Maybe she was washing her hands when she slid off the heart-shaped ring crusted in diamonds, then turned her back to catch a plane. Maybe he was too tipsy to care when he dropped the blue plastic beer yard in the concourse.
Maybe they never knew these things would land in a Tampa International Airport warehouse full of mysteries and untold stories, alongside rumpled socks, board games and baby strollers, boxed, bagged and tagged for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority's Lost and Abandoned Property Auction.
The sale happens three or four times a year on govdeals.com, a kind of eBay for governments. These are not bags left on luggage belts or lost in connections. The airlines handle those. These are coats left on chair backs, laptops left at cafes, suitcases left unattended despite those gentle warnings that chime from the airport loudspeakers.
After officers search the bags for anything dangerous or illegal, they turn to lost and found. There, workers look for identification, take out food and medicine, then set about a kind of detective work, trying for at least 30 days to find owners.
If it's a class ring, they call the school. If it's an iPhone, they call the emergency contact. If it's a prosthetic body part or a chandelier or a wooden cow — all have been left in Tampa — they have to think extra hard.
They're able to return about a quarter of stuff, said Mitch Thrower, the aviation authority's administration manager, reuniting frantic wives with wedding rings and little boys with bikes. Sometimes people don't want the stuff back. Maybe it wasn't worth the price of checking. Think big stuffed animals won at Busch Gardens.
The unclaimed trappings stay in the staid, cool warehouse. Quality things get appraised. Stray clothes get sorted. Sunglasses get grouped. Computers and phones get wiped, photos and search histories gone for good. Luggage stays packed, dirty boxer shorts and all, and best of luck finding a gem.
The money goes into the airport's operating fund. The last three auctions averaged about $14,000. As of Tuesday, total bids were up to $10,000.
A set of 30 packed suitcases had 42 bids, climbing over $900. A Tag Heuer men's watch appraised at $1,675 had bids up to $715. A box of 200 sunglasses, always popular with people hunting stray Guccis and Dolce & Gabbanas, was up to $190.
Deal seekers, charity workers and business types who buy to sell bid for weeks, toppling higher offers, and show up in U-Hauls and pickup trucks.
One came in a tiny car, chucked the boxes and stuffed dirty clothes in the back seat. One, Thrower said, came from New Orleans to haul things he planned to sell at an open-air market in Nigeria.
When this auction ends Monday, buyers will take the leather jackets, the size 36 Tommy Hilfiger belt, the caftan that reeked of patchouli. They'll take the umbrellas and the New Testaments, the boogie boards and motorcycle helmets, the fishing equipment and the painting of a woman smelling roses tagged "WOMAN SMELLING ROSES." They'll take the walkers that maybe belonged to old men, the Winnie the Pooh My First Ride On that maybe belonged to a child, the Star Wars light sabers that maybe belonged to a child at heart.
They'll take iPads more than books, but they'll still take a few hardcovers. Lifeguard. God's Prescription for Healing.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.