Deep in the bowels of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s basement, down a musky-scented hallway and past a few locked doors, sits a room that during the holiday season could be mistaken for a poor man’s North Pole.
A Beanie Baby is just one of the dozens of toys dangling from the shelves of this small, brightly lit room, along with jewelry of all shapes and sizes, hundreds of cellphones and a pile of backpacks topped by one featuring a Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet.
A game called “NBA Slam Jam” sits on one shelf, Christmas wrapping paper torn half off the box, above an unbuilt and still packaged IKEA table (a LEHRMAN, for the curious).
It’s not Santa’s Workshop, but rather Muni’s lost and found, where all things lost on The City’s public buses and trains await their owners.
“I guess some babies grew up on Muni!” exclaimed Willie Gee, a 42-year employee of the SFMTA, as he points to a pile of baby strollers. The kids must have learned to walk and forgotten their strollers, he concluded with a chuckle.
Gee attended Lowell High School, “before they raised their standards,” he said. But now Muni’s lost and found is his domain.
His bosses, Fred Schooter and Nancy Marquez, visited the lost and found room with Gee and the San Francisco Examiner, and explained that unclaimed lost items are generally held for 60 days.
Requests for lost items, generated by calling 311 or the SFMTA, are kept on a spreadsheet, according to Marquez. Once they’ve been claimed, they’ll hold those items for 120 days.
The items found on buses and trains are turned in to the heads of Muni’s bus yards — called division yards — and are then picked up by a contractor who also handles SFMTA’s mail. That’s how the items make their way to 1 South Van Ness Ave., SFMTA’s headquarters.
And the items themselves often tell a story.
A bag filled with socks and baby items could be from a mother or father, Marquez said, and they see plenty of backpacks that may belong to those who are homeless.
“Sometimes, things smell really bad,” Marquez said. But they hang on to all items, no matter how seemingly disposable — just in case.
Some items sitting on the shelves are common enough, like a paperback version of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” which sits near a bottle of sake. A box packed to the brim with eyeglasses rests nearby.
But still other items are surprisingly pricey: One box filled with a month’s worth of cellphones contains the latest iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones, while another box has expensive tablet computers and cameras, many of which go unclaimed.
The SFMTA sees about 70 phones in the lost and found every month.
Car keys are common, too. Schooter rifled through the box and pulled out the keys to a Porsche.
Some items require more speed to return, Schooter said, like passports. He recalled one couple, perhaps German (his memory was a bit fuzzy), who absolutely needed their passports as they were scheduled to travel that weekend.
“We made sure they were able to travel,” Schooter said.
When items go unclaimed, however, they find different afterlives. Many go to Goodwill, and unclaimed cash is brought to the City Controller’s Office.
Gee pointed to a row of two dozen bicycles that would break any cyclist’s heart, brought here after hapless Muni riders left them on bike fixtures on the front of buses. Gee said the YMCA and San Francisco Bicycle Coalition efficiently scoop them up every month.
Still, not everything is easy to donate. “We can’t get Goodwill to take the strollers off our hands,” Gee said.
If a Muni rider loses an item, claiming it is easy enough. This reporter had cause to do so one day earlier this year, when a Samsung Galaxy S6 fell out of his pants pocket on a Muni bus.
He could have called 311 and made a claim for the item, but opted to contact @SFMTA_Muni through Twitter instead. They promptly made a claim for the item, which was found within a few days.
Now if only they still had that Star Trek novel he left on a 43-Masonic bus back in high school. Then again, it’s a lost and found — not a miracle-making Santa’s Workshop.