I was looking for clips related to the Museum of Science & Industry, and I found this. It's the kind of column that I really like, in that it's filled with things, yet imbued with an overarching sense of humanity and all its inscrutability.
Caitlin's "Petite Miss" diary is there, as is Alicia A. Wilkey's purse. There is a pair of skis, plus many pillows, blankets, suitcases, eyeglasses, wallets, sets of keys, cameras and cell phones. At least a dozen Bibles. Four coolers. Mike Hoffman's wallet is waiting, the cash still inside, as is Ivory Thomas' LaSalle Bank savings account bankbook.
All are inventoried and stacked in the tidy little lost-and-found room in the basement of Union Station, a treasure trove of mystery presided over by Amtrak agent Steve Napoli.
"What I can't understand is the wheelchairs," he said. "I've had three wheelchairs. How do you forget a wheelchair?"
Almost every large public place in Chicago has its own lost-and-found—museums and shopping centers, concert halls and office buildings. Sad collections of ownerless ephemera, keys that will never find their locks, photograph albums that will never draw a spark of recognition.
While lost-and-founds have certain things in common—wherever people go, they tend to lose the same things—each has its own particular brand of mystery and drama.
"We typically have things like wallets, keys, lots of sunglasses and favorite dolls or stuffed animals," said Kate Desulis, membership and visitor services coordinator at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, who also manages the lost-and-found. "A couple of times we've had shoes, usually one. I often wonder how people manage to hike back from the trail with only one shoe."
Desulis said it is particularly satisfying to be able to reunite a doll with its owner.
"We often get frantic calls from the mothers who want to know if little Betty is found," she said. "They're very excited when we can tell them, `Yes, we have your doll.' "
Carlton Bolden, special-projects coordinator for visitors services at the Museum of Science and Industry, says the most common items are sweaters, though he has noticed the shoe mystery, too.
"The only thing I can assume is either somebody changed shoes or, who knows, maybe they bought new ones and thought this would be a good dumping ground for the old ones," he said.
One rather personal and expensive lost item sticks in Bolden's mind.
"At one point we had a retainer turned in," he said, noting it was never claimed. "I would think you would miss it, you would look for it. Those things aren't cheap."
He also recalls the time a child lost her Giga Pet.
"We kept getting calls for it," he said. "It was just like a lost baby."
Most lost-and-founds will take steps to reunite items to their owners, though not all. If you lose your wallet at Northwestern University's Norris Center student union, you're out of luck. "We have a few wallets with IDs," said Stephanie Carr, class of '98, who works at the front desk. "For some reason we don't really call people."
Mike Sawyer, the house manager at Orchestra Hall, says they do just the opposite there, going to great effort to reunite patrons with their belongings. He once drove to the home of a disoriented elderly patron who donned two coats belonging to his box mates, leaving his own behind.
"We traced him through the ticketing department," Sawyer said. "That was very unusual."
Sawyer said that the contents of the lost-and-found box varies with the seasons. "We're mostly lost gloves in the winter," he said. "Spring and fall, an awful lot of umbrellas turn up."
One thing they don't hold past the end of a performance is food.
"We hold them until the end of the concert and then down the tube they go," he said.
Amtrak's Napoli said they also get lots of food. "We'll open up a bag and find a hot dog in its bun," he said.
But they also get far more valuable items.
"I had a bag of rubies, diamonds, emeralds," he said. "There was also a set of cruise tickets. I found (the owners) through the cruise tickets, in Florida."
The most surprising thing about the jewelry incident, Napoli said, was the couple wasn't as frantic as you'd expect people losing a bag of jewels would be.
"When I called, they were so matter-of-fact," he said. "They were like: `Oh, you found them. Thanks.' "
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 19, 1998