Imagine any Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their six-year-old daughter Suzie from Cairo, Illinois. They have just finished touring England on a bus. At Heathrow, they check in for their flight home. They give their bags to the counter agent, take their boarding passes and proceed to their departure gate where they board their on-time flight and return to the comforts of Middle America without incident.
Their bags are not so lucky. In an honest mistake, the counter agent directs their luggage not to the Cornbelt of America, but to the capital of Egypt, where it festers in a storage room for long enough to change its legal status from “Lost” to “Unclaimed.”
At this point, Mr. Smith’s new sports jacket and slacks, his wife’s best pants suit and sensible shoes and little Suzie’s favorite stuffed bear and new coloring book, disappear through the unclaimed baggage wormhole and emerge along with the unclaimed baggage of other unfortunates from around the planet at a massive store on the edge of a small agreeable town in the hilly northeast corner of Alabama, USA.
The store is named, appropriately, The Unclaimed Baggage Center. The town is Scottsboro.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center occupies a city block of floor space and has been selling the lost belongings of the world’s unhappy air passengers since 1970. During that time, shoppers from every American state and more than 30 other countries have come to comb through the loot.
As you enter the Center from its abundant parking lot, you walk under a gazebo-shaped archway embellished with the names of the world’s popular travel destinations, like Cairo. Anyone who has ever entrusted their possessions to an airline, must, upon entering this shopping sanctum, feel a slight twinge of affinity for the former owners of the thousands of pieces of merchandise on sale. With more than a million items passing through the Center annually, it is a fair guess that most frequent flyers have contributed.
So many dispossessed travelers have asked if the Center can help them find their things, the Center’s website responds to this FAQ. The short answer is no.
“By the time luggage reaches us, every effort has been made by the airline to find the rightful owners…This takes 3 to 4 months…Further, the volume of products coming through our store on a daily basis – much of it bought by shoppers within hours of reaching the sales floor would make it a virtual impossibility to track any one item.”
Rough translation: Once your stuff gets here, it’s not your stuff anymore. A couple of exceptions to this hard rule were a misplaced Space Shuttle camera, which was returned to NASA, and an overlooked F16 fighter jet guidance system, which was returned to the U.S. Navy. I know… don’t ask!
No matter how the goods arrive, the Center has well-organized them for shoppers’ convenience. Among the most popular items are cameras. I don’t know what happens to the snaps of the family at the beach, or the tree-lined boulevard leading toward Notre Dame Cathedral, or Uncle Mack chugging that jug of margaritas, but by the time the cameras go into the Center’s display cabinets, those recorded memories are forever gone.
Near the cameras, lost eyewear is sold. In fact, so much lost eyewear is sold that the section is divided between designer eyewear and ordinary eyewear. Why so many travelers would put their glasses in their checked luggage is one of the many imponderable questions the Center inspires.
Another important section near the eyewear and the cameras is devoted to sporting goods. Skiing equipment predominates, and one seasoned shopper explained: “You can get some really good deals on skis here. These Alabama folks know everything there is to know about Nikons, but they don’t know shit about snow skiing.”
Jewelry is also extremely popular. In fact, the Center’s website reports finding a 41-carat emerald and a 5.8-carat diamond ring in lost bags. But even the less-illustrious jewelry is pretty stunning. The array of gold bracelets and necklaces, gemstones and watches could be found in top-rate jewelry stores. The shoppers at this counter show a different level of sophistication than the ones sorting through other people’s underwear in the next room.
From scouring items like jewelry, cameras and eyeglasses, which had no business being checked in the first place, the bargain hunters can move into the much larger clothing sections.
Every conceivable item of formal, casual, sporty and intimate apparel is arranged by size. Women can browse for cocktail dresses, business suits, blouses, skirts, sportswear or that 34C lacey red brassiere. Men can buy tuxedoes, sport coats, athletic nylon or motorcycle leather jackets, socks, ties or a pair of Jockey briefs the size of a spinnaker at a rock-bottom price.
Between the ladies and men’s clothing section is the Center’s Art Department. A nearby sign reports that one unrecognized art treasure was sold for $50, but the lucky buyer later discovered it was worth more than $10,000. That picture may not, however, have much resembled the Tijuana black-felt portraits I thumbed through looking for my own personal fortune.
Before the happy but harried shoppers line up at the cash registers, they are encouraged to visit the small alcove which forms the Center’s museum of Astounding Unclaimed Baggage. A violin made and signed by a student of Stradivarius, a 3,500-year-old Egyptian artifact, an original Jim Henson life-sized puppet, all found their way here.
The thoughtful shopper who visits this exhibit and who is not still worried about whether to take the red or the black 34C may possibly ask: “How could anyone lose something that valuable?” And then ask: “How is it possible that after at least 90 days of intensive tracking by the airline, that the rightful owners of these extraordinary items could not be found?”
The Center provokes many such thoughts. Even in the midst of the shopping frenzy, it would be the very hardened bargain hunter who was not a little saddened by some of the personal losses on display.
The most obvious are in the children’s sections. A favorite doll or stuffed animal dragged lovingly around on a family vacation has vanished into oblivion. A bedtime storybook, ritually reread so often the exhausted Mom recites it in her own sleep, is just gone.
But even if a shopper overlooks the small sorrow of a child’s tiny loss, almost everyone who has sufficient consciousness not to buy someone else’s Jockey briefs will pause a moment in front of the lost wedding dress display.
Did the bride lose it on her way to the wedding? When the baggage carousel finally stopped turning and the last piece of luggage was trolleyed off, was she standing there alone? Did the luggage agent assure her it would arrive on the next plane? Did he tell her, “Worst case, honey, it’ll be here tomorrow, never you mind?”
But it wasn’t there on the next plane, and it wasn’t there tomorrow.
And as any visitor to The Unclaimed Baggage Center could have told her, the “worst case” is very much worse than that.