Let Us Now Contemplate the Key

An Object Lesson in nine parts

1. Inventory
Let's make an inventory of all your keys. Not the keycards. Keys with teeth. Keys with mouths. First, the keys on your keyring: house, car, mailbox, office, office mailbox, friend's house for when you feed her cat. You remember which one corresponds to which door by color (brass or silver), by the size and shape of the bow, the part that you hold (brass square or trio of small windows). Sometimes, you mark the key to remember its purpose.

Next, gather up the other keys, those not currently in use. Keys in candy dishes, on bookshelves. Keys lolling in kitchen drawers next to can openers and rubber bands, tucked beneath chains in jewelry boxes. Keys in the toolbox in the garage. The gold key to an apartment from five years ago. In another state. A key that unlocked every dressing room in a Lazarus Department Store (gone for a decade). A miniature key that unlocked the diary you've since lost. A key that you played with as a child. Even now, you know the pleasure of the key as a thing, its small, certain presence in your hand.

In Steven Price's excellent book of poems on the life of Houdini, Anatomy of Keys, he mulls over the maddeningly unobtainable (and thus, intriguing) narratives of these keys: "[k]eys/ drowned in jars like small dark snails, consider/ the stubborn silences of these, what stories they could tell." These keys are divorced from purpose, belonging to places we no longer know. Somewhere, there might be a house or a room or a cupboard, waiting for you to bring it back to life. You might need whatever is inside.

2. Toys

Lunchbox Photography/Flickr/Rebecca J. Rosen

We are primed to love keys from an early age. Think of that classic baby toy, a ring of teether keys--a rainbow of smooth-edged plastic keys, safe to chew and shake, subbing in for the real keyrings that babies constantly reach for.

As a child, I wanted keys. The keys I wanted came from books and movies about children and magical places. In Alice in Wonderland, a golden key to unlock the talking door glimmers high atop a glass table, but she can't reach it because she shrank herself (that Drink Me/Eat Me conundrum). The NeverEnding Story showed me Bastian, a bullied bookworm, who skips school to read a gorgeous, magical book in the school attic (rebel!). The key to the attic is kept in a metal box with a broken glass panel on the wall -- coolly, quickly, Bastian steals the key with two fingers. Return to Oz had the keys I wanted most: the key Fairuza Balk's Dorothy plucks from the Kansas mud, as evidence that Oz exists and the ruby key worn around the wrist of the evil Princess Mombi, to open the cabinets that contain other women's heads for her to wear (I swear, this is the real plot).

These kids want to go somewhere they shouldn't. Wonderland. Fantasia. Oz. We love them for it, for their longing.

3. History


Since there have been humans and possessions that those humans valued, there have been locks and keys, or, at least since the first millennium BC, as Louis Zara says in his fascinating little book, Locks and Keys. A locked door says: Stay out, all ye who are keyless (and thus, potential intruders). There were iron keys, wooden keys, keys that were so big they required two people to maneuver them. Keys to sarcophagi, fortresses, and women's nether-regions (a.k.a. keuschheitsgürtel, ceinture de chaseté, chastity belt).

There is a pleasure in looking at old keys, in touching them, studying them. Gothic keys soared and twisted like the drop caps of illuminated manuscripts. Keys of the Renaissance held delicate, ornate bows. The most intricate were the clefs de chef-d'oeuvre -- the French masterpiece keys. These gorgeous creations had no accompanying locks, and served no purpose, other than laying there, sparkling in a box or on the owner's palm.

"The great craftsmen [of keys] of the past," Zara explains, "prior to the 18th century, leaned toward beauty rather than security."

4. Security


Watch me as I leave my apartment, and you will immediately know my strange attachment to keys. It's not enough to put the key in the lock and turn -- I need to check that the door is actually locked. A few times. Once I'm satisfied that my door is secure, I'll toss the keys, a heavy bunch of metal grapes, into my bag. I can hear their comforting jingling as I walk.

Let's say you need a key today, post-18th century. It's not an artist or a blacksmith you visit. You go to the hardware store. It smells of sawdust and metal. You walk past shelves of nails and screws, paint cans and buckets and snow shovels and mops, to the counter in back. You tell the old man behind the counter that you'd like to make a copy of a key. "You don't even have to take it off your ring," he says. "Wait right here."

A noise like a buzz saw from behind the counter. Right behind the counter, a wall full of blank keys, just bows and shanks, and undifferentiated bits. No teeth. A key needs teeth to speak a lock's language. All those blanks will eventually guard places, will invite new owners to come inside. The old man is back in two minutes. He hands you a piece of still-warm steel, a silver sliver. "Two dollars," he says. It surprises you, how little this costs. A beautiful key is beautiful, sure, but a plain key is also beautiful.

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