The Turn of the Key
A profile piece about a family-owned Lock and Key shop, and the things we chose to keep separate, secret and safe from others.
Every day when people leave of their homes and go out into the world, they make sure they have one essential: keys. Our keys are tangible representations of the places where we spend our lives. They represent the barriers, both physical and psychological, that we place between what is ours and everything else that is not. Thieves, criminals, mother-in-laws, overbearing friends and ex-partners are all held back at the brink of our doorways by a tiny set of tumblers and springs. A bit of pressure with a wrench and a little fumbling around with a pick and all of these undesirables can parade into your life or trifle through the items that you wish to keep to yourself.
The Hills Brothers Lock Company is in the business of making sure such intruders are kept out. Rows of locks and keys are layered across the wall of the locksmiths’ shop like sedimentary rock. The oldest ones cover the top half of the wall: a pair of ancient handcuffs that look like they could have held the wrists of a criminal in the old west, skeleton keys that have rusted to a dark, dingy brown, and shelves upon shelves of locks in every shape and size are mounted on to planks of wood. The most recent additions dangle from their spaces on the bottom half of the wall. These are the keys that have not been cut for a lock. Each one is organized according to the manufacturer. On the floor, more than one hundred thousand keys are immortalized in beautiful detail. Different color-toned keys form pictures and patterns as a sort of key mosaic. An octopus of bronze keys wiggles its tentacles over the gold initials “HB.” A dark brown skeleton key is made up of hundreds of smaller dark brown keys. Every square inch of the shop contains at least one key. Even the bathroom (For Customers Only) is papered with pages of old patents for locks and keys torn from a book.
A man in a faded blue work shirt with the name, Jason embroidered across his pocket in white cursive stitching approaches the wall and chooses three of the blank keys. The elderly woman on the other side of the counter hands Jason a house key. “I have to send the copies to another city,” she tells him. Jason takes the key and pivots to face the workbench behind him. He looks at the four key-cutting machines, stops in front of one and flips down the sunglasses that were resting on top of his head. The machine whirs as he cuts tiny notches into the bodies of the keys. “That’ll be two dollars per key.” She pays for her key copies and marches out of the door.
In the morning, you can hear Jason arrive at the locksmiths’ shop before you see can see him. The exhaust on his huge truck rumbles the announcement of his arrival minutes before he walks in like a butler announcing the entrance of a guest at a ball. The tattoos on his upper arms are partially hidden by the sleeves of his shirt. His hands are signs of the work that he does - calluses and dirt cover his palms and his nails are clipped into short semi circles, all the better to fix things with. His desk is always covered with tools or keys or bits of metal that belong to larger parts of whatever he is currently fixing. Sunglasses sit on top of his shaved head, even on days when the sun refuses to make a cameo and even when he is indoors. He flips them over his eyes when he cuts keys instead of using the clear goggles. It's cooler this way. On his desk, under the tools and the dirt that cover it are several pictures. One is of a newborn baby, surrounded by smiling family members. Another is a close-up of the same baby now a few months old baring a wide, toothless grin. There is one more of her, now with hair, wearing a light pink dress and matching bow. “She looks just like you,” I tell Jason. “Really?” He asks, smiling. He points me to the bulletin board above his desk, her most recent pictures he explains. His daughter just celebrated her 2nd birthday. I imagine a light pink car seat bouncing around in the back of his huge, loud truck. Somehow, it fits.
Anthony Hill, the nephew of the shop’s founder, is sitting on a stool in front of a wooden workbench. His slight frame is hunched over so close to his work that the lid of his trucker hat almost touches hands. A blue work shirt, similar to the one that Jason is wearing, peeks out from the baggy, black zip-up sweater that is slung over his body, never mind the heat. On the counter in front of him is a “high security” Mercedes ignition lock from the auto shop across the street. Locks, in all of their intricate inner and outer designs are like art. And you can't rush art. Anthony places a blank key into the lock and twists; right left, left right. He removes the key and holds it up to his face to inspect it. Almost invisible indentations have been made on the key from where the springs inside of the lock have denied the key entry. This is expected. Anthony opens his desk drawer, takes out a thin, metal file and begins to slide the file back and forth on the places where the indentations were made on the key. He stops, reinserts the key in to the lock and twists. The gratifying click of the right key turning in its lock is still absent. Unfazed, he removes the key and repeats the process: right left, left right, remove, file. Anthony sits on his stool absorbed in his bubble of work while the shop buzzes with life all around him. Finally, “Ohhhh!” still rooted to his workbench, he looks up, wide-eyed and grinning. “Click, click, click.” The key turns in its lock. “You just saved me days of drilling.” Says Jason. The high security Mercedes ignition lock will go back to the auto shop the following day now that it has a key that works for it.
