catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 2 :: 2006.01.27 — 2006.02.09


Locks and keys

I grew up in a tiny little town that never makes it onto those infuriating fold-out state maps crammed in the door pocket of my car. I don?t remember ever locking our house as a kid?maybe we did, but I sure never thought about it. For college I moved to a bigger city, and the deer-in-the-headlights students were each issued a key for their dorm room doors. Then I moved to a really, really big city for graduate school, where keys were more than normal?they were a status symbol. When my husband and I were apartment hunting, I remember a hunched old man with Einstein hair struggling to find which keys opened the building door, then the stairway door, then the two locks on the apartment door. When he lost the fight with the apartment door, we trooped back outside, around the corner of the building, down the alley, and to the alley gate. He found a key to fit the alley door, then up the stairs we went to the apartment?s back door. After a long wait of jingling and awkward glances, we were finally in. We loved it instantly and took it.

So, we were each issued all the keys we?d seen the old man successfully use plus a key to our mailbox and a key to the basement where the laundry room lived; we had to buy our own padlock and key for our assigned storage area. He also gave us the combination to the padlock that would let us out of the other courtyard door to the alley and gave us door buzzer guidelines; when you weren?t expecting anyone, it was stupid to buzz anyone into the building if they hadn?t yelled upstairs to identify themselves (and you should actually check out the window for the UPS truck or whatever was supposedly sitting double-parked outside). Of course, besides our apartment keys, we also had our car?s ignition and trunk keys and a key to the Lo-jack steering wheel lock (standard equipment in the city). Work keys were on another ring?keys to the building, to the department, to the office, to the lab room, to the copy room. And, because parking was such a pain, we both had bikes and needed locks for those, too. People would compare their key rings and shake their heads at the necessity for such locked lives?with crime rates the way they were, you couldn?t trust anyone.

We gave up all those keys nine years ago and moved to our current residence in a small Iowan college town. Moments after parking the U-Haul in our new driveway, a neighbor came over to introduce herself and offer a be-ribboned gallon of milk for our cereal in the morning. Stunned by her graciousness, we carried the milk into the empty house and left it as a symbol of wonder on our kitchen counter as we came through with boxes and plants and a dilapidated couch. We quickly learned that almost no one in town locked their houses?most of the older houses didn?t even come with keys because none of the windows or doors had locks on them. We were struck dumb by the dozens upon dozens of bikes thrown casually on the grass outside the college?s main classroom building, waiting faithfully for studious owners to return. There was no need to lock our car, or even to remove the key from the ignition. Indeed, in the winter, folks here just leave their unlocked cars running in the Wal-Mart parking lot to provide a heated sanctuary after errands are run. It was not uncommon for us to find a plate of cookies on our kitchen counter or a cool-whip container of home-made soup for us in the fridge. The UPS man puts packages inside the house when we?re gone so they don?t get wet in the rain?no need to sign on any dotted lines. College offices stay open all day, with computers and gradebooks in plain reach of passers-by.

Over time, more people have moved into this growing town from far away places, attracted as much by the growing window factory and high quality of education as the small-town atmosphere and safety. With all the new arrivals the town?s not so small now, and people don?t know or trust each other quite as much. There was a case of identity theft two towns over last year; one Sunday morning a few years back some houses got robbed while folks were all at church. More and more people are locking up now. Locks give them a sense of safety, a sense of caring for the things that God has given them. But locks also deter old-fashioned neighborliness: that sense of delight in sharing one?s plenty or in opening someone?s car door to turn off forgotten headlights. Some keys look different than they used to?cards to swipe, codes to enter, funny fob buttons to kiss against computerized watch batteries embedded in doorposts?but their effect on the heart is the same. Hands full of keys can only make it harder to open ourselves to the gifts of others.

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