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Missing in action Lost-and-found boxes across Western New York are brimming with interesting items

If you're not driving around with one glove in your car, its mate soaked and flattened in some filthy snowbank, you're probably dimly recalling things you once had -- that copy of "The Da Vinci Code," your blue scarf, a packet of vacation photos, your favorite pen. And sheesh, where's the cell phone?

As the Bible says, to everything there is a season. A time to acquire things and a time to let them fall carelessly out of your pockets. A time to fill your backpack and a time to leave the filled backpack at HSBC Arena.

What exactly are Western New Yorkers losing?

You name it.

Books at the library, student ID cards at UB, hats and gloves at HSBC Arena, eyeglasses at the Albright-Knox, umbrellas on the Metro bus and rail system, and cell phones, cell phones everywhere.

Coping with the cornucopia of stray stuff is a challenge for those who must collect and hold it. The orphan items, everything from the sad to to the silly, the bizarre and the banal, fill lost-and-found boxes in Western New York.

"We'd love it if people picked these things up," said Michael A. Tout, account services manager for the Sabres and HSBC Arena, where cartons of recently lost items cover a table.

>'It's here'

Michael J. Miechowski, principal security officer for the main branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, has a lost-and-found filing cabinet, just for starters.

Miechowski was surprised recently to find three complete sets of adults' gloves. "Usually, it's just the right hand," he said, "because most people are right-handed, they take that glove off to do something and then they drop it."

A found file folder contained a resume, which had a phone number on it, "so we called him, and we're just waiting for him to pick it up," said Miechowski. A red glasses case in "faux alligator," noted the sharp-eyed Miechowski, a size small black Talbots sweater, a boy's checked scarf with a football motif, a worn Abercrombie and Fitch ballcap, and four hardcover books. "These aren't ours," Miechowski said of the books. "After 90 days we turn them over to the librarians to see if they want them."

A box next to the file cabinet fairly bristled with umbrellas. "This one's my favorite," said the burly Miechowski, holding up a pint-sized plastic one with a Tweety Bird handle. But the box also held many compact and full sized umbrellas, a large golf umbrella and even a foldable umbrella stroller. "I figure someday somebody might some in who needs a stroller, and I'll just give them that one," Miechowski said.

A few quirky items have migrated from the lost-and-found cabinet to a shelf near the security desk -- a plastic Tasmanian Devil figure and a small stuffed lamb with angel wings, holding a cross. "I haven't got the heart to throw that one away," he said. "If the owner ever comes back, it's here."

Stray possessions are also kept in a cabinet at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre on Main Street. General manager Tracy Janis found a pair of small multicolored children's sunglasses, a cosmetics compact, a pair of dark-colored ladies gloves, an umbrella, a clipboard that she suspects was left behind by a teacher attending a school screening, and a small stuffed Dora the Explorer doll. "After a few months, we give them to Goodwill," Janis said.

At the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, found objects are sorted and stored in clear boxes, says Cheryl Orlick, the gallery's public information officer. Right now the random collection is "pretty typical," she said, "scarves, hats, gloves, keys, glasses. We have a box full of glasses. There's the occasional piece of jewelry, a small book or two, a notebook, some small bags, like camera bags."

People leave all the usual items on Metro buses and trains, says NFTA spokesman Doug Hartmeyer. "Wallets, blankets, books, gloves, hats, scarves, purses, umbrellas, depending on the season, now you find a little bit more, because people are generally carrying more than in the summer," he said.

At the airport, which is also operated by the NFTA, "people tend to leave more electronic items -- PDAs, pagers, cell phones." If items are left at the checkpoint, the owner will be paged to return, but unclaimed property found in the terminal is held by the NFTA police.

The Department of Public Safety at UB collects found items from both the north and south campuses and holds them in -- are you ready? -- a filing cabinet, two large wardrobe-type metal cabinets, each with six shelves, and six deep lockers. Bicycles left behind go in the department's barn. And last week, a collection of black, foot-tall leather-covered animal figurines, elephants and horses and a lone rhino, awaited its owner in the front office.

"We are required by the state Personal Property Law to hold lost items for varying lengths of time," said police chief John M. Grela. That means that every item is labeled and its description entered in a log. After being held for the required amount of time, Grela said, "Glasses we donate to the Lions Club. Books go to Lockwood Library, and if they don't want them, to Goodwill. Keys are sent to our key shop. Car license plates and driver's licenses are sent to the DMV. You'd think people would want their driver's licenses back, but sometimes we find they've been altered, so they probably just apply for a new one."

>'One shoe on?'

At HSBC Arena, unclaimed belongings, ranging from a single key to a green backpack stuffed with personal effects, are divided into baskets labeled with the name of the event where each were found. The staff also logs each item found and each one reported lost.

Predictably, the loss factor was huge at the Disney on Ice performances in late January. A tiny pink purse holding a stuffed poodle is particularly forlorn-looking. "We see one kids' glove, or boot, and I wonder, 'What, did they leave with one shoe on?' " said Gretchen Huzinec, an account services representative. "But on the other hand, when they're trying to get out of here with a pack of kids, I guess they're lucky to get all the kids, without counting all the boots and gloves."

After a month or so -- longer in the summer, when there are more events -- account serviuce representative Roxanne Anderson, who set up the lost and found system, calls the City Mission to pick up hats, gloves, scarves and coats. Valuable items, including eyeglasses, binoculars, disposable cameras and even a few digital cameras, are sorted into another crate and kept longer. One mammoth set of binoculars pokes up from its crate. "How could you leave and not know you didn't have these around your neck?" Huzinec asked.

Among the sadder items are two photo albums stuffed with photos of a dark-haired young woman standing next to Sabres players. It's clear that a lot of time and thought went into the collections, which also feature an older woman, possibly her mother. Yet here they are, in a jumbled box stuffed with winter hats, ballcaps, eyeglasses and watches. "Those are keepsakes," said Anderson. "We've had those for several months, but I will not throw them away. One day, even if it's five years from now, those people might walk in here and ask about those photo albums, and I want to be able to return them."

"The most unusual thing we ever found was a Sucrets tin full of pot," Huzinec said. "We just tossed that," said Mike Tout. "Some things, people just don't get back."

But HSBC staff works hard to return items with identifying information. Credit cards, wallets that contain licenses, even keys with grocery store shoppers' club tags can be reported and traced.

But not so with the frequently misplaced umbrella. "People don't come back for their umbrellas," said Huzinec. "Never."



>Land of the lost

* Most puzzling thing lost: Car keys. "How do they get home without them?" wondered Gretchen Huzinec, an HSBC account services representative.

* Easiest things to forget: Umbrellas, along with children's hats, scarves, mittens.

* Single HSBC event with highest number of found items: Kissmas Bash, with 24 items found.

* Item reported lost at Kissmas Bash: 1, a cell phone. It was not among the things found.

* Found items that UB will not keep: Sweaty, dirty or damaged clothing. "We can't store them with clean clothing or books," said Kathy Gumulak, assistant to the university police chief.

* Largest items found: Bicycles at UB.

* Most valuable item found: A diamond ring valued at more than $1,000, which was released to its finder after it went unclaimed for one year at UB.

* Most unusual item found: Plastic skeletons and anatomical models, returned to the UB medical school.

-- Anne Neville

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