In the Field: Keys Tell the Story

April 1, 2022
Not every job that happens during a locksmithing career is straight-forward.

Unless keys have been melted down into scrap brass, they’re always somewhere. During a 40-year career in locksmithing, they also have led me to some interesting situations and characters.

Once, a customer told me that a crow flew off with her keys. Lost car keys often have been found hanging in the passenger side door lock. (Maybe that’s why they stopped putting locks on that side.) An auto salesman called to have us make keys for a used car, and I found them hanging in the ignition. Did I charge him for a service call? Well, he already felt dumb, so yes. Here are a few other odd jobs that involve missing keys:

At Lake Tahoe, you often could see a boater’s keys clearly on the bottom through 20 feet of water. I got so many of those jobs that I had an actual policy: I don’t row.

Customers aren’t the only ones who lose keys. I lost the key to my mother’s condo, then found it two years later in a pair of dress pants that I would have sworn I never wore. I once lost a masterkey in a patch of lawn 20 feet wide between my van and an office building. A UPS driver helped me to find it, saving me from rekeying the building again. This one takes the cake, though: A customer told me that they finally found that lost motorcycle key, six months after I made them a new one. Where was it? At the bottom of a trash can that they emptied weekly, stuck there on a piece of gum!

A young woman called and told me that her grandmother had died and had left her a car that had no keys. The Toyota Camry was in the garage of a fairly expensive home, and the woman had two toddlers with her. It turns out that the woman stole the car from her parents, and I made her the keys. I found that out two weeks later when the local sheriff had me pick her out of a lineup. I couldn’t identify her though, because the six women they chose looked like sextuplets. The parents identified her well enough, it turns out.

Interesting Discoveries

I’ve found wild animals (snakes, hawks, rats, mice, bats, dogs and cats) in vacant houses, and I even had a female customer at a raucous party greet me at the front door without her top on. (“My wife is in the service vehicle, ma’am.”)

But this was one of the most memorable: It was a dark and stormy night back in the 1980s (around 1985), massive snow drifts and white-out blizzard conditions. I chained up my boxy ’75 Ford van and went out to the west shore of Lake Tahoe to open a cabin for a family who had spent a full day driving 200 miles from San Francisco. They held the flashlight while I picked the lock. When the lock picked, I reached in through the door, flicked on the lights and stuck my head inside. I was the first to see that a massive Ponderosa pine had crashed through the roof and lay in the living room with drifts of snow powdering the entire interior of the house. Before they entered, I remember saying, “I have some bad news for you folks. And, here’s my bill.”

During the Great Recession, when locksmiths made good money rekeying properties for banks and realtors, there were so many tenant evictions that I knew the county sheriffs by name. You know the scene: As the sheriff donned a flak jacket and took the safety off his pistol, he said, “Hey, Mike, go up there and pick the lock, then stand back while we enter the premises.” No pressure there.

I’d bring my pipe wrench to the front door in case I couldn’t pick the lock in a minute or two, not because I thought someone actually was inside the house, but because sheriffs hate to wait. They — like everyone else — believe that locksmiths should take one deep breath, and then, as Houdini did while chained under water, immediately pick the lock.

Repossessions ran the spectrum from spectacular mansions to hovels, and locksmiths saw the entire array of what one might call the human condition. We’ve had our chance to accumulate all sorts of things that were too heavy, cumbersome or just plain unneeded by previous tenants, after hearing that phrase, “It’ll all just get thrown into a dumpster.” Hence we have barbells, barbeques, lumber and rolls of tar paper. We have bird baths, lawn swings, hammocks and potted plants. We have world atlases, travel books and Disney videos.

If only the tenants had left behind the keys …

Michael C. Tritel, the owner of Lively Locks & Dead Bolts, can be emailed at [email protected]