The lost tale of the glass eye

Years ago, so long I can’t remember exactly when, I watched a TV documentary about the London Underground's lost and found. Umbrellas in every size and color, of course: but there was also a surprising number of improbable objects, such as artificial limbs. How does one manage to leave one’s leg on the Tube?

At the University of Chicago, where everyone is too preoccupied with intellectual matters to remember their scarves, there are ten lost and founds. The registrar's office is the keeper of the “official” one, but each library and a few other buildings have their own. This past spring I explored the lost things in the Reynolds Club basement.

Scarves, jackets, a gym bag or two, and of course, books. Someone had left behind Volume 8, Nineteenth-Century Europe, from the Readings in Western Civilization series; someone else had abandoned Volume 9. There were textbooks on micro- and macroeconomics; something in Greek that might have been the Iliad; a training manual for animal lab technicians; a printout of an original two-act play, Heat Wave, “a work of fiction based on the very real events of the summer of 1995.” Less expected was a book adaptation of the inspirational Lee Ann Womack song “I Hope You Dance,” CD single included—a jettisoned birthday present, perhaps.

The largest-ever object in the collection, says fourth-year Kathryn Fallon, Student Activities Center manager, was a nine-foot-long oar abandoned for most of last summer. The crew team had forgotten it after a recruiting event and somehow never missed it: “We had to e-mail the crew team to let them know,” says Fallon.

And then there’s the tale of the glass eye, a story I had heard from Jennifer Kennedy, assistant director of the Student Activities Center. As the story goes, last winter somebody sent a letter claiming that during a Halloween concert at Mandel Hall, he had lost a glass eye down a heating grate. “There was discussion about whether or not this was a hoax, because it was just too weird,” says Fallon. “The letter was from France, and postmarked a month afterward, which kind of compounded the weird factor.”

But sure enough, Bob James, manager of Mandel Hall, found an eye in Mandel Hall—“not the whole eye, but the front to the eye,” says Fallon. Still suspicious, they searched the Internet and discovered “the guy had been apparently planting the eyes.”

“Someone was definitely here and dropped off the eye—we don’t know if it was him or an accomplice in Chicago,” Fallon says. “So we mailed him a letter that said, ‘We found your eye!’ but apparently we weren’t either awkward or snarky enough to get on his Web site.”

I tried to find this alleged fake-glass-eye Web site. Usually Google is more than adequate for such junk-culture searches, but I found nothing. Was I using the wrong search terms?

I e-mailed Kennedy, who wrote back with the advice that I ask James, “the man who knows the full story of the eye and is currently its caretaker.” So I e-mailed him a couple of times—no response. I phoned him a couple of times and left messages—no response. I even dropped by the Reynolds Club, but our schedules were off, and I never managed to catch him.

I forgot about it for weeks, then months. I put my notes somewhere. I put my recorder somewhere else. Eventually I had to tear both my desk and my apartment apart to find it all.

I still don’t know what happened with the glass eye. I guess at this point, I never will. “Very little of what comes in is claimed,” Fallon had told me about the lost and found. “And of the people who come back looking for stuff, very few find what they’re looking for.”

Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

June 30, 2009