When Things Go Missing
Reflections on two seasons of loss.
By Kathryn Schulz
Over a lifetime, we will lose some two hundred thousand items apiece, plus money, relationships, elections, loved ones. Illustration by Bianca Bagnarelli
Acouple of years ago, I spent the summer in Portland, Oregon, losing things. I normally live on the East Coast, but that year, unable to face another sweltering August, I decided to temporarily decamp to the West. This turned out to be strangely easy. I’d lived in Portland for a while after college, and some acquaintances there needed a house sitter. Another friend was away for the summer and happy to loan me her pickup truck. Someone on Craigslist sold me a bike for next to nothing. In very short order, and with very little effort, everything fell into place.
And then, mystifyingly, everything fell out of place. My first day in town, I left the keys to the truck on the counter of a coffee shop. The next day, I left the keys to the house in the front door. A few days after that, warming up in the midday sun at an outdoor café, I took off the long-sleeved shirt I’d been wearing, only to leave it hanging over the back of the chair when I headed home. When I returned to claim it, I discovered that I’d left my wallet behind as well. Prior to that summer, I should note, I had lost a wallet exactly once in my adult life: at gunpoint. Yet later that afternoon I stopped by a sporting-goods store to buy a lock for my new bike and left my wallet sitting next to the cash register.
I got the wallet back, but the next day I lost the bike lock. I’d just arrived home and removed it from its packaging when my phone rang; I stepped away to take the call, and when I returned, some time later, the lock had vanished. This was annoying, because I was planning to bike downtown that evening, to attend an event at Powell’s, Portland’s famous bookstore. Eventually, having spent an absurd amount of time looking for the lock and failing to find it, I gave up and drove the truck downtown instead. I parked, went to the event, hung around talking for a while afterward, browsed the bookshelves, walked outside into a lovely summer evening, and could not find the truck anywhere.
This was a serious feat, a real bar-raising of thing-losing, not only because in general it is difficult to lose a truck but also because the truck in question was enormous. The friend to whom it belonged once worked as an ambulance driver; oversized vehicles do not faze her. It had tires that came up to my midriff, an extended cab, and a bed big enough to haul cetaceans. Yet I’d somehow managed to misplace it in downtown Portland—a city, incidentally, that I know as well as any other on the planet. For the next forty-five minutes, as a cool blue night gradually lowered itself over downtown, I walked around looking for the truck, first on the street where I was sure I’d parked, then on the nearest cross streets, and then in a grid whose scale grew ever larger and more ludicrous.
Finally, I returned to the street where I’d started and noticed a small sign: “no parking anytime.” Oh, sh–. Feeling like the world’s biggest idiot, and wondering how much it was going to cost to extricate a truck the size of Nevada from a tow lot, I called the Portland Police Department. The man who answered was wonderfully affable. “No, Ma’am,” he veritably sang into the phone, “no pickup trucks from downtown this evening. Must be your lucky day!” Officer, you have no idea. Channelling the kind of advice one is often given as a child, I returned to the bookstore, calmed myself down with a cup of tea, collected my thoughts amid the latest literary débuts, and then, to the best of my ability, retraced the entire course of my evening, in the hope that doing so would knock loose some memory of how I got there. It did not. Back outside on the streets of Portland, I spun around as uselessly as a dowsing rod.
Seventy-five minutes later, I found the truck, in a perfectly legal parking space, on a block so unrelated to any reasonable route from my house to the bookstore that I seriously wondered if I’d driven there in some kind of fugue state. I climbed in, headed home, and, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, decided that I needed to call my sister as soon as I walked in the door. But I did not. I could not. My cell phone was back at Powell’s, on a shelf with all the other New Arrivals.
My sister is a cognitive scientist at M.I.T., more conversant than most people in the mental processes involved in tracking and misplacing objects. That is not, however, why I wanted to talk to her about my newly acquired propensity for losing things. I wanted to talk to her because, true to the stereotype of the absent-minded professor, she is the most scatterbrained person I’ve ever met.