Urban Treasure Hunter Makes a Living Retrieving Stuff People Drop on the Street

For the last eight years Puerto Rico native Eliel Santos has been making a living by reeling in jewelry, cash and electronics from beneath New York City’s sidewalk grates. It may not seem like a very profitable trade, but on great days he can earn over $1,000.

38-year-old Eliel Santos lives in the Bronx, but he spends every day of the week visiting various areas of the Big Apple and using dental floss and mouse trap glue to retrieve whatever valuable items people drop through the sidewalk grates. The urban treasure hunter spends most of his time looking down through the small metal holes hoping to spot something worth pawning. Whenever something grabs his attention, Eliel positions himself over the target and pulls out his trusty tools – a line of dental floss attached to different size weights covered in mouse glue. With expert precision, he lowers his sticky lure through the grating into the darkness below and quickly catches his “prey”. Sometimes it’s just quarters or useless shiny objects, but a lot of times Santos walks away with precious jewelry, cash and even trendy gadgets like iPhones or iPods. “If you drop it, I’m going to pick it up — so be careful,” he warns the pedestrians of New York.

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Photo © Angel Chevrestt

Eliel told the New York Post he got into the item retrieval business completely by accident. He was walking down the street when he saw a guy on 41st Street and Broadway who had dropped his keys down a grate and was looking for a locksmith. Santos went up to him and offered to help. He then ran to the store to buy a sticky mouse trap, attached it to a rock and tied it with string. After lowering it 15 feet through the grating he recovered the keys and was rewarded with $50. That’s when it hit him – this was a good way to make money. From that day on he started visiting different areas of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, looking through the grate holes for valuable stuff, paying special attention to places where people trade money with street vendors. His greatest catch yet was an 18k gold and diamond bracelet found in Harlem, which he pawned for $1,800, but he also made good money helping others recover important items, like when he helped a guy get back his wedding ring.

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Photo © Angel Chevrestt

On good days, Eliel Santos makes around $150, but on great days he can walk away with over $1,000. Lately he’s been retrieving a lot of iPhones from under the sidewalk grates in Times Square. He says it’s due to the fact that people often drop their handhelds while texting and walking. Most of them don’t even bother to try and get them out, but he does. On the day New York Post reporters followed him on one of his daily hunts, Eliel found a green iPod Nano, a fake gold necklace and a pocket full of change. Not bad for a short day’s work.

But Eliel Santos isn’t the only one making a nice living off the streets of the Big Apple. Raffi Stephanian uses a butter knife and tweezers to retrieve small gold and diamond pieces from the gutters and pavement cracks of New York’s Diamond District. He says the percentage of gold on the streets of his city is actually higher than in a mine, and if done right, his method could earn a person up to $200 a day.


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Feedback (1 Comment)

  • SaulRosenberg Posted on April 30, 2013

    Excellent work! I’d be curious to know how the IRS and NY state/city collect taxes on his work. Hmmmmmm…..