I went to get a key made and it was nothing like it should have been. Ain’t that a bitch?

In my head, locksmiths occupy the same category as cobblers and blacksmiths: old-timey professions that, while still relevant, conjure vibrant mental imagery of their vocational heyday. A cobbler will always work by hand, at night, and have an elfin beard. A blacksmith will be a mountain of man with a hearty laugh, and know why an anvil has that curious shape. And a locksmith? Well…

As I walked to the hardware store with my key in hand, I entertained sun-dappled, soft-focus visions of a friendly, crotchety old locksmith – the kind with a screwed down eye, bands on the arms of his crisp, high-collared white shirt, and silver-rimmed round glasses. He would very carefully pull them out of his pocket, wrap the stems around his ears, and say, “now young man, what can we do for you?” Then he’d offer me some homemade licorice.

The hardware was just off a busy corner where three streets met. As I walked up to the door, I thought it was probably a pretty good location for business. I commended my fantasy locksmith for keeping his business running all these years since 1945, what with all the changes to the neighborhood. 1945 was, of course, when he started the shop with his partner, a Polish-Catholic from Chicago’s south side who everyone called “Ponzi.” The two had met, naturally, while my main man the locksmith was in the Merchant Marine during the war. I pushed my way inside the shop.

Luckily, the merciless electronic door buzzer was set to stun. But instead of a friendly hello from Dot, the locksmith’s corn-fed wife of fifty years (his high school sweetheart!) who worked the front desk, I received wary, surly looks from two sullen young women leaning on the modern cash register counter. I thought to ask these Hustler “Beaver Hunt” candidates where the key-making counter was, but one look at their shifty eyes and I decided to trust my wits. I swear, the blonde had a shiv. Besides, they seemed rather put out that I had interrupted their conversation about which member of Slipknot was the hottest (don’t they wear masks? Oh, well…). As I left the girls behind, I silently wished them luck in their porn careers.

The store had that same lived-in, sad appearance that you see behind Middle-Eastern hostages when they broadcast their kidnappers’ ransom demands. Burnished tin tile had been (badly) painted over, and the walls had been given a coating of drywall, probably at the same time the new shelving units were bolted in. By this time, my image of the friendly old locksmith was clouding over. I pictured him in a scene out of a John Mellencamp song, signing over his beloved shop to The Man, because without Ponzi’s help (he’d passed away earlier that year), the locksmith would never be able to stay afloat. Ugh. I found the key counter, but it was unmanned. The plastic sign said, “Counter closed. See front counter for assistance.” I figured the Slipknot debate had probably moved on to the topic of Wes Borland’s cool black contact lenses, and instead banked on finding someone roving the aisles, perhaps even my elusive old-timey locksmith.

After a minute, I discovered an older man gingerly placing florescent tubes on a shelf towards the rear of the store. From the down the aisle, he could have passed for my locksmith hero, with his white hair, glasses, and blue hardware vest, with its pockets chock full o’ pens, nails, and various bric-a-brac. I smiled and continued toward him. As I began a hearty greeting, he emitted a great “FUCK! Shit Damn!” He had dropped one of the florescents, and there was glass and white dust all over the floor. He didn’t realize it, but with that shattered lighting tube had gone the last visage of the patient, friendly locksmith I had been hoping for. That locksmith’s image in my head had gone from idyllic, to worried, to its presently degenerated state, which had the locksmith being shackled in his own locks by a band of thieves in the back room. Watch out for the broomstick. Despite all of this, I did still need a duplicate key, so I took my chances with the light dropper.

“Excuse me, sir?”

His head snapped up – I think I heard his neck crack. “What do you need?” He went back to sweeping the light fragments into a pile after a one-second appraisal of me.

“I need this key duplicated.”

“Ah, one of the girls at the front can help you.” Irritated.

I took my chances. “Actually, the girl up there has a line, and I’m sort of in a-”

“All right hold on a second. I’ll be right there.” More irritated.

So after a few minutes, in which I had figured out how to use the key machine by looking at it, he showed up, stepped behind the counter, and asked in an oddly cordial tone what he could help me with. Which was an interesting question, given that I had already told him, and the fact that we were standing at a key duplication counter. But I gave him the key, and he ran it through the machine. In a minute, my new key and I were heading up front to pay, after a gruff thank you from my man. I figured he probably had to get back to pistol-whipping the real locksmith in the back.

Next time I get a key made, I won’t be so naïve. And I’ll bring a camera to get those Beaver Hunt shots.


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