The Business of Lost Things
My daughter lost her blanket and we tried to find it
Men Yell at Me is a subscriber-supported newsletter about personhood and politics and written by a journalist living in red-state America.
We acquired Blankie by accident. He’d been a small baby shower gift from my sister-in-law, an ancillary part of a beautifully packaged gift that included bath items and towels. He was soft and green with white polka dots and a brown-and-pink ladybug machine-embroidered in the middle. You are not supposed to cover babies with blankets in their cribs. So Blankie’s first job was to cover my daughter’s car seat during the cold winter days when I’d heft her from the car and into Target, but then he was just a blanket.
He became Blankie during a Christmas visit to my mother-in-law's house. On our first night, my daughter, 9 months old, would not stop crying and I rocked her in the closet where the crib had been set up, desperate for sleep. Finally, my mother-in-law came in and suggested that maybe she just needed something from home. I grabbed the blanket and put him in the crib right next to her. She grabbed a corner with her chubby baby hand, rubbed the blanket against her cheek, sighed, and fell asleep.
Blankie became a constant companion. Blankie would lie between my daughter and the edge of her bed, where he kept the monsters at bay. He was a nest for her 3-5 imaginary baby chickies, who followed her around from the age of two until the age of seven. Blankie was a fort and a cape, and a friend. Blankie developed a little hole in the top corner where my daughter’s small fingers had rubbed away the fabric.
For 11 years, Blankie’s job was consoling. He was called into service when there were nightmares and dark bedrooms, foreign hotel rooms, hurt tummies, and hurt hearts. Over this past Thanksgiving break, I took my children, now 9 and 11, to Chicago to stay at the Palmer House Hotel. We spent the week visiting their aunt and uncle, going to the Thanksgiving Day parade, and walking through museums. And on the last night, we returned to the hotel, snuggled into our beds, and discovered Blankie was gone.
My best theory is this: Blankie got tangled in the sheets and was removed when housekeeping came to clean the room. We never found him again.
That night both my kids fell asleep crying – my daughter from the loss, and my son out of empathy. (He has a Blankie too that he carries around with him like a little Pigpen.) I made calls to the front desk, housekeeping, and security. Everyone seemed tired from a long holiday week. No one seemed hopeful. How many calls had they received from mothers whose voices seemed perilously close to tears? How many people lose something irreplaceable every single day?
Everyone at the hotel told me the same thing: File a claim on Chargerback; maybe it would turn up.
There is a business of lost things. The buying and selling and trading of our missing property. There is, of course, the black market of lost things — as much as hotels, airlines, and resorts like to deny it, items are stolen and sold.
Unclaimed Baggage is a store that sells exclusively items that come from — yes — unclaimed baggage at airports. The company was founded in 1970, when Hugo Owens, an insurance salesman born and raised in Scottsboro, Ala., was listening to the radio. He heard a bus company was looking to get rid of a bunch of unclaimed suitcases and he had an idea. He borrowed money from his father-in-law, bought the luggage, and opened a store. According to a 2020 story about the company published by the website TheHustle.Co, which reports on businesses and tech and is itself owned by a tech company, “Since taking over the business in 1995, Owens’ son, Bryan, has expanded the store into a 50k-square-foot behemoth. Before COVID, thousands of pieces of luggage — up to 7k unique items — were flowing through the doors every day. The store’s dedicated laundry facility, used to clean 70k clothing items per month, is the largest in Alabama. [In 2019], more than 1m customers from all over the world flocked to the small town 140 miles northwest of Atlanta to see what kinds of treasures they could forage.”
A quick search of the site shows you can find everything from iPads to a vintage 1960s brass peacock table lamp. It’s an unnerving site. It’s impossible for me to scroll through the images of a baby onesie that reads “the future is we” or a Yves Saint Laurent suede cheetah-print slingback pump and wonder what each item meant to the person who lost it. Were they happy to slough off that Gucci Marmont shoulder bag in blue and red matelassé leather or did they cry on the phone to customer service, trying not to be an asshole, saying, “I’m not accusing anyone of stealing, it’s just that my mother gave me that signed David Copperfield picture and she died recently and I just want it back.”
Was losing that boppy with the animal print cover like losing a piece of your baby’s childhood? Or was it fine, no big deal, we can replace it?
And then there is Chargerback. Chargerback was founded in August of 2010, when accountant Brian Colodny went on a trip and lost his phone charger. Colodny simply wanted his charger back. And he was frustrated by the lost-and-found process. So, along with his friend and co-founder, he developed a software interface that is now used by hotels and airlines across the country to help streamline the business of finding lost items.
Chargerback doesn’t actually handle the lost items. It’s a system where people who lose something can report their lost item. Hotels or airlines can log in to the system to match lost items with found ones.
