The Naughty Room

Deep beneath Central Station there’s a peculiar room. You’ve never been there, but maybe your umbrella has (…or your mobile, or your bag). Caddie Brain took a journey to the Mecca of forgotten objects

Walking Stick Mormon Bible Licenses Laptop Cases Moble Phones Action Room Shane Bikes

The sea of commuters down at Sydney’s Central Station is a surging flood of suitcases, mobile phones and wet umbrellas, determined to find its train. But I’m headed in the other direction. I’m not here for a train. I’ve come to Central to find a room.

This room forms part of the foundations of the station. It is one of the city’s most romantic places, but I’m not supposed to know that yet.

I stop at the counter of a booth built into the wall and wait for someone to appear inside. I look around me. Central can be a dirty bit of scenery, the degraded backdrop to missed connections, tense phone calls and the countless worries that tend to pollute your head in transit.

But this particular morning, watching the descending dust columns of filtered light hang from the ceiling of the country section, it is actually quite majestic.

This thought is interrupted. “You here to see Shane? ‘Cause he’s not here yet.” I must have looked disappointed because he immediately softens. “Sorry mate, he’s just running late. He won’t be long. But I'll take you there!”

I follow him through a doorway and down a steep escalator, deep into the bowels of Central Station. The enormous cavity below the station’s Grand Concourse is hidden like a lost cathedral. Huge sandstone pillars soar over our heads, rising to meet the invisible weight of trains above. Ahead is an opening in the wall, revealing a long tunnel-like corridor stretching to somewhere else. To the left is what CityRail management calls “the auction room” - but the staff know it by another name.

* * *

Approximately 30 wallets are handed in to Cityrail’s Lost and Found Office every day. This equals roughly 900 gestures of (sometimes partial) honesty each month. And that’s just the wallets.

There are also mobile phones, umbrellas, bikes, clothes, hats, walking sticks, handbags, suitcases, surfboards, DVDs, sunglasses, cameras, sleeping bags, laptops and other items, older or stranger, handed in all the time. When the weather turns warmer, the number of lost coats goes up. No umbrellas are lost when it rains, but when the city dries - there they are. The trains yield more lost action films than any other genre of DVD. Christian bibles outnumber copies of the Koran. Harry Potter books are either never lost, or never handed in. Some items are found on trains, others on CityRail property.

Processing one of these lost items is fairly simple. If there are no clues to identify its owner, each items is tagged and kept for 28 days in the Lost Property Office up on the surface. Anything not collected is then sent down to the auction room for numbering, sorting and storage.

Once a pile of mobile phones becomes a crate of mobile phones, then a crate of mobile phones becomes 20 crates, and 20 crates become a pallet of mobile phones – they announce an auction.

At that point, many of Sydney’s finest auction houses show up. They examine and value the goods and then place a bid to host the auction, with the winning house getting a cut from the sales. A date is chosen and advertised, attracting a flock of shrewd punters to Central Station. Beady eyes sweep about the auction room. Shuffling figures jostle competitively among the aisles to inspect certain choice items. Then bit by bit, the loot is auctioned off.

The auction ends with the unimaginable: CityRail actually makes money.

* * *

With Shane running late, I have been left to my own devices in the auction room. This is not a problem. I like markets, I like thrift stores, I like second-hand shit. I discover that I love the auction room.

It is a kind of installation. Each item from a different unintentional collaborator. Each item a random arrival. Categorised beautifully.

I stand in front of crates of mobile phones arranged in the order they were handed in, and notice how even in the few months that this collection has been growing, you can already see that the proportion of newer models inside increases with each new crate. I think about consumption. It is though this room is a freeze-frame of the way we are, the things that we value, and the things with which we choose to cloak our existence. Even this room reflects our fashions and anxieties. With this thought, I compare the number of skateboards to scooters. They are about even.

Maybe it is to do with loss, but there is something sad about the auction room. I don’t know why. It feels like viewing deceased estate.

* * *

“How long have you been waiting? There’s a bit of stuff in your way there.”

That’s an understatement.

Shane Wheeler, CityRail’s Disposal Officer, has the task of running its lost property section, and to occasionally auction off what isn’t claimed. After 24 years in the job, there’s a quality to his face and hands that suggests they have been molded from beautiful leather, worn smooth by the time he has spent handling things left behind.

Shane reckons he’s always been a pretty physical person, someone you might expect to go for one of the more outdoorsy jobs you can find working on the railways. But after eight years in other sections he became so well known for his honesty that he was considered ideal for the task of organising the auction room and its many temptations.

“The reason I have this job is because I like to clean and organise, that’s just what I do. I mean I still have my first guitar…scripts that I’ve written years ago at school. I hold onto things - maybe it's no coincidence that I’m doing this job. You’ve got to live clean, Mum might have taught me that.” Shane suddenly looks concerned. “I’m not anal. It could look that way.”

It has been over two years since the last auction, the highlight of which was a working bobcat found on CityRail property. I ask Shane what are some of the strangest things currently in the auction room.

“My colleagues. For sure,” he jokes. But there are reasons to think he’s not entirely kidding. CityRail employees who test positive for drug use or whose conduct is in question (for a range of reasons) are rotated to work in the auction room - or as it is better known, “the naughty room”. It’s part of the rehabilitation process.

Shane defends his colleagues loyally: “I really am joking because they’re very good. One bloke that went back [to work] yesterday has done amazing things with himself. He’s back on board.”

We continue to look for weird items: adult toys (all of which are quickly disposed of – in the rubbish, since you ask), a tribal mask, a kids-height basketball hoop, fluffy dice (no car attached), a giant pink pig, a Fender banjo.

Shane lifts the banjo tenderly as though lifting a crystal vase full of water. “I don’t want to damage it,” he says. “You can tell the guy was right-handed. I wonder what happened to him? Traveling somewhere.” He pauses somewhat sadly - “It’s such a shame for the person who lost it… such a beautiful instrument.”

The more I look around the room, the more I see evidence of Shane’s care for the tonnes of stuff in here and for the people they represent. He tells me of a woman who’d lost her wedding ring. It had been her grandfather’s, made in the 1940s. There was no sign of it so there seemed little point in getting the woman’s contact details. “I came across it two weeks later. I couldn’t believe it. Jeez. I held it for so long after that. It was clearly her ring.”

With all he has seen, I ask him if he ever feels (and I don’t really know how to put this) some kind of universal understanding of people and their histories through his custody of their possessions. Something in him seems to darken. “Well, sometimes you find a suitcase and can piece together what has happened in that person’s story. Some of what you find on the computer hard drives, that’s a bit of a worry. We’re all a bit of a worry…the state of a world. I’m raising a daughter. Sometimes you’re a bit ashamed to be a human being.”

He pauses, and then murmurs, “I don’t really want to talk about it.”

* * *

Shane walks me out, and I take the escalator back up through the buried cathedral and out into the light of the station. On the platform people brush past me as if they are doing the most important thing in the world this very minute.

I head back to my house, unaware that I’m about to pay tribute to the naughty room, to Shane and his treasures, in the most appropriate way possible.

On the way home I lose my bag. In it, the entire recorded interview.

I don’t remember enough to write up the story. About six weeks later, I force myself to dial Shane's number to tell him. “That’s ok mate,” he says immediately, “just come back down.” And thanks to Shane at Lost Property, I can walk down to Central and get my interview back.

* * *