On slow days, when the shop only has an occasional customer, the topics of Anthony and Jason’s conversations turn from locks and keys to their lives in general. Anthony’s twenty-sixth birthday is coming up. He’s nonchalant about it.
“Doing anything?” I ask.
“Probably not,” he shrugs matter-of-factly.
“Most people don't remember my birthday.”
“I remember your birthday.” Jason pipes in.
“You’re like my brother, you’d better remember it.”
On display near the entrance of the shop are two life-sized signs advertise the latest in lock technology, “Medeco knows how thieves break in and how to stop them,” one sign boasts. “Those signs are dumb,” complains Jason, walking out from the back of the shop. Before Anthony can reply, the motion sensor guarding the threshold of the shop sounds, “Ding Dong!” A real estate agent walks in with a case of individual house locks. The property that he manages changed residents and he needs to change the locks and keys for all of the doors. Jason takes the locks in his hands and unscrews each one of them. He turns to the key cutting machine again. In minutes, the access to the house can only be granted by the two new keys that he hands over to the real estate agent.
"To see a key in your dream symbolizes opportunities, access, control, secrets, freedom, knowledge or responsibilities."
- From Dream Moods, A Dream Dictionary
Since ancient Egyptian times the construction of the lock and key has had little change in its mechanism. It’s simple, turn the key one way and your jewels or hard-earned cash or secret letters are kept safely inside. Turn the key the other way and your valuables are at the mercy of the key holder. This tiny, mechanical trinket is a symbol of our universal impulse to safeguard our treasures from robbers or criminals and more commonly, each other. Whoever holds the key holds some form of power because they have access to the very things that we wish to keep separate, secret or safe from the rest of the world. There are those who have access to these things because they are allowed access. Then, there are others who can find their way in by force, stealth, or manipulation. Jason and Anthony are in the latter category. Fixing broken locks, cracking into safes that won’t open and making copies of car keys and house keys are a part of their daily lives. Metaphorically, they are the master keys to all locks. Locks are like puzzles to them; find the trick or pattern within and everything else will follow. In one sense they defend our safety and security. They make sure our locks function correctly to keep our valuables inside. But the very knowledge of how to keep us safe gives them and everyone else who handles our security the key to some of the most private and secure parts of our lives.
"Keys represent the forces which open and close, bind and release, and mark the arrival at a new phase or status in life… The ancient Egyptian 'ankh' - a key-shaped cross - symbolized transition from this life to the next.”
Everything about locks and keys fascinated George Hill since he was boy: the individuality, the intricate mechanism contained in a single lock, and most of all taking everything apart and putting it back together again. Every lock seemed to have only one key to work for it, only one opportunity for success and one unique design among the endless possibilities of combinations. His fascination changed into an obsession when he was 10 years old. George bought his first set of eight locks while shopping at a flea market. His father made a wager with him: 25 cents per lock that he wasn’t able to pick open. That day he spent hours manipulating the springs and pins inside until each one opened for him. He ended the day two dollars richer and hooked for life. From then on he began to collect locks and keys from around the world. He wrote letters to cities across the country asking for keys to their city and to his surprise they almost always consented. On the weekends he would sift through rummage sales and shop at antique shops to add to his ever-growing collection. When he was thirteen, his hobby led him to a retired locksmith near his home. Every week, for the next two years he rode his bike to the locksmith’s house to learn the trade that he would dedicate his life to. To no one’s surprise, George opened the Hills Brothers Lock Company when he was twenty with his brother, Mike and his sister Julie. His siblings were less interested in locks and keys and more concerned with owning a business when they started out. But their respect for the industry grew the longer they spent in the shop and they each added an element that distinguished it from any other lock shop. Julie, the creative one, transformed the store into what looked like a museum of locks. The buckets of discarded keys sitting in the back of the shop to be recycled became the surface of the floor as a sort of key mosaic. Using cement and the old keys, she and George covered the floor with different colored keys arranged to make patterns and pictures. She even added an humorous approach to their website with a few choice “Key Words.”
