BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
Standing frozen in front of my apartment building’s elevator, I stared dumbly at the door that had just closed in my face. This was bad. I thought. Oh, this was really not good.
Moments before, I’d been playfully twirling my keyring around my finger while I waited in anticipation of a night on the town. When the door slid open, I suddenly didn’t feel the keys in my hand anymore. In the space of two seconds, I watched as the keys flew off my finger, shot straight up, then came back down — only to clang near the narrow slot made by the open sliding door and slip down the elevator shaft.
Slowly emerging from my temporary paralysis, I tried to assure myself that people drop things all the time and that this was no big deal. But it kinda was. There was no possible way my keys would come flying back up to me and into my palm. For all I knew, they were still in freefall on their way to the bowels of the earth.
Determined not to let this defeat me, I rode the treacherous elevator to the penthouse where Charlie, the manager, lived, an older man with spindly legs who unfortunately always wore shorts. He would get me out of this fix, and I’d be on my way to dance the night away at The Big Catch, a nightclub down the street.
I’d just moved into the downtown St. Pete building from my parents’ house, where I’d lived my whole life, excepting a few semesters at USF in Tampa. Even then, living in a small place near campus had been a half-hearted attempt at moving out, as I made the 45-minute drive home several times a week to watch cable and eat my mom’s cooking. Now I was trying to make a real break from all that with my new place.
After pounding on Charlie’s door for several minutes, I wondered just where the hell this geezer was. I figured since he was a boy when Ty Cobb played in his first World Series, he probably couldn’t hear me. With my open hand, I whapped the door even louder.
Still nothing. My palm throbbed as my heart dipped into my gut. About a week removed from the suburban safety of the house where I grew up, and now here I stood, feeling helpless.
Maybe I was over-thinking it. True, this was a setback, but I was determined to stick to the game plan. I decided to go out to The Big Catch no matter what, employing my go-to philosophy that the problem would somehow take care of itself.
Throughout the night, I kept pushing the situation out of my mind as I danced and downed whiskey-sodas, but the last hour or so, I mostly stood on the periphery of the floor, leaning on the wall. I couldn’t help but reflect that my predicament still hadn’t miraculously resolved itself. I was still keyless with no way of getting back into my building.
“Are you as bored as you look?” said a voice to my right. I turned to see a small brunette with a Cleopatra bob. She had a plump blonde friend next to her, looking on shyly.
I told them I wasn’t really bored; I was just composing a sonnet in my head. They looked at one another and smiled. I grinned back. Two rounds of drinks and a few flirty dances later, we became aware that the last song had been played and house lights turned up.
I walked them outside, thinking I couldn’t have drawn it up any better: two pretty fish on a hook and an apartment only a short walk away. And even though the place was mostly bare (my mom had offered to take me couch shopping next week), I had two things I believed every bachelor pad should have: bottled spirits and an awesome collection of vinyl. But just as I was about to ask Madison (Cleopatra) and Jen (Rubenesque) if they’d like to join me there for more drinks, the thought that I had physically driven from my head had now zipped back in at breakneck speed: I was locked out. If dropping my keys down the shaft was Fate’s way of giving me a playful shove, then lining these girls up in front of me was its way of grabbing me squarely by the shoulders and unloading a knee right to the crotch.
They let me walk them to their car, then stood expectantly, smiling at me — it was apparent they weren’t ready for the night to end. I told them it was nice dancing with them, but I had to get up early, so I’d better go home and hit the hay. Just like that, I effectively clubbed to death any possibility of a mini bacchanalia at my digs.
The two girls communicated something to one another with their eyes. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to explain to a pair of total strangers what had really happened. And besides, I realized I had to face it at some point — what would be the good of putting it off? After a hug and awkward peck on the ear by Madison, they got in their car and left me to walk back to my building, alone.
During this walk, curse words flew from my mouth in machine-gun bursts. I plopped down on the bench in front of the building, feeling as frustrated as ever. I needed the keys to call the elevator to the foyer; I was completely shut out without them. But I wasn’t beaten yet. I figured I’d wait it out and hope for a tenant to come along and catch a ride with him. It’d be pretty slim pickings this late at night, I realized, but what else could I do but hope?
