The King of Lost and Found Reunites
Humans and Their Missing Loot

by Cathy Cockrell

When Les Ali looks up from his desk at campus Lost and Found, he never knows what awaits him. It could be a student come to reclaim a briefcase and shed tears of relief-or a visitor who goes ballistic when a lost wallet fails to show up in the unit's master log.

"People play transference," Ali says of his irate customers. "'What? You don't have my wallet?' They're mad at me because they're mad at themselves."

Hero and villain are two of the roles conferred on the Lost and Found coordinator by distraught owners of missing wallets, key rings, backpacks, eye glasses and large sums of cash in small bills.

Another role is that of sleuth, using identification found in a purse or wallet to track down the owner. Organizational specialist is another.

"I'm a structured guy. That's always been me," he muses.

Some 4,000 lost items come through campus Lost and Found each year. Ali logs and stores items securely for up to 90 days, after which unclaimed property goes to Campus Excess and Salvage for its annual fall auction and garage sale. Unclaimed cash-up to $3,000 annually-is deposited in the campus general fund.

Though the job involves "a lot of people things," on the other hand, says Ali, there's a cut-and-dried aspect that he finds appealing: "It's black and white; there's no area of gray. It's either here or not. If it's not here, we don't have to have a great discussion."

What is "here"-on Lost and Found's storage shelves and the pages of the log book-is not only the expected trove of purses and umbrellas but a vast assortment of orphaned objects, from dentures and hatchets to broken turntables, swords, street signs, hearing aids and hand-carved wooden clubs.

A Vietnam veteran and a UC employee of 30 years, Ali's last job was at the campus police department, where he was in charge of ordering everything from forms to flares.

His talent for "making lemonade out of lemons," as he puts it, was recognized, and he was tapped to set up a centralized system for property lost on campus.

Today the lost and found system he established is administered by Parking and Transportation. It includes the central office in the Parking and Transportation building on Dwight Avenue. below Telegraph, where Ali works, and 15 satellite locations in buildings around campus.

Protocol dictates the fate of each object reaching Ali's desk. Found cash is counted by two individuals, entered in the log and kept in a safe place. Clothing, "if sanitary and not a health threat," is stored in bins.

A few procedures have evolved with experience. Early on, Ali allowed people to search through the collection of lost items for their possessions. That changed, he says, when the same woman would turn up every few months to peruse the timepieces and leave with a Seiko or a Citizen.

"Wait," he realized, "she's just picking out watches!"

Now, in order to collect lost property, a person's description of the object and the circumstances of its loss must match the data in Ali's files.

The policy on cash changed this fall, after a good citizen turned in $1,000 found at a Golden Bears game. Three months later, no one had come to collect the money. The finder fought to establish a right to the unclaimed cash and eventually prevailed.

As reuniter of humans and lost property, Ali is also in charge of bicycle registration-a role that promises to grow as the campus community becomes aware that state law now requires all bicycles be licensed.

"Last semester we actually ran out of licenses," says Ali. "We're talking 1,300 licenses (in three months' time)."

Police authorities rely on bicycle registration data to return lost or stolen bicycles to their owners. Increasingly, word is out concerning the records Les Ali maintains at the Berkeley campus Parking and Transportation office.

"I have police agencies in northern California calling me, wanting the serial number, license number, model and type (on bikes originally registered at UC Berkeley)."

It's all there, in black and white, to be found.

Campus Lost and Found, at 2427 Dwight Ave., is open weekdays, 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Bike registration is open weekdays, 1 to 5 p.m. A license costs $6 and is renewable every two years for $3. For information call 642-4936.


Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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