#421: Keys That Work

January 5th, 2015

When you walk in, you look for the parakeets.

You look around and around and around, not realizing until the door slowly shuts and the chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp falls silent that it was a recording, an avian version of little bells that jingle when someone walks in.

Then you stand in a room filled with keys and the ticking of a loud clock.

“We Make Keys That Work” the adverts painted on the outside of the shop brag. The old house on Ashland has been slathered with similar boasts and bargains. Big red stripes with arrows pointing toward the door, the name of the place nailed over the storefront window in Wild West letters.

It’s designed to catch the eye among the nearby chain stores’ homogenous, inoffensive light pastels.

It works.

Inside the store with the ticking clock, there are keys. Walls lined with keys. Glass containers with locks for bikes, houses, doors. There’s a mixture of placards on the wall — some religious, some jokey in a “You don’t have to be crazy to work here” vein.

An Uncle Sam carved out of wood. A model ship on the far wall. A Virgin Mary holding out her arms to passersby in that storefront window.

And keys.

Soon, from a door that seemed no larger than the man himself, a tiny old man shuffles out.

He’s white with white hair that’s shorter on the sides and twisted in back into a curly rattail braid. Blue jeans and a workman’s shirt. White New Balance shoes.

“I need a couple keys copied,” I lied.

I didn’t need keys copied. I needed this story.

“OK,” he said as I started to twist my parents’ house keys off the chain.

He told me I could leave them. I handed him the set.

He was a friendly guy, asked me about my New Years. He didn’t return the chit-chat in kind. I asked about his and he said, “It was good.” I asked if he had been there long and he said, “Feels like it.”

The man’s Yelp reviews alternately love him or trash him. Five stars, one star, five stars, one star. According to Yelp, he’s either an old-school professional or the biggest prick on Ashland Avenue.

I liked him a lot.

The old man shuffled to the back wall of keys, where he put on a pair of safety glasses and then pressed play on a CD player. Classical music filled the room.

Classical music and the ticking of the clock filled the room.

Classical music and the ticking of the clock and the shriek of machinery filled the room.

The old man whistled what sounded like Edvard Grieg. The CD sounded like Beethoven.

He handed me my keys and said, “Here you go.” He counted four dollars in change from my ten.

Then, to the chirping of parakeets, the old man and I shuffled out of each other’s lives.

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You are currently reading #421: Keys That Work by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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