I can’t say that I hadn’t been tempted by my colleague’s tales of designer clothes going for a song or our friends’ house guest’s recent purchase of a portable DVD player for $40, but it was only because we were going to Chattanooga that we decided to stop in and see what it was all about. As a New Yorker and a Londoner who has never been to the Statue of Liberty or the Albert Hall, I am capable of living in a place and ignoring, even avoiding, its star attractions.
Initially, the idea of the Unclaimed Baggage Center captured my imagination. We heard about it shortly after we moved here. This was the place where unclaimed bags from airports all around the world ended up. A major tourist destination in North Alabama, UBC was the second place in the state to have a Starbucks.
The idea is compelling. What do people pack? What would you find?
This is the interest factor in shows like Storage Wars. A bag is revealing in the way that a person’s shopping on the supermarket conveyor belt provides a speculative ramble about another life. It is socially acceptable snooping.
But there is something fundamentally morbid about an unclaimed bag or an abandoned storage locker. Have you noticed that Barry Weiss wears black gloves with skeleton bones when he unpacks the lockers on Storage Wars? It’s grim reapery to be picking through the remains of a life, even if it is only the little sampling of a life that was, as we were when we stopped in, on the way to somewhere else.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center does the Barry Weiss skeleton glove work themselves, unpacking, cleaning and sorting all of the contents so that there is a department store/charity shop format and no smelly surprises, not the mystery bag auction I thought it was when we first heard about it.
Did you leave your book or your reading glasses on the plane? There is a whole section of reading glasses, a monument to forgetfulness, shelves of books, a case of bibles. There are racks of unclaimed sidewalk art, a display of all the headphones found at the bottom of seat back pockets, each one in a plastic bag. This place conjures up the discomfort and transience of air travel, the confinement, the unwanted physical proximity to others, the hand that pushes on your seatback and inadvertently pulls your hair, other people’s ears, salted nuts.
The only items that seem not to have made the cut are toiletries, except the barely used bottles of perfume encased in the jewelry section, a spritz of hope, the joy of duty free, a week going out for dinner. But underwear did. The lives this collection of goods represents no longer intrigue me. There is no poetry here. I know too much. Spirit, take me away! I didn’t even check the prices on these large white ladies underpants, but honestly, how much of a bargain would they have to be for you to buy them? This makes Kirkland lingerie seem like a luxury item. Nor did I check the label on this bondage-inspired designer bodysuit. I was desperate at this point to be on my way, headed somewhere else, anywhere but here.