Point of No Return

Tracing the afterlives of things forgotten, abandoned and lost


by Leslie Wylie

In reality, though, U.F.O stands for Unclaimed Freight Outlet, and it's a place where forgotten, misplaced and abandoned stuff receives a second chance at life.  

â“We'll get whole pallets of stuff in, like toothpaste,â” says Kevin Brengle, who opened U.F.O. five years ago. â“When we opened, we'd be getting whole vanloads of name-brand medicine that some convenience store just never picked up.â”

He notes that unclaimed freight, which is usually property of a company, isn't quite the same thing as unclaimed baggage, which usually belongs to individuals. The latter tends to end up at a different store with a different three-letter acronym, the Unclaimed Baggage Center (U.B.C.) in Scottsboro, Ala., a store that may be worth a visit as well. Every year, thousands upon thousands of lost suitcases find their way from airlines to the U.B.C.'s 50,000-square-foot warehouse, where their contents are affixed with dirt cheap price tags.  

Here inside U.F.O., there's as much repetition as there is diversity. Whole walls are covered with American flags, silk flowers and greeting cards, patterning themselves to the eye as might a Magic Eye poster. But there are plenty of non-sequiturs lying around as wellâ"the four-foot-tall plastic statures of Mary and Joseph encased behind glass, for instance, or the deep troughs full of odds and ends that bookend the aisles. It's a kind of J's Mega-Mart South, oozing with so much random inventory that visitors instantaneously feel mesmerized and overwhelmed.

Because U.F.O. is able to purchase merchandise for a fraction of its wholesale valueâ"â“pennies on the dollar,â” Brengle saysâ"the store's prices are astonishingly low. A bottle of Excedrin headache medicine, for instance, might cost $7 or $8 at the drugstore, but here it's marked down to $2.95. â“The store is a great resource for price-conscious consumers,â” Brengle says.

Unfortunately, though, its days are numbered. The modest building in which it is housed is slated to be demolished this summer to make way for a new bank. From now until the store closes, probably in mid-July, Brengle says everything will be discounted 30 percent or more. U.F.O. has had a good run, he saysâ"and not just in the store itself. Brengle spends around 50 hours a week hawking the store's wares on eBay, and has shipped merchandise to buyers as far away as Singapore, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates.

Not bad, for a store whose livelihood depends on the forgetfulness or negligence of others.

There's more unclaimed stuff adrift in this world than you might think, and the question of what to do with it is hardly a new one. Herman Melville's classic short story, â“Bartleby the Scrivener,â” penned in 1853, chronicles the strange despair of a former Dead Letter Office employee, whose job it was to sort through letters that almost never find their destinations.

The United States Postal Service still operates such offices, as it has done since 1825, though the moniker Dead Letter Office has since been changed to Mail Recovery Center, which implies hope rather than futility. There are two of them, one in St. Paul, Minn., and one in Atlanta, Ga., and they process millions of non-returnable parcels and undeliverable-as-addressed letters every year, working to indentify their rightful owners. But when it comes to reunions, the statistics are still somewhat grim: In 2005, of the 3.2 million parcels and 79.7 million letters that were processed, a total of only 6.4 million were successfully delivered. The rest were shredded or otherwise destroyed, or auctioned off. (The next auction takes place this Wednesday, May 9.)  

A more optimistic unclaimed narrative belongs to the State of Tennessee Department of Treasury's Unclaimed Property Division. â“I used to be an auditor, but now I'm the good guy,â” says division director John Gabriel, referring to the fact that his job now involves reuniting people with their money rather than taking it away.

Unclaimed property, he explains, is not actual real estate but property in the form of money and securities from abandoned, misplaced or forgotten bank accounts, stock certificates, gift certificates, checks, unclaimed wages and other sources. Millions of dollars are turned over annually to the state from companies who can't locate the money's owners. â“There's a kind of misconception that we're giving people money, but that's really not the case,â” Gabriel says. â“They had the money to begin with; they just misplaced it.â”

The average claim ranges between $150 and $200, although Gabriel says he knows of some properties that have climbed over the $100,000 markâ"usually when someone invests in a stock or bond and forgets about it until years later, during which time the value skyrocketed. â“But the people with the $100 or $200 claims seem to be the most appreciative,â” Gabriel says. â“It's enough to pay off a bill and get them through the month.â”

On occasion, the Treasury Department will print a seven-or-eight-page ad in the daily paper listing individuals who have unclaimed property, but you can search for property anytime online as well at www.treasury.state.tn.us/unclaim /. If you find your name on the list, there's no fee to have the claim processed, and there's no time limit in which the claim has to be filed. You do, however, have to show proper documentation that the money belongs to you. â“Just because your name is Joe Smith doesn't mean Joe Smith's money belongs to you,â” Gabriel says.

In other cases, of course, one person's failure to claim can be another person's opportunity to gain. For example, if you win a prize from the Tennessee Lottery and don't claim it within 180 days after the drawing, the prize is turned over to a program called LEAPs (Lottery for Education: Afterschool Programs). â“It happens fairly often,â” says Kym Gerlock, vice president of communications for the Tennessee Lottery. â“Mostly it's small prizes, but it adds up. We've added $16 million in unclaimed prize money to the afterschool program over the past three years.â”

Another opportunity to capitalize on someone else's unclaimed stuff is coming up this Monday, May 7, by way of the next City of Knoxville Vehicle Auction. In addition to city surplus vehicles and equipment, there will be vehicles that have been impounded at the city's Vehicle Impoundment Lot but never picked up. There will be around 150 vehicles of all makes and models on the auction block this month; for more details, visit www.cityofknoxville.org/operations/fleet.asp . â“It's amazing,â” says Dave Doyle, administrative manager of fleet services for the City of Knoxville. â“I wish the vehicles could talk. They'd tell amazing some stories, I'm sure.â”

The art of losing isn't hard to master;â” Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her poem, â“One Art.â” â“So many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.â”

From car keys to lovers, we lose things every day, and forget or neglect to claim things that are ours. But the words â“lose,â” â“forgetâ” and â“claimâ” are one-way streets, and perhaps flawed for that reason: They imply ownership, and that something we owned has left us, be it permanently or temporarily, and that we are the ones left behind, wondering where it went.

What we perhaps fail to take into account is the lost thing itself. Every dead letter has a story to tell, though the listener may not be the person intended to hear it; every four-foot-tall plastic Mary and Joseph came from somewhere and will end up somewhere else. In that sense, loss is a matter of perception. We call it loss, when maybe the lost thing is merely moving on to a new life without us. m



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