Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Mystery Of Keys

The long silver key with the star on the handle is for the ignition switch on our car, a red ’94 Subaru. Last year I had trouble turning it. I would put it in the ignition switch, and it would stick. Wouldn’t budge. Roberta was able to turn it with ease. It was maddening. We thought we might have to buy a new ignition switch. But the problem, fortunately, turned out to be the key itself. The teeth had worn down. We had some new keys made at the dealer, and the problem was solved. Our mechanic told us that this is frequently the case with keys, and men and women. Men tend to turn keys aggressively, whereas women bring a lighter touch to the maneuver. This is why men’s keys get stuck, and women’s keys glide to the start of the engine.

The bright metal key with the triangular handle is for the entry door to our apartment building. It, too, is a new key, the teeth on the original key having worn down. Even with the new key, the old problem remains. The key has to be twisted with just the right pressure or the tumblers won’t fall into place and open the door. I’ve grown so accustomed to this little glitch I hardly notice it anymore. It’s one of those minor irritations of which one almost grows fond. They register a certain odd familiarity, a curiously agreeable counterpart to the push and pull of one's day.

The darker key with the identical triangular handle is for the door to our apartment. It works smoothly.

The little copper key is for the mailbox. The tubular key is for our storage locker. The key with the broad handle and the initial 'W' on it is for the club that we attach to the steering wheel to prevent a prospective thief from stealing our car. I find this ritual annoying and cumbrously redundant. I can't imagine why any self-respecting car thief would want to steal a little red '94 Subaru. But Roberta insists. Wherever we stop, she always says "there's a lot of rogues around here," which is my cue to reach behind the front seat, feel around the floor for the heavy steel bar that is the club, and lock it to the steering wheel.

This leaves five small keys on my key chain. Five keys of which I haven’t the slightest idea what they’re for.

It would make sense to throw them away. But it feels wrong to throw a key away. I found another group of keys in the drawer of my desk that had been there for decades. I hung on to them for God knows what reason. I had long since forgotten what any of them were used for. I decided, at last, to toss them. It felt peculiar, a violation of some sort. For one thing, they’re metal. It is disconcerting to throw away anything made of metal. But a key always has an expectation written into it, the expectation that one day it will become apparent what that key is for. A coffer or steamer trunk that you had forgotten about suddenly manifests itself. You wonder what photographs, clothing, memorabilia, books, money, old family heirlooms might be in it. But you can’t open it. You’ve thrown the key out. The lock will have to be destroyed.

But this never happens. Has never happened. I never encounter closets or trunks or doors I have forgotten about. It’s possible that I forgot to turn in a set of keys after moving out of an apartment, or house. But unless I retrace my steps, or try to live my life backwards, it really doesn’t matter.

Each time I leave the house I check to make sure I have my keys. If I’m wearing pants, I tap my pocket in order to feel my keys; I am able, quite easily, to distinguish their shape from the bulge of change in pocket. And if I’m preparing to go for a run and have on a pair of running shorts, which do not have a pocket, I make sure that my keys are either in my hand, or in the pocket of my jacket, if I happen to be wearing a jacket.

I’ve only forgotten my keys once, when I was doing laundry, and living in a three-story building on Belmont Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. I was only wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and a lightweight Hawaiian shirt with a floral print in bright, festive colors. I was barefoot. The building manager was gone. And so was the assistant building manager. There was no indication as to when either would be returning. Fortunately, it was summer, so that going outside was not a big problem, though I didn’t feel comfortable walking barefoot on Capitol Hill’s sidewalks and streets. I had some friends living nearby, a married couple with a two-year old boy. They were kind enough to let me hang out at their place while, every hour or so, I called the manager of my building. When it began to get late, I thought about calling a locksmith. I found a number in the yellow pages and talked to a locksmith who said he would be willing to come out. I gave the manger’s number one more try and luckily he answered the phone in time for me to call the locksmith back and cancel the appointment.

Of course, if people didn’t steal, there would be no need of keys. No need to lock anything up. One might also imagine a world where the concept of ownership did not apply. If one had no sense of ownership, it would not be possible for anyone to steal something.

What is it to own something? Superficially, it’s simply a matter of convenience: this shirt, this tractor, this brush, this screwdriver, this doughnut, this chicken thigh, this salad, this shelter, this chess set will be available for my use whenever I need it. But ownership, on a deeper level, also involves a more personal sense, an attachment that feels intimate and unique. This applies to a shelter, such as a house or apartment, where the walls and rooms mirror one’s tastes and inclinations. So that if it is broken into, and something is taken, it is not necessarily the jewelry or money or painting that was stolen that feels so profoundly wicked, it is the sense of one’s sacred space being invaded, one’s sanctuary being defiled, profaned, penetrated that feels so polluting.

Keys are a symbol of privacy. The universe is cold, indifferent. Nature often hostile. Humankind often cruel and hostile. Everyone needs a place that feels separate and sacred. A place that needs to be locked. But not so locked that we become locked with it. Jailed by an overweening sense of ownership. Imprisoned by greed. We need to strike a balance. Cultivate a sense of belonging that does not entirely bar the universe from our door, but lets some light in, and the equally ardent need to share.

The relevant news to be gleaned from music is that some keys appear brighter than others because they employ the open notes of string instruments. If the open notes are not actually played, they vibrate in sympathy, and so contribute resonance, i.e. the creation by a vibrating body of vibrations in another body. This is the mystery of keys. One key provides the framework for sympathy, the other a sympathy for the framework.

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