Colder weather heats up business for locksmiths

It is getting to be the peak of the lockout season. That is the time of year when folks lock their keys in their car with the engine running, or they lock themselves out of the house. Or sometimes they lock themselves out of both.

Veteran locksmiths tell me that when the weather first turns cold, people put on heavy coats and don't feel the keys in their pockets as they do when the weather is warmer and their clothing is lighter.


On frosty mornings some drivers like to let the car idle a while, to warm it up before taking off. This is not recommended behavior, but it occurs.

So some half-asleep soul in his pajamas puts on a coat, scoots out the back door and fires up the car. He slams the car door, locking it and heads back toward the house for a cup of coffee. He then realizes that the back door is locked, that there are no keys in his coat pocket and no one is home. So he ends up calling a locksmith from his neighbor's house, clad in his pajamas.


That is how it happens, said Bob Easter, owner of Easter's Key & Lock Service in Baltimore County, who, along with his crew of workers, has over the years rescued many customers.

Then there is the Fido folly. This also occurs in cool weather, or at least when the car windows are closed. A driver with his dog in the car pulls into a gas station. Leaving the keys in the ignition, the driver gets out, shuts the car door and begins pumping gas. His dog, a curious creature, wants to see what his master is doing. So the dog jumps up, presses his nose against the inside of the car window, and in the process hits a button automatically sealing all the doors.

"That is a mess," said Easter of the gas-station lockdowns. "The car can't move and traffic backs up at the pump."

Improvements in technology have made lockout rescues more difficult, said Mike Schulz, a locksmith at Roberts Key Service in Baltimore with 30 years' experience. The simple version of the Slim Jim was once a locksmith's favorite auto-opening tool. He could slide it down between the window glass and door frame and in a matter of seconds, the tool would trip a lever and pop open the locks.

No more, said Schulz. Nowadays car doors are designed to prevent such easy popping. Moreover, he said, each automobile manufacturer has a special locking mechanism. This means, he said, that a locksmith often has to know the year, make and model of a car before he selects the tool that will unlock it. The modern version of the Slim Jim, for example, now has 14 components and costs more than $200.

A locksmith working on a car door now has to be wary of accidentally inflating an airbag, which can make a tool an airborne weapon, Schulz said. Even the old fallback technique of hiding a backup key somewhere on the car has changed, Easter said. It used to be that the hidden boxes were made of metal and were secured to the car's body with a magnet. The trouble was that those metal key boxes sometimes would rust shut, Easter said.

Nowadays, when there is not a whole lot of metal in a car body, the newer key boxes are made of plastic and use adhesive to stick to the car, he said. The trouble with them is that sometimes they fall off the car and they aren't there when you need them.

The locksmiths wanted to know what prompted me to call them. So I had to tell them my lockout story.


On a recent weekend, I first locked myself out of a vegetable garden. Then I locked myself inside it. It happened at the community garden in Druid Hill Park where I rent a plot. Like most community gardens, this one is encircled with a tall chain-length fence. The garden gate is secured with a length of chain and a padlock. Gardeners who rent plots have keys.

But on a recent chilly Sunday morning, I rode my bike to the garden, and when I patted the pocket of my jacket, I realized I had forgotten my key. Because the growing season is pretty much over, no one was in the garden. I considered hopping back on my bike and making the 2-mile trip back to the house to fetch the key. I was too lazy to do that. I thought about scaling the fence. But its heights, about 10 to 12 feet, and the nasty spikes on its top, deterred me. Then I examined the space between the edge of the padlocked gate and the fence. It was about 2 feet wide. Could this round gardener fit through that squarish space? I thought I could.

I got down on the ground, turned myself sideways and gave it a try.

I was halfway through when I wondered, what would happen if I got stuck? There was not a soul in sight. Like Peter Rabbit, I could be caught in the garden.

I did squeeze through. I felt exceptionally proud of myself for about 30 minutes. Then it was time to leave. I had been empty-handed when I forced my body through the opening in the fence, but now I was carrying two bags of garden produce and was wider than before. Once again I looked at the fence. Once again it looked too tall. Chances seemed good that I would spend a long afternoon in the garden, in a remote part of Druid Hill Park, keeping the bugs and the birds company.

I sucked in my gut and decided to give the hole in the gate another try. Then a car came around the corner. Out of the car stepped Lydia Duff, a fellow gardener. She had a key. I almost kissed her.