ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Every morning, before she unlocks the lobby at the bus headquarters, Tiara Holmes heads toward the parking lot where the fleet gets cleaned out.
There, inside a glass door, a white locker looms 10 feet tall: Lost and Found.
Holmes unlatches the padlock — and starts poring through pieces of people’s lives.
A wallet. Two cell phones.
Someone’s identity, someone’s lifeline.
Something wrapped in a napkin.
“I’m not going to touch that,” she mutters.
A small Target bag. A green duffel.
“Not until I get gloves.”
A high-heeled, leopard print boot, left. A brown leather loafer, the same size, right.
“I try not to wonder too much,” Holmes says on this Tuesday in August, standing the shoes side by side.
You ride the bus, in Florida, because you have to. Because without a car, or driver’s license, or the money for an app like Uber, it’s often the only way to get to work, doctors’ appointments, the grocery. To see the beach, for some. To cool off in air conditioning, for people without it.
Everything you carry, you cradle in your lap, hold beside you.
Yet so much gets left behind.
Some things you’d expect: umbrellas, sunglasses, lunch boxes, leftovers.
Others, you’d never imagine: Wheelchairs. Walkers. Canes.
“How does that happen?” asks Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority spokesperson Stephanie Rank. “How do they get home?”
Some things make you worry: Bottom dentures.
Some make you wonder: A prosthetic leg.
Some things are haunting: Four wooden crosses, unpainted, four inches tall. Left on different buses, over four days.
Some stuff breaks your heart.
After each shift, after driving 2,300 riders every day, PSTA drivers “sweep” their more than 200 buses in the vast parking lot near the St. Pete-Clearwater airport.
Anything they find that’s not trash, plus anything turned in by riders, they drop into the locker.
Holmes notes dates on yellow stickers, though routes and times are often a mystery.
She and other workers stash most stuff in a storage room, about the size of a two-car garage. Plastic bins line tall metal shelves and bigger items are stacked by the door.
Fishing poles. Beach chairs. Forgotten before someone’s walk to the water? Or after?
Golf clubs. Library books. A plastic rosary. Were they praying on the bus?
Propped against a crate, Holmes finds a cardboard poster, filled with magazine photos of a woman doing yoga, a woman sporting sunglasses, surrounded by cut-out quotes: Find yourself. Feel Good. Wipe out your pain. Say yes to fun! Hours spent searching for inspiration, left on the bus.
Holmes checks for a name and, seeing none, sets it aside. She hates to throw away something so personal. But riders only have 10 days to claim their items.
Suitcases. So many big suitcases. And, always, backpacks.
Holmes has to search for ID, so she can try to contact the owner.
But she hates unzipping bags. What if there’s a gun? Or drug money? She’s found needles. Knives.
Nikki Kester, who came to help, remembered opening a heavy plastic sack one Monday. She smelled it before she saw: A 5-pound raw chicken had been oozing on some seat in the summer heat, then leaked into the locker all weekend. “I still can’t eat chicken,” she says.
This morning, the women find a gold-tinted necklace in the Target bag, with its receipt. A gift? An indulgence?
A pair of green slides. A three-pack of Hanes boxer briefs, unopened. A pair of bleached board shorts, inside out. Did someone peel those off on the bus?
From the battered green duffel, Holmes extracts worn sweatpants, two T-shirts, men’s briefs, deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrush, a rusty razor and “some very stank shoes.”
“This person must be homeless,” Kester says, shaking her head. “A lot of times, it’s everything they own.”
Bikes also nag at the women. In a cage beside the depot, 22 wait.
Someone rode that to the stop, loaded it onto the bus, got off and – what? – forgot it? How did they get home? Do they know they can come get it?
Only 40 percent of lost bikes are claimed, Rank says. The rest get donated to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
“This one is so sad. It’s been here awhile,” says Kester, looking over a battered blue Schwinn with a moldy tent and tarp tethered to the handlebars.
“Somebody didn’t just lose their transportation here. They lost their home.”
The women enjoy playing detective, matching items to IDs, seeing people’s relief.
One man cried when Holmes found the program from his brother’s funeral. Two tourists wrote Kester thank you notes for returning their wallets.
“We get a lot of repeat customers,” she says. “I call them my friends.”
“You know,” Holmes tells Kester as they walk back to the lobby, “that lady got her teeth back today.”
The most important items, Holmes locks behind her desk.
A blue bin holds glasses. A yellow one, wallets. Two green bins hold more than 100 cell phones.
A dozen lanyards, some laden with a dozen keys each, dangle from hooks. Orange pill bottles take up four whole cabinets. An HP laptop has been shelved for more than a month.
“Pepper spray and swim goggles?” asks a clerk answering phones. “OK, you sure you left them on the bus?”
Holmes laughs. “If you’re going to pepper spray someone, I guess you’d need goggles.”
Bike helmets and headphones. Watches and inhalers. A book on porcelain. A gold harmonica emblazoned “Marine Band.”
Holmes unsnaps a sparkly kitty coin purse. Inside, she finds small dolls: Elsa and Olaf the snowman, from “Frozen,” Disney’s Belle and Moana. “My 3-year-old would be so sad if she lost those,” she says.
Strangers are counting on her to make their lives whole.
“You know that panicky feeling, when you can’t find your keys or phone?” she asks. “We know people are stressed and scared. We worry.”
How will that person get into their apartment without their keys? What if those pills were keeping someone alive?
Without a phone, how can anyone call for help?
She’s logging onto her computer, starting to catalog the day’s intake, when two women and a man enter the lobby. One woman approaches Holmes, but the man does the talking.
“She’s visiting from Venezuela. She doesn’t speak English. My sister-in-law. She lost her phone,” says Matthew Metzcus, who lives in Clearwater. She thinks she left it on the bus Saturday. For three days, he says, they’ve been watching it on the app Find my iPhone.
“It went to downtown St. Petersburg, stayed there a long time, then came back up U.S. 19 to here. I didn’t know what this place was, but I followed the phone. I kept hoping it wouldn’t die.”
Holmes smiles. “Is the phone in a case? What color?” The other woman holds up her cell as a guide: glittery pink. “Do you have your ID?” asks Holmes.
Three minutes later, she returns with a matching cell.
Holmes sits back behind her desk, scrolls through a long spreadsheet and types: Returned.