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Editor's Note, October 2010 

Sometimes events in our lives occur that brim with such manifestly potent personal symbolism that they take on an allegorical air in their immediate aftermath. Here’s one such incident that recently happened to me. Or perhaps I happened to it.

I dropped my keys. It happened right outside my office.
People drop their keys all the time. Unless you have them tethered to your belt loop on a chain like a heavy metal aficionado or on a tension wire like a building superintendent, it’s bound to happen. When you’re standing over a sewer grate, however, gravity’s course with everyday objects can be freighted with symbolic significance right quick.

My hands were full. I was trying to carry to the car in one trip what I probably should have done in two trips. I was also behind schedule, having worked late and trying to dash to the gym before meeting friends for dinner. So when I blithely reached into my pocket for my keys, perched above the sewer grate, arms full and thoughts already on what the fastest route crosstown was, I was not in an optimal state for error-free lock-and-key behavior.

Then a sudden lightness in my hand, a chink! on the grate, and the rustle of dry leaves three feet below grade shifting to accommodate a new presence.
First thought, best thought (and only thought): I need to get this grate off so I can liberate my keys. As the street had been paved with new tarry asphalt in the past week, the grate stuck fast in its casing.

I needed tools. Big, ugly tools that could bring physical strength to bear against implacable obstacles like metal, rock, and industrial adhesives. So I called Lee Anne, told her my predicament, and asked her to bring the requisite implements from the shed—sledgehammer, six-foot prybar, any kind of chisel that looked like it might break up masonry. Lee Anne didn’t question my tactics a whit (to her great credit and an ongoing testament to her patience). She just said she’d see me in 20 minutes.

(Yes, I was thinking that I would bang on the asphalt around the sewer grate with a 12-pound sledge until I broke up the street enough to lift off the grate and reach in and grab my keys, busting them out of prison like in a Cagney movie.)

Knowing we had no chisels to speak of at home, and with some time to kill, I called my friends Joe and Denise, who live a couple doors down from my office. They’re artists, so they have oddments of gear that civilians don’t own. A chisel might be just in their line.

When I got Denise on the phone and explained my unfortunate situation, she said she had no tools, but that she could give me a coat hanger. And she believed she also had a four-foot telescoping magnet somewhere in her apartment. Five minutes later, Denise hands me a coat hanger and a four-foot-long telescoping magnet. When questioned as to how she came to own such an item, Denise replied that she was fascinated by magnets, and that it was a gift.

Back at the sewer grate, I extended the telescoping magnet, plunged it into the leaves, and heard a resounding clink. I pulled back on the magnet and what did I find but my keys firmly affixed to the magnet. Case closed. I called Lee Anne. She turned around, went home, and put the tools back in the shed. I found Denise and Joe at the bar in Elephant. They were plotting the O Positive Festival (Green Living) with Dr. Tom Cingel. I bought them a drink and returned Denise’s magnet. And then I stepped out onto the street and resumed my regularly scheduled program.


Later that evening, I started telling what I thought was one story—the story of the telescoping magnet coming to the rescue, but which turned out to be another narrative entirely. In the dozen or so tellings of this story since then, whenever I get to the point in the narrative where I call Lee Anne for assistance, to a person—man and woman, young and old alike—the response has been: You asked her for a coat hanger, right?

Which brings up the tension between force and finesse. It turns out, I’m an outlier on how best to get one’s keys out of a sewer grate. Whereas it seemed axiomatic to me that the problem was the sewer grate itself—remove it and there is no issue—everyone else viewed the dilemma through a different lens. I’ll call it the path of least resistance. Which, in retrospect, makes a lot of sense. Understanding when to use force and when to use finesse is a failing of mine.

As our house astrologer Eric Francis Coppolino (Planet Waves) would remind me, it’s about listening to your life. Certain emotional loops play over and over again. You hear them, but you may not see the opportunity for change. In this case, I believe I got the point. To wit: I am now the proud owner of a four-foot-long telescoping magnet.

click to enlarge FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly

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  • Brian K. Mahoney discusses the tension between force and finesse.

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