He came sidling up the deserted street about a half-hour later, a long-haired guy wearing a leather jacket with spikes and Foo Fighters hair. Perfect, I thought. This is the kind of guy who’d only be too glad to help out a fellow night owl, no questions asked.
When I saw him unlock the door to my building’s foyer and I casually followed him in. After he called the elevator, we nodded to one another and adopting my most nonchalant, can-you-believe-it tone, I outlined the jam I was in.
“So, I was wondering if you could lend me a steak knife or paper clip or something, then I could try to jimmy my way back in…”
I guess I didn’t realize how preposterous that request would sound out loud because he just shook his head and said in a cigarette-and-whiskey voice: “There’s no way, bro.”
He followed this pithiness up by telling me not to take this the wrong way, but he’d never seen me before in his life. And as for my polite request for him to lend me a tool with which to break into an apartment, which may or may not have been where I actually lived, well, he was going to pass.
I had to admit, his logic was unshakable, and I had no rebuttal. He didn’t protest, however, to letting me in the elevator with him. I guess I didn’t cut such a menacing figure with my skinny arms and Kenneth Cole wingtips, so he obviously felt he could take me if I proved to be dangerous in such a cramped space.
“Have you tried to get a hold of the landlord?” he asked, pointing to an index card taped high above the elevator control panel.
“Landlord?” I repeated lamely.
He raised an eyebrow. “How long have you lived here?”
“I don’t know, a maybe week?”
More eyebrow-raising. “And you don’t know about that number?” This guy sounded like my third-grade teacher admonishing me for forgetting my multiplication tables.
I really hadn’t noticed the brief note that explained Charlie and his wife would be out of town for the weekend and call the number scrawled below in case of emergency. Since, at the time, I had no cell phone (it was the late ’90s, and I was one of the last holdouts), I waited until Leather Jacket got off at his floor then read the number out loud several times. Then I briskly walked to the end of the hallway and down the stairwell as I kept running the number over in my head. I swung open the building’s back door, held it, and looked for something to prop it open with. On the other side of the sidewalk, I spied an empty glass bottle. I opened the heavy door as wide as I could, darted over to grab the bottle, and jumped back over in time to catch the door from slamming. I inserted the bottle between the jamb and the door, praying it wouldn’t pop out.
Next stop: the payphone a half-block away on Third Street. Thanks to the change from my drinks at the club, I had precisely four quarters on me. I plunked in two of them and dialed. After six or eight rings, a woman finally answered but apparently spoke no English. Of course, I would screw up the number, I thought, hanging up. I fed the slot my last two quarters, paused to visualize the number on the card, and dialed again, this time reversing the last two digits.
A man with a sleepy voice answered. I asked him if he was the landlord of my building on Central. He was, and by his voice, I judged he might’ve been older than even Charlie. Again, I explained my plight to him, and he explained that he didn’t live near the property.
“See, I’m kind of far-out here,” he said. Then added: “It is pretty late…”
What I heard, of course, is that he wasn’t exactly pumping his fist at the prospect of getting dressed, climbing into his car, and driving out at three in the morning to let in some dunderhead tenant who should’ve possessed enough kindergarten smarts not to toss his keys down a frigging elevator shaft.
The pause between us stretched out into a game of silent chicken. He finally broke and asked if I had a friend in the building I could stay with for the night. I admitted that I didn’t and started to feel more and more like the loser he justifiably thought I was.
Then a thought came to me naturally, and I just went with it. I told him it’d be all right; there was someone I could call who lives nearby. He was more than okay with that and informed me Charlie would be back tomorrow.
I hung up, sighed loudly, and called a number collect.
“Mom? Hi. I need you to do something for me…”
For the third time that night, I related the story of the fumbled keys and the locked apartment. I instructed my mom to bring a knife with her.
Since my parents lived about a half-hour away, all I could do was wait. And pace. Pace as only a grown man in his 20s can pace when he has to call his mommy to come rescue him in the middle of the night. A dull disappointment began to spread throughout my insides. It had nothing to do with the missed opportunity of getting with two fun-loving girls (well, maybe a little bit it did), but more and more, I felt like a high school senior who still wears water wings in the pool.
