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Lost Cause

Port Authority's lost-and-found list catalogs our daily lives

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Everyone who takes the bus knows the feeling: You step onto the curb, the doors close behind you, and as the bus pulls away, you realize you've left something behind. A cell phone. A Medicare card. A wooden sword. Your dentures.

We've all been there.

Or at least one rider — who presumably left the 59-Mon Valley toothless — has.

That set of dentures was among the 1,062 items left behind on Port Authority vehicles in the past three months. The full list reads like an archive of everyday existence: 47 black wallets, 66 sets of keys and 160 cellphones. Two Bibles, an electric blanket and guinea-pig food. A copy of The New New Testament. Court documents. An electric shaver. A piece of chicken on a stick, wrapped in aluminum foil.

All are entered into a Port Authority database, sometimes with asides composed by dispatchers who log the information. "KEYS AND TOO MANY KEYCHAINS" reads one entry's description. Another describes a black cellphone as "BASIC AS U CAN GET."

Maybe one of those items was yours. Maybe when you got off the 16-Brighton bus, you missed the dull metallic jangling of your keys, now identified as "KEYS ON RING WITH ([...] I LOVE JESUS/ETC.)" Maybe you were the one who left your passport in a non-descript black piece of luggage on the Airport Flyer.

But as Shree Rao will tell you, it's not just the little things that are easy to forget. Last May, she left her bike attached to the rack on the front of a 61B-Braddock.

"[I] was feeling stupid and started panicking," she says. The chances of her bike's speedy return seemed dim. "The only other thing I could think of was tweeting at Port Authority."

It worked: After seeing her Tweet, she connected with Port Authority which radioed the 61B, still on its route, and coordinated the bike's recovery. But not everyone is that lucky.

Typically, lost items wind up at one of Port Authority's five lost-and-found sites, one for each garage and the T. And while customer-service agents can locate lost items in the database, you have to show up in person to claim it.

Just over half of the items are reclaimed eventually, though not everything gets picked up immediately: The authority holds onto most items for 90 days before donating them. (Phones, for instance, go to a women's shelter.) Items of value are left behind all the time, including laptops and other electronic devices. Among the items on the authority's list, yet to be collected: two wallets, each with over $500.

For a transit employee or a fellow rider to hand over such a windfall is "as close as you get to behavior that is not driven by selfishness," says Christina Fong, an economist at Carnegie Mellon's department of Social and Decision Sciences. Fong acknowledges there are social pressures in play: Nobody wants to be seen pocketing someone else's cash. Still, she says, "We know it's not because they're afraid a policeman is going to catch them with the wallet."

What's most surprising about the lost-and-found, though, isn't that people do the honest thing by handing over objects of monetary value. It's the objects that owners value enough to reclaim.

When City Paper reviewed the list, for instance, two iPhones were languishing without an owner coming forward. A phone charger, meanwhile, was picked up in a matter of days.

And then there are the food items.

"CHIPS AND DIP" left on a 71D-Hamilton during the first polar vortex: claimed.

"SWEET POTATO PIE AND FOLDER WITH FREE ZOO TRIP": claimed.

Generally, food is among the few exceptions to the standard 90-day window. "I wouldn't imagine they refrigerate that stuff," says John Beeler, who oversees Port Authority's customer-service operation.

So why doesn't the Port Authority just toss the food out immediately?

The answer, as with everything else claimed from lost-and-found, is that you can never tell what someone will care about. And the bus doesn't just take you where you're going. It takes you as you are.

"People are taking Port Authority wherever they need to go," says Heather Pharo, a Port Authority spokeswoman. "That's reflected in the variety of items you're going to see. [...] "'Weird' is in the eye of the beholder."

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