“Just for Openers: Keys jingle and bells jingle, but keys are not bells. And although the word does have a certain ring to it, it should in no way be confused with a key ring which, as everyone knows, is almost exactly like a keychain, at no time would they be considered a chain gang. Ignition keys found on key chains are used by people to get up and go, while keys to the city are given to people on the go. There are skate keys, keys to ideas, and the key of C, which, as everyone knows, bears no resemblance to the letter "C". If a key were a letter, it could be a typewriter key, which is not to say that one typewriter key can compose a letter… It is said that keys unlock hearts, but everyone knows that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
"Security through Obscurity"
– A pejorative term in the security industry
Although you would like to think that your key is one of a kind and that you alone can open your lock, this is not the case. Once upon a time, locks were handmade by individual blacksmiths. Standard models of locks did not exist so the blacksmith designed each part and function on his own, depending on what the lock was to be used for. Picking such a lock was nearly impossible because the inside parts of were created an individual blacksmith. Today, locks and keys are mass-produced and standardized, making them easier to pick. Once you know how they work, you have a good idea of how they can be broken into. Most locks fall into two categories: Pin-and-Tumbler and wafer, every key brand has specific characteristics that make their keys proprietary. Pin-and-Tumbler locks are typically used for doors. More than likely, the mechanism that locks your door every night is a Pin-and-Tumbler lock and its construction is fairly simple. Inside the lock there is a rotatable metal cylinder. When the cylinder turns, it allows the doorknob to turn and unlocks the door. When the door is locked, the cylinder is prevented from turning by two stacks pins of different lengths. The different lengths of the pins correspond with the length of the notches on the correct key. When the right key is inserted into the lock, the bottom pins are pushed up so that they are even with the top set of pins. Without the pins to obstruct the path of the cylinder, it rotates and unlocks the door. Anthony opens a long, off-white, metal box. Inside are tiny pins, color-coded by size, each inside of their individual compartments like a box of assorted jelly beans. The pins are arranged by increments of 1/5,000th of an inch from shortest to longest. This gives you hundreds of possibilities to find the correct combination to cut the key if you rely on chance. It is nearly impossible to find the correct combination to make a key to fit the lock by chance which is why people like Anthony and Jason do not rely on chance to open doors for them.
"It is worth pointing out that lock picking is just one way to bypass a lock, though it does cause less damage than brute force technique in fact, it may be easier to bypass the bolt mechanism than to bypass a lock…remember: there is always another way, usually a better one"
– From the MIT Guide to Lock Picking by “Ted the Tool”
Anthony opens a drawer and removes an ordinary-looking key. It is small, silver, and unremarkable. “This,” he explains, “is a bump key. It is cut to the deepest possible length all the way across.” He reaches over his workbench for a display of a standard Pin-and-Tumbler lock, one you would find on the door of any house in Orange County. “So what happens is the jump key goes inside the lock. When you apply pressure to the key, it compresses all of the pins inside of the lock so the cylinder is able to turn.” He grabs a hammer and hits the side of the key. The handle turns open. Bumping locks is a hot topic of discussion in the locksmith community. In 2005, The Open Organization of Lock-pickers, an international group that picks locks for sport, published detailed instructions about the procedure. Although the publication raised security concerns among authorities, no action has been taken to make these instruments illegal or to make Pin-and-Tumbler locks invulnerable to bumping. Locksmiths and robbers alike choose this method over picking locks because it is faster and easier.
The more conventional way to pick a lock (not that breaking and entering is concerned with convention) is with a tension wrench, shaped like a long hook and a pick. Sometimes it takes a rough hand and other times it takes a gentle touch, it all depends on the lock. Anthony fiddles around with the pick and the tension wrench in the lock, cocking his head one way as if he were feeling or listening for some indication that he was doing the right thing, a few seconds later the lock turns once again.