I thought about my previous attempt at moving out after graduating college. I’d wanted to get far away from my hometown, so I decided to try my hand at living in Manhattan, where my sister and her husband lived. It was January when I crammed my suitcase full of books and warmest clothes and flew out on a Monday. By Friday night, I was sitting in front of the TV at my parents’ house munching on homemade fried chicken.
Yes, coming from the constant sunshine to land smack in the middle of a frigid, depressing winter really messed with my psyche. But more so, I felt overwhelmed at the thought of not having any idea of what I really wanted to do up there, of having to share a space the size of a car trunk with a roommate, of having to pay $10.50 for a cup of black coffee, and if I’m being honest, of not having my mom and dad close by.
Even upon this return to Florida, I still craved to cut the cord in some way. An apartment only a car ride away from the familiar nest was a hedged bet, I realized. But now, I was wondering if I could truly ever bet on myself at all.
As I was wondering all this, my mom pulled up in her Nissan. Old flip-flops on her feet and paring knife in hand, she followed me around the side of the building, where we made our way up the staircase. At my door, I took the utensil from her, and she hunched over my shoulder, like a dutiful Greek mother, to observe. I jammed the point into the lock then twisted it around, trying to break through to my own personal freedom.
Stepping out of our house’s bathroom once as a teen, I’d accidentally shut the door behind me while the lock was set. I grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer, and after a few seconds of jiggling, I proudly swung the door open as my sister watched behind me open-mouthed, in genuine surprise and admiration. I figured since it worked the one time in my life I had tried it, naturally I could make magic again.
“Come on, you have to work,” I muttered now as I kept at it, poking the thing in and out of the lock for several useless minutes. Frustrated, I threw down the stupid paring knife and resorted to that time-honored trick that has never once worked for anyone who’s ever locked himself out: violently rattling the knob with both hands.
At last, I stepped back. Since my mom didn’t happen to bring a police battering ram with her, there was nothing left to do but call it.
As I rode back to the house with her, I sulked in the passenger seat, feeling like I was being driven home from an elementary school play in which I flubbed my only line. That night I slept in my old room, which looked exactly the same as I’d left it, down to the horse-themed curtains and blanket.
The next day I called the landlord again, his number was on a copy of the lease that I kept at my parents’ house, and he told me yes, he’d gotten ahold of Charlie, and yes, Charlie would meet in front of the building at exactly two in the afternoon when he got back into town. After my mom drove me out there at the appointed time and I quickly hopped out, telling her to go ahead back; I’d be fine now.
I loitered around there a full 20 minutes before the old man finally decided to make his way down, sporting a pair of bright green shorts pulled almost up to his chest and Coke bottle lenses. Without preliminary, he ran over our options: we could either see about getting me new copies of my building key, apartment key, and mailbox key, or we could try to retrieve the keys that I’d dropped.
What’s the hell is there to think about? Let’s just get the damn keys!
“Can’t we just get the keys,” I asked?
He told me we’d have to raise the elevator all the way off the base. Sounds fine, I said. I’ll wait here. He gave me a fishy look. He’d have to call a special technician for that, so I may as well go into my apartment to wait, he said.
I was already thinking that this was taking too long, but I rode up with him and watched as he selected a master key from his chain then let me back into my place. He told me to just sit tight and padded with his matchstick legs down the hall and disappeared into the elevator.
A couple hours later, I was in the middle of eating some leftover spinach lasagna my mom had made when I heard the knock. Opening the door, I saw Charlie standing there with a goateed guy in a navy blue jumpsuit.
“You ready?” Charlie practically barked. He had powerful vocal cords for an old guy.
I told him no time like the present, holding out my hand for my keys. He stared at my palm like it was a note written in Sanskrit. Though his bug eyes looked cartoony behind those ridiculous lenses, there was no mistaking the stratospheric level of disgust in them. I thought for a minute he was going to smack my outstretched hand away.
“You have to go down and fish them out!” he bellowed.
Charlie and Goatee Guy both turned and walked toward the stairwell down the hall, and I meekly followed. At the bottom, we pushed open the door that led to the building’s front narrow foyer, where I found a huge metallic cylinder behind the open elevator doors. They had raised the floor well above its base, and as I leaned over to peek down there, I noticed the foul-smelling black water at the very bottom.
