You see people's lives play out right in front of you with the things they leave behind," he said.
The Lost & Found holds everything that is found by conductors and cleaning crews after trains reach the end of their lines at Port Jefferson, Far Rockaway, and other stations. It's filled with suit jackets, tennis rackets, and bags of old mail. There are yoga mats, high-end camera lenses, paintbrush sets, and a painted bust of Jesus Christ. "He's been here such a long time," Felton said, lifting the weeping bust from the shelf that its called home for the past three years. "He looks so sad. Nobody comes in for him."
It's Felton's best guess that he and his staff see 60 percent of all items lost on the LIRR trains. Return rates on what was lost used to hover around 23 percent, but Felton and his staff (along with a new computerized claim system) have upped that number to 58 percent in the last two years. It takes, on average, a week for a lost item to make it to the crammed facility, where it's given a claim number and put onto a shelf—or into a corner—with similar left-behinds, waiting to be claimed.
- A tiny list of just some remarkable things that have been lost and brought in:
- breast pumps
- football helmets
- a USSR-era Russian passport
- complete designer suits
- a commemorative groundbreaking shovel
- restaurant servers' POS keycards
- a .45 caliber revolver
- a prosthetic leg (which Felton kept for two years before shipping away)
- two authenticated retirement bats signed by Derek Jeter
- a crate of tequila
- a Diivision II NCAA championship football ring
- a suitcase holding $15,000 worth of diamonds and $10,000 in cash
- adult toys of all colors, shapes, and sizes.
Felton recalls one woman's lost duffel bag full of dildos, lingerie, and a homemade video. "Her father came to pick it up for her, and he described the bag, but not what was inside!" he remembered. "I gave it to him and all I could think was 'Please don't look in there!'"
But the lost phones are the most obvious and striking issue. The LIRR Lost & Found holds so many phones that it's almost comical to see them there silent and blank, sorted into bins and gradually collecting dust. The staff has no qualms about trying to open an unlocked phone to track down its owner, and Felton says that a working Facebook app usually guarantees that someone will be contacted about their lost phone.
"People live their lives through their phones," he said. "We've even recognized people in a smartphone's photos and spotted them as they walk up to the window." A great many phones do make it back to their owners, but every year over four hundred of them, from Kyocera clamshells to the newest Apples and Samsungs, get boxed up and sent out. Where do they go? To Alabama.
The LIRR, like many domestic airlines, has a contract with the Unclaimed Baggage Center, an enormous warehouse/thrift store in Scottsboro, Alabama that pays lost & founds across the country pennies on the dollar for the things that nobody comes forward to claim. The Baggage Center is run by Owens Group International, which every three months collects boxes upon boxes from the LIRR Lost & Found so that they can be once again sorted and cleaned before they're finally sold to the public at a massive discount.
The Times called the Alabama Baggage Center a "halfway house for AWOL possessions," and just this fall ABC News framed it as a treasure trove of half-priced luxury goods. The company's website calls the warehouse of lost stuff "one of Alabama's top tourist attractions," and boasts over a million visitors every year from every state.
Felton, for his part, has mixed feelings about that whole process. It's a given that the lost items can't be kept forever— the facility he manages is always in a state of chaotic overflow. But in the past, items like school supplies and winter coats were given away to local charities and church clothing drives. Former LIRR president Helena Williams put an end to the practice. "She didn't want there to be an air of impropriety, of favoring this organization over that organization, so she said 'Let's just sell everything,' but before we used to donate so much," Felton remarked as he collected another day's contents of the Penn Station "Lost" drop box (a stuffed bear, bible, and assorted electronics) in a suitcase and pushed it back to his facility. "It's alright," he sighed. "It's cool."
Felton sees both extreme emotion and apathy every workday, and is amazed at the umpteen ways people (mis)handle their stuff. He hangs on to mint new gadgets, engagement rings and immigration papers, doing his best to track down their owners. "Some people call in, and when they find out we have their stuff, they shout 'You've saved my life!' over the phone and then never show up," he said.
As he set the cart back amidst the shelves of lost stuff, Felton cracked a smile as his coworker, Barbara, helped a man reclaim his iPhone. His positivity, stuck in a room with tangled mountains of other peoples' things, is astonishing. People have lied to Henry Felton's face, hoping to take home things that didn't belong to them, and he's been screamed at and been dealt racist slurs, but that's not what he dwells upon. "When you constantly get back wallets that have four, five, six hundred dollars in them, it’s amazing. New Yorkers get a bad rep, but they’re good people," he told me. "People are good, and we all lose things."