Lost and Underground: Meet the People Who Retrieve the Stuff You Drop On the Tracks

July 8, 2014 | Amy K. Nelson

It’s 10:23AM on the first day in July and I’m sitting in a dark, cold basement in one of the MTA’s two field offices in Manhattan. This one is at Chambers Street and I’ve spent the past three hours shadowing one of the best jobs the MTA has to offer: lost items retriever.

I’m here because the MTA has granted ANIMAL an exclusive look at the people who retrieve all the things we drop on the subway tracks each day. Yes, there is a dedicated crew — two crews, actually — that are part of the ERT department’s (emergency response team) morning shift.

The job is one of the most coveted by track workers, and only the most-tenured get it. Today, I’m following Tom Gurecki, 54, and Mike Rosado, 58, both of whom are New York City residents who have worked for the MTA for thirty years. Today is Tom’s swan song; he’s retiring in time for the holiday weekend. He’s spent the last seven years here, partnering with Mike. They work the 7AM-3PM shift, which consists of a lot of waiting around for calls, especially after the morning rush. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t busy; in 2013, their office alone fielded 9,239 calls.

“We’ve picked up everything and anything,” Gurecki says.

But when I ask about the strangest or most grotesque items, both men decline to get into any interesting details. A lot of phones, keys, wallets, and even a skateboard. They also help with track repair and assist in anything else the agency needs. But most of their time is spent on these calls, and they took three the morning we shadowed them.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what happens when you drop something on the tracks, here’s how it works:

– You drop something

– You go to the booth, report your dropped item and, ideally, if you have a sense of direction and space, instruct the MTA token booth clerk where your lost shit fell

– The clerk puts a call into Rail Command

– Rail Command calls someone at the field office, who then decides which crew is closer. A dispatcher writes down the item and location on a white piece of paper and hands it to the crew

– The crews go out, look for your lost item, and if found, return it to the booth

– If you leave, it’s on you to come back and claim your item

And this is how it all breaks down when, last Tuesday, Gurecki and Rosado get a note to go pick up a stuffed bunny rabbit at the West 4th Street station. It’s the highlight of the morning, which, to that point, had only consisted of retrieving two cell phones at two separate locations that Rosado deftly picked up with this.

When they get to West 4th, they quickly find the worn-out bunny laying beside the track and walk it back to the booth.

“Some little kid’s going to be happy,” Gurecki says.

Then they head back to Chambers street and await the next call.

(Video: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)