Somewhere in there, my keys had come to rest.
I looked at Charlie, then back down the shaft, then back at Charlie. It was clear that this was an archaic sort of hydraulic elevator that was probably installed when talking pictures were just becoming popular. Furthermore, it was clear that the murky blackness beneath was just as old as the elevator.
Lastly, it was crystal clear that Charlie was wordlessly waiting for me to get on with it. Goatee Guy just stood scratching his armpit. I leaned over a third time. It was like looking down an empty dumpster after a heavy rainfall. The stink was comparable, anyway.
“Can you give me just a minute?” I said and practically dove back toward the stairwell before Charlie could open his mouth.
I hurried into my unlocked apartment like it was some kind of safe zone. I wanted to stall, but this time I knew I couldn’t ignore this problem until it went away. And since we had already put Option B into place and Charlie, who had the easy-going temperament of your average wolverine, had already gone to the trouble of calling in a professional who had suspended the building’s only elevator on my account, well I couldn’t beg off at this point. And besides, what was I going to do — call my mommy to come get me? This had to end somewhere.
I power-walked to my bedroom, where I ripped off my t-shirt, kicked off my loafers, and yanked off my slacks. I threw on a pair of gym shorts then crammed my feet into an old pair of combat boots to complete my look. I went clomping down the stairwell and emerged into the foyer, shirtless. Bent on my grim task, I grabbed hold of the gray ladder attached to the sidewall and lowered myself down rung by rung, all the way down.
When I splashed down into the black liquid, the fish-gut stench bashed me in the face. I covered my mouth with my hand, sputtering and coughing whenever I had to take a breath. In that cave-like darkness, the slimy water oozed down from over the tops of my boots and into the soles. I tried not to venture a glance upward, where I sensed Charlie and Goatee Guy were probably watching me with more than a little amusement.
Some natural light came in through the foyer’s glass street door, and I imagined all the oblivious people walking around just outside the building at street level, enjoying a sunshiny day which for them involved little or no spasmodic dry heaving.
Pinching my nose with one hand, I stabbed beneath the nauseating water at random with the other, praying I’d get lucky. As there was no seeing through that filth, I had to slosh around blindly until I hit pay dirt. I kept stabbing this way and that, all around me, and came up empty every time. Then I decided to approach it methodically and feel around in one corner, then another, then along one wall, then the another, but no dice. I thought I heard chuckling from up above my confined cubicle.
Then, after drawing a few deep breaths to deaden the effect of the eyeball-burning odor, I went for it. I crammed both hands into the mire and waved them in all directions groping frantically for something, anything. It was like rooting around in a swamp, and who knew what other little creatures could have been in there with me?
Since I was forced to crouch so low, a fear swelled up that the three of us were about to witness my lasagna making a jet-propelled exit. What’s more, claustrophobia decided to join the party, and I swear I felt the walls closing in like the garbage compactor from Star Wars — I pictured being crushed to death while searching for my lousy keys.
My uncoordinated swipes were becoming more desperate when suddenly my finger brushed against something metallic. A shock of hope jolted through me! Of course, when I tried the same spot again, I felt nothing, but now I was insanely determined, so I doubled down and shoved my arms in up to the biceps. After more panicky swipes, I brushed it again — it had moved almost behind my heel — and again, I shoved my open hand all the way down and this time felt the familiar key chain trapped under my palm.
In one motion, my fingers clamped together, and I yanked it out of the blackness triumphantly — I was a prehistoric hunter who had just speared a fish with a sharpened stick! I wanted to smear mud on my bare chest and scream out a primal yawp that would echo around my tiny chamber and burst forth up to the sky! I raised my key chain up over my head for the world to witness.
Charlie only stared down, tight-lipped and goggle-eyed, waiting for me to get the hell out of his elevator shaft.
In a burst of energy, I bolted up the five flights of stairs, taking them three at a time. Panting and grinning just outside my apartment door, I removed my contaminated boots and scooped them up with one hand. Once inside, I saw that I’d left the lasagna out.
After showering and dressing, I went right out to buy myself a cookbook — and a couch.