Brian Colodny’s son Dallas, a former journalist who does PR and marketing for Chargerback, explains that the company often tours the lost-and-found departments of hotels and he’s always amazed at what is lost – from baby bottles to sex toys. He’s been surprised, too, by the range of ways that different places organize their lost items — which can range from alphabetized shelves to disorganized bins. There is no one standard way to organize a lost-and-found. No standard for locating or returning the items.
Dallas Colodny told me that after the shutdowns of 2020, when the tourism industry began to reopen, people would leave behind entire coolers' worth of food and beverages in their hotel rooms. People didn’t want their items back. They’d purchased food, brought it to their room, so they could travel, but avoid eating in restaurants, the kind of Devil’s bargain of pandemic risk reduction — yes, they are traveling, but avoiding restaurants. All that waste was worth it for them.
I asked Colodny about the emotion behind these losses. The ratty worn blanket we lost would lead to two months of grief in my home. My children would sigh or even cry, expressing a loss they had a hard time articulating. “It’s like I’m not a kid anymore without Blankie,” my daughter said.
My son told me if he ever lost his Blankie — who he once told me had lost his real blanket parents in a shipwreck, Frozen being a huge influence on our lives then — he’d never be the same.
And I cried too, thinking of all the little things I’ve lost over the years. My own childhood blanket, which I called Dee-Dee, left behind in a Paris hotel when I was 16. And when I frantically asked the trip chaperone to call the hotel to get it, she laughed, “That thing’s in the trash by now.”
I spent two weeks hunting down the laundry service the hotel used and then calling them and leaving messages until a woman called me back and told me they hadn’t seen Blankie but would call me if they did, so I didn’t need to leave any more messages. I got the hint.
Colodny explained that that’s part of the reason his father started the business — to find a way to help mitigate those frustrating losses. But they cannot find everything. They can only build out a matrix to help some things be found before they’re gone forever.
Were they happy to slough off that Gucci Marmont shoulder bag in blue and red matelassé leather or did they cry on the phone to customer service, trying not to be an asshole, saying, “I’m not accusing anyone of stealing, it’s just that my mother gave me that signed David Copperfield picture and she died recently and I just want it back.”
Chargerback didn’t help us find Blankie. I talked to other people who had success using the service. One woman used it to locate a lost Kindle and another woman got back a purse she’d left behind on an airplane. I don’t blame the company. I don’t blame anyone really. A hotel house cleaner getting paid less than minimum wage, a laundry worker earning the same, a fuzzy green blanket with a ladybug lost in the middle of it all.
Lost items come with a shadow of fault. We want someone or something to be held accountable. Partners fight and blame one another. Customers call helplines and demand results. Chargerback does not bear any of the liability for a hotel’s lost items. But an intermediary is an easy entity to blame. In December, Valerie Syzbala put an Apple Air Tag in her bag before a trip back to the U.S. after a month abroad. The bag was lost to the airlines but not to her. She watched for days as the bag seemingly hung out at an apartment and then went to a mall and a McDonald’s before returning to the same apartment. When she called customer service she was told her bag was at the airport. Frustrated, she tweeted about the experience; eventually the bag was returned, with the airline blaming a third-party courier and no real explanation for the bag’s many journeys.
Items do not just get up and walk away. Items are lost by the risk vs. reward mechanics of capitalism, that cut costs where possible, and determine that even if people lose their luggage, they’ll come back to the airline. Even if people are screwed over, left sobbing in O’Hare, out money and out time, eventually, they’ll fly again. Items are also lost by forgetfulness, ineptitude, and any number of combinations of those forces of culture and society that make someone exhausted, distracted, and negligent. As Kathryn Schultz writes in her book Lost and Found,“In the micro-drama of loss, in other words, we are nearly always both villain and victim.”
Schultz’s book details her grief over her father’s death and the joy of meeting the woman she would marry. In it, she notes, “In the course of your life, you’ll spend roughly six solid months looking for missing objects; here in the United States, that translates to, collectively, some fifty-four million hours spent searching a day. And there’s the associated loss of money: in the U.S. in 2011, thirty billion dollars on misplaced cell phones alone.” And that’s not counting all the time we spend trying to replace those things we lost but know we can never find again.
I spent hours trying to find a new Blankie. I found one and spent more than I want to admit having it shipped to our home. But it’s not the same. Like it’s predecessor it is green with white polka dots and a ladybug in the middle. But it doesn’t have the same history rubbed into it’s fibers. Losing that Blankie meant losing a part of the past, I will never get back. But looking at my daughter, who turns 12 in March, and is now wearing the same size of clothes as me, maybe that part of her childhood was already gone, and that’s what we’ve been looking for in the lost and found. It’s hard to put a price on that, even under capitalism.
My daughter told me that over the years she’d worn down the fuzz on the back of her Blankie so it was “softly scratchy” and that she liked to rub it with her fingers when she was anxious. She didn’t think she could do it all over again. But she told me her little half sister loves the new/old blanket, so she gave it to her.
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