You’d be surprised by what people have locks for,” says George. “People lock up everything they think has worth.” Locks to kegs to keep their beverages safe, blanket locks, bike locks, locks for duffel bags, locks to diaries- all of these items hold little value to others but they are kept under lock and key because their worth lies in what they mean to their owner. We need to feel that these things are secure for our own peace of mind even if that security is tenuous at best. Locks and keys are not foolproof. Lock picks and jump keys and even Youtube tutorials instruct the common person on how to break into the places that we deem sacred and unique to ourselves. Anyone can pick a lock as long as you have the patience to manipulate the pins until the cylinder bypasses them. After two minutes of Google searching, I came across a lock-picking-for-dummies sort of handbook complete with practice problems in the back. I scrolled down the pages on the screen of my laptop to the first page. “Chapter One” it read, “It’s Easy.”
"Locks and keys speak of the value of what is locked away, and imply 'restricted access'. Neither was heaven accessible without the prescribed 'keys to the kingdom', of which Christ made Peter the guardian."
–From “Tattoos and Symbols”
The key to Anthony’s office is located inside a drawer, hidden in plain site. Loose tumblers and pins, old keys, blank keys, tools and lock picks cover the entire surface of the drawer. He rummages around and picks out a single insignificant looking key, no markings or key chains are attached to it to signify its purpose. He holds it in his hand, “Wanna see my office?”
The office is a small building hidden behind the shop. Anthony inserts the key into the door and I can hear the tiny mechanisms turning and clicking inside of the lock. I imagine the notches of the key pushing the pins and springs down and the tumbler turning, every compartment in perfect harmony with one another.
The door opens. The office is not an office. It is a museum of keys forlornly displayed on shelves behind glass cases. Flecks of dust float, shimmering in the shafts of light that shine through the smudged window. It smells old in here, like a basement or attic that has been forgotten over the years. There are keys everywhere. Some are hanging behind tall glass display cases, others are stacked on shelves. The larger items are arranged on the floor. A display case on the wall the size of a picture frame exhibits an assortment of delicate, little padlocks. A time lock from an old bank vault lies on the ground, its clock frozen at 9:17. Skeleton keys that have been separated from their locks dangle from a large metal key ring. All of these items are extras that couldn't fit in the display in he shop or in the lock museum where George keeps his more important keys. Nevertheless, each key looks important, old and if it could talk it would likely tell very long and heartbreaking stories. Anthony meanders through the displays.
Every once in a while he stops to tell me one of their stories. He points to a large cross-section display of a Yale lock, Yale invented the pin and tumbler lock and the display was used to show how safe the new locks were and how they worked. Anthony points to an odd-looking brass frame on the wall, an original casting mold for skeleton keys and one of the last of its kind. “A rarity,” his father told him when Anthony was a little boy. Anthony stops at a jail door, painted blue, that divides the front of the room from the back. He passes through the door and stands in a tiny room that is occupied by a lone worktable. Tools are scattered haphazardly across its surface. Anthony picks up what appears to be a scrap of metal and sticks it inside the blue door. The days he spent making a key for the door was well worth his while. The metal scrap fits perfectly inside the lock.
The only item that is out of place in the room is a wooden carving smack dab in the center of the room – a large, wooden monument among hundreds of tiny, metal objects. Chinese characters and a battle scene are carved into its face. That, Anthony explains, is part of a set that his grandmother collected abroad when his grandfather moved around in the army. She bought each piece of foreign furniture and shipped them back to fill her permanent home that she would surely have after her husband’s time in the army expired. As if to fulfill her promise, she kept these pieces of furniture long after she returned home. A long wooden table held the weight of countless family dinners. Scuffs and nicks from clumsy accidents and mischievous children covered the furniture until they were no longer the glossy pieces of art that she originally purchased. When she passed away, her grandchildren took each piece and set them on the lawn to be sold at a garage sale. By chance or fate, Anthony stopped by the sale just in time to save the furniture. All of it. He restored each piece to its former glory. Each piece took three painstaking months to finish. He even used a tiny horsehair brush to sweep out every nook and cranny. “It's what’s mine.” He says matter-of-factly, and turns the key to the lock his office.