Over the past few weeks, I've been intentionally losing sets of keys all over Washington, DC.
I've discreetly left uncut keys — attached to a keychain with my name and phone number — in cabs, on buses, and precariously balanced on Capital Bikeshare bicycles. I've feigned concern when talking to officials, trying to get them back, and great relief when good Samaritans have called to return them to me. I've spent an absurd number of hours trying to track down a set of keys that open precisely nothing.
I've done all this at my editor's request — and because I wanted to see the journeys my keys would take after I lost them.
We all lose things: We leave credit cards at bars and cellphones on buses. Trying to track them down is part of everyone's lives. But it's an experience that's seldom publicly documented. There's no Yelp for reviews on how much of a pain it is to get your wallet back if you left it on the subway. Systematically losing my keys all over town, the thinking went, would let me see a side of city life that often stays hidden.
Or at least get me out of the office.
1) An absurd number of keys are left on DC's Metro
If you lose your keys on the DC Metro and go to the lost and found in a nondescript office building in the Maryland suburbs, you will be given bins and bins filled with hundreds of keys to pick through.
I learned this after leaving a set of keys in a packed rush hour Yellow Line Metro train one August morning. A few hours later, at work, I got a call from a man who said he'd left them at the front desk of the Franconia Metro station — the end of the line, deep in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
I tried calling there directly and navigated my way through the automated phone system several times before ultimately being told it wasn't possible to reach the phone at any particular station.
The Metro lost and found has its own automated phone system, and it instructs you to press 2 if you've lost keys or glasses. It turns out that if you lose something distinctive on the Metro, you can describe it over the phone to a staff member and he or she will try to see if it's there. But as a prerecorded voice told me, "Due to the volume of keys and glasses lost on Metro, we are unable to identify these items over the phone."
When I saw the number of keys, I understood why. After I Metroed out to the lost and found, on the fifth floor of an office building near the Prince George's Plaza station in Hyattsville, Maryland, a Metro employee began sliding bins packed with keys through an opening in the Plexiglas barrier at the counter. "We only ask two things," she told me. "Don't mix up the containers, and put them all back in once you're done."
I counted 208 sets in the bin holding the past two weeks' worth of keys alone. The variety was surprisingly fascinating: There were huge, janitor-size key rings, keys for Jaguars and Teslas, keys linked to college lanyards and bottle openers and tiny bottles of hand sanitizer. As I worked my way through the bins, I began to notice the biographical hints tied to them and tried to picture their owners. How were they getting along without their tiny gym passes and library cards? Who was this person with the Buffalo Bills key, just like the one I have on my (real) keys?
By the end, I'd sorted through several bins and hundreds of sets, but my fake keys weren't there. The employee told me she'd call if they showed up and sent me on my way.
2) People can be amazingly nice to strangers
When granted a cloak of anonymity, it's commonly agreed, people are the worst. This is why internet comments are so terrible and why bystanders don't help crime victims if they think other people will. So I was pretty surprised when, over and over, strangers took time to call me about my keys and help me get them back.
The first time I lost my keys, I left them in a crack between bus seats during my morning commute. Less than 10 minutes after I got off, I got a call from a guy named Norman. He'd been sitting next to me and had grabbed my keys.
We arranged to meet at lunchtime at Union Station in front of the H&M, and after I saw him and introduced myself, he dug the keys out of a handbag and gave them to me. I wanted to ask why he'd bothered to call me (and whether he'd noticed that they were uncut), but I couldn't bring myself to let this polite stranger know I'd wasted his lunch hour on a bizarre social experiment. Our brief interaction ended without fanfare, and I walked away.
I couldn't prove it, but I had a hunch that he called because he'd seen me sitting on the bus. He didn't just see a lost set of keys — he saw "that guy's keys." I suspected that if he hadn't called me, the next few people to see them wouldn't have either.
But I was wrong.
3) Lost keys can take strange journeys
A few days later, I left keys balanced precariously on the front rack of a bike-share bike near my office. I thought they'd fall off as soon as someone pulled out the bike, that the choice of whether to call me would be forced on a single person who hadn't seen me. I was surprised at the end of the day when I hadn't gotten a call but couldn't find the keys on the ground near the bike rack either.
I'd nearly forgotten about them when I got a call from a Houston phone number during dinner. The caller, named Gavin, introduced himself and bluntly asked me: "Did someone already tell you where your keys are?"
He'd found them perched on a bike-share station across the city, in Georgetown. Either they'd somehow remained balanced on the bike as it was ridden there, or someone had noticed the keys, carried them there, and then left them in a conspicuous place without calling me. In either case, Gavin had seen them and decided to help out.
He told me he'd hide them under a garbage can right in front of the bike rack, and hours later I rode there in the dark and found them in the exact right spot. It felt like I'd won some strange scavenger hunt — and that I had a city full of strangers miraculously looking out for me.
I got the same feeling again the next week, when I took an Uber to work. A driver named Hossain showed up in a gray Camry, with a rush hour double surge charge. After a quick drive, I left the keys on the back seat and jumped out in front of my office.
That evening I called his number, and he answered as though I were an old friend. He recognized my name, told me he had the keys, and, as it turned out, only lived a few blocks away from me. After being driven around the city all day, my keys had ended up a half mile from my house.
I met him at his apartment building, and we chatted as we walked over to his car. He drove for both Uber and Lyft, he told me, keeping two phones open to maximize his fares, and he was about to start a new shift — he typically drove morning and evening, sleeping a few hours in between. Upon learning that I'd walked there, he repeatedly offered me a (free) ride home, though I declined.
4) Institutions care way less than people
If there's one truth I learned from losing my keys, it's that as surprisingly nice as individual people are, institutions don't give a fuck.
I left my keys on the back seat of a taxi. I didn't write down the name of the driver or the number of the cab (the idea was to simulate what a normal person might remember if he actually left his keys somewhere), but I remembered the name of the company.
When I called that evening, a dispatcher told me that the company didn't keep a lost and found but that drivers are supposed to turn lost items in. They'd call me when they got my keys, he said. I didn't hear for several days, and when I tried back, I was again told that they'd call me. After a few more attempts, I was told that I was mistaken, that I probably hadn't left the keys in the cab after all.
It's easy to care about someone's lost keys if they're a single set you come across in your daily life. It's hard if they're one of many lost items careless people are constantly leaving behind in your cabs and bothering you about.
Meanwhile, despite my entertaining experience at Metro's lost and found, I got the same treatment from staff there as well. As the days went on — and I lost set after set of keys elsewhere — I kept waiting for the promised call from them. I never got one.
If I tried speaking to the lost-and-found staff over the phone, I was reminded that lost keys demanded an in-person visit, despite what I'd been told in person. I know they were turned over to Metro staff at one station, and was told they'd be sent to the lost and found, but they never turned up.
To date, I still haven't found that set of keys: They seemingly came to rest in a state of purgatory on the Yellow Line, somewhere between Franconia and Prince George's Plaza.
Joseph Stromberg is a contributor to Vox.