A few months ago, we took a trip to deep beneath the Penn Station subway stop to a place called the MTA's Lost Property Unit. The LPU -- a mass transit no man's land where New Yorkers' umbrellas, wallets, phones, and, yes, plenty of cash go to live out their days -- is like a dig site for the urban anthropologist. Items ranging from the mundane to the bizarre (an LPU supervisor says he once bagged "teeth"; the New York Times said it found a prosthetic leg) line the shelves of this bleak repository, a cinderblock-and-linoleum lined room buried beneath the harsh glow of florescent lights and the constant roar of an overhead A train.
Six MTA employees work here (thanks to budget cuts, that's down from eight -- which is how many the LPU had when the Times visited in 2009). Each day, they sift through dozens of items trucked in from throughout the city. The items (more than 22,700 in 2010) arrive in a giant sacks, which employees dig through and tag with when and on which bus or subway train each item was found.
The bins full of discarded wallets and purses pique an obvious (if, albeit, rather cynical) question: While a good samaritan might turn in a battered wallet he finds on a Q train, how many make their way from a subway seat to the lost-and-found still loaded with that least traceable of lost items: cold, hard cash?
A lot, it turns out. And most of it stays there.
While cash isn't actually kept at the LPU (it's deposited to the MTA's treasury and claimants receive a voucher to recoup their misplaced money), the LPU records show that the MTA finds thousands of dollars in cash each month, but less than a quarter of it is ever claimed.
The most "profitable" month last year was June, when New Yorkers turned in more than $15,000 in lost cash to the LPU (only $1,807 was claimed that month).
For all of 2010, the MTA raked in a total of $106,974. But only 16 percent of that ($17,509) was ever claimed, which means the rest of it (a cool $89,465) is still just sitting in an MTA bank account.
Phones and wallets are, by far, the most common items. On one agent's desk sits a pile of cell phones, each plugged into a charger so the LPU's staff can track down and call its owner. (Don't bother calling your own number, though -- there's no signal in this subterranean storeroom). Smartphones are simpler, and the tech-savvy LPU staff says it frequently e-mails smartphone owners to reunite them with their lost device.
At separate desk, another agent re-enacts an episode of "CSI: MTA," carefully dissecting a straphanger's lost wallet with latex-gloved hands. She meticulously pulls out the contents of the wallets -- IDs, credit cards, and yes, even cash -- logging each item into a computer that will someday, hopefully, reunite it with its estranged owner.
William Bonner, a LPU supervisor, assured me that sensitive information, like credit card numbers, is not logged in. And "sensitive" items, like jewelry or laptops, are locked away for safekeeping.
To supplement the process, the MTA maintains a lost and found website
, where a computer system asks users to describe what they lost, when, and where, before assigning them a tracking number. The tech-savvy operation uses this data to match claims with orphaned items and notify owners when their property may have been found. Last year, 7,923 people were notified -- either by phone or mail -- that something of theirs had turned up at the LPU, and more than 6,600 items were eventually claimed by their owners.