Sunday, January 29, 2006

UBC - Home for Lost Luggage

If an airline has ever lost your luggage, even after your claim has been settled and the matter closed (at least as far as the airline is concerned), you can't help wondering, "Where did my bag go? Red Deer ? Dudley ? Ramsbottom ?"

The chances are it went to Scottsboro, Alabama.

Every year thousands and thousands of wayward suitcases end up in Scottsboro—specifically, at the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Once an airline has tried and failed to reunite suitcase and owner (a process that varies according to airline), it will compensate the owner and sell the suitcase—and all its contents—to the UBC, which buys suitcases by the truckload and hauls them to its 50,000-square-foot complex in Scottsboro. There the UBC staff sorts through the bags and puts their contents in a showroom (or some of them: others are given to charity, still others discarded), where they can be seen and bought by members of the public. Just as people flock to chairty stores in the UK to look for bargains, so they flock to UBC (also the name of the University of British Columbia - a kind of place of lost concepts). Some 2.5-3m people visit UBC (the bags centre) each year.

UBC started in 1970, with a rented old house, a borrowed old truck, and a $300 loan. Today the center gets nearly 7,000 new items every day, and the owner says that people can't seem to get enough. "It's a treasure hunt," he says. "Every day is like Christmas here—we never know what we're going to find. Just last week we found a twenty-eight-thousand-dollar tennis bracelet and a one-point-six-karat diamond ring. We've had a medicine-man stick adorned with a shrunken head, and a Nikon camera that was in the Space Shuttle. Back in the eighties we got a well-traveled Gucci suitcase that was packed with artifacts that dated back to 1500 B.C. And once we found a guidance system for an F-16 fighter jet, in a shockproof case from the Department of the U.S. Navy. It was labeled 'Handle With Extreme Caution—I Am Worth My Weight in Gold.'"

The UBC sent that one back.

I wonder if Lord Lucan is hiding in a suitcase there ? Sir John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey's creator) reports that he was once approached by a very close friend of Lord Lucan to ask whether there was a statute of limitations on murder cases - "a closer friend would like to know". He gives the impression that it was abundantly clear to both of them who they were talking about. Since there isnt - murder is murder whenever it was done - Lucan remains elusive. This is more a lost Lord story than a lost luggage story.

Whenever I check in at Air Canada I indicate that I would like one bag to go to Calcutta and the other to Calgary. When they say "we can't do that Sir!" I quickly point out that this is exactly what they did the last time.

With thanks to the Atlantic Monthly.

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