How I dropped my keys into the sewer grate – and how I (almost) got them back

According to the automatically created related posts link on my previous post, I have lost my keys before. And now that I think of it, I think I’ve lost my keys three times in my life so far. That’s one time per decade, which is not a bad average (though I didn’t start using keys until I was into my second decade, but whatever).

I have also had key miracles, as I did using a skeleton key from Brooklyn to open a Copenhagen bathroom door that had been shut by the wind.

This story begins, as all my stories do, with a quest involving food. I am en route to a friend’s house for fastelavnsboller, the Danish version of semlor, pre-Lent. I’m making very good time on my bike when I think, hey, why don’t I stop to pick up some coffee beans for the week at REDACTED? All seems copacetic. I leave the cafe with my beans and walk towards my bike, where I see that another girl is locking her bike up to the bike rack.

GIRL: Am I in your way?

ME: No, it’s alright, I’ll just go around to the other side.

I walk around to the curb side of the bike rack and reach into my vest pocket to pull my keys out. (You see where this is going.) I feel metal against my fingers, but then the keys slip out of my grasp and — jingle! klang! plop! — they fall down the metal grate of a sewer drain. A douchebag who happens to observe the entire thing sings, “OHHHHHH!” in the falling tone of an anvil drop. The girl I had valiantly stepped around freezes in guilty horror. I start laughing. I mean, what the what?

I squat and peer down into the sewer grate. It’s the kind where there’s a 3-foot wide by 6-inch tall opening along the curb, but the hole in the ground is covered by a grate that is bolted down well with slots that are barely two inches wide — big enough for my keys to fall through but not big enough for my arm to fit. It’s probably five feet from the grate to the pool of mucky, standing water at the bottom. D-bag, probably feeling repentant for laughing at my misfortune, comes over.

DBAG: You could totally get down there.

ME: No, I couldn’t!

DBAG: Yeah you could.

He reaches into his pocket for a lighter, sparks it up and puts his hand into the grate.

DBAG: Yeah, you totally could. Good luck.

The bike girl asks if I want her to stay, but I tell her I’m fine. I still have my wallet and my phone, it’s a sunny day, and I still have half an hour before I’ll be late for Danish buns. I think, this is just a problem, and solving problems is what I do best! I can do this! I never felt so good, I never felt so strong, nothing can stop us now! I am going to straight up MacGyver this shit!

So I stride over to a hardware store just down the block. I have a plan.

ME: Do you have a swimming pool net?

HARDWARE STORE GUY: No.

ME: Do you have a scoop of any kind?

HSG: We have a shovel. Or a garden trowel.

ME: No, I need…

I look at a dust collector with a long handle. $20? Nah, I don’t think that’s gonna work. Another hardware store guy asks me what I need.

ME: I just dropped my keys in the sewer —

HSG #2: Ohhh.

ME: And I need something to scoop them out. Maybe just a stick and a bag or something? It has to fit into this small opening.

HSG #2: I got it! Here’s what you need.

He comes back with a metal arm that is three feet long with a little plunger at one end that releases a tiny claw. Great, I think, this is like that arcade game with the big claw you’re supposed to use to pick up stuffed animals but it NEVER WORKS. But it’s only $8. I figure, okay, why not? It’s not quite long enough, but maybe.

Flickr/sophistecate

Here’s the claw game, where the claw is about the size of an extra-large hand.

Hidden in the tip of this flexible metal rod, the claw of the tool I got is about the size of a few tulip pistils. And probably equally useful.

I also get a long wooden dowel for a buck. Maybe I can fish for the keyring and scoop it out. I return to the grate with a bit of hope and confidence. I flop down to the ground and lay on my stomach. First I slip the claw arm down the grate — too short, as I had suspected. It doesn’t even reach the surface of the muck. Next, I slip the 4-foot dowel in. Splish! Success! I poke around. What is that sludge down there?! I definitely feel solids in the goop, probably decaying leaves and trash and lord knows what else. Where is the telltale tintinnabulation of metal on metal? Will I be able to feel the difference when the wooden dowel hits the keys?

A handsome man walks by in a tan corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches.

HANDSOME: What are you doing?

ME: [Smiling] I dropped my keys.

HANDSOME: You know what you need? A fish net.

ME: Yes! That’s a good idea! I was thinking a swimming pool net but the hardware store didn’t have any.

HANDSOME: Do you need help?

He crouches down and then gets back up.

HANDSOME: Wait, better make sure nothing can fall out of my pockets.

Some friends of his call his name. I tell them about my predicament. They’re obviously off to brunch. The crew wishes me well. I think, hm, let’s find the nearest pet store.

Google maps points me just two blocks up (I love you, NYC.) As I walk towards the pet store, I call 311 to see if — miracle of miracles — they can do something for me.

311: 311.

ME: Hi, um, so, I…I dropped my keys in the sewer.

311: Oh, that’s terrible! What borough are you in?

ME: Brooklyn.

311: Okay, and you said you dropped your keys in the sewer? Was it a catch basin?

ME: What’s that? There’s a grate over it.

311: Yes, it’s on a street corner?

ME: Yeah.

311: Oh, I’m sorry! Okay, well let’s see…

The operator reads me some official business about needing ID to get a wallet if that’s what is being retrieved, then patches me through to the DEP who — quelle surprise — are not open on Saturdays. Usual response time is four hours, but given that this is not a workday, I can leave a message. So I do. And I’m still feeling good. I don’t need the DEP! I am my own DEP!

I make it to the pet store, where a pair of Middle Eastern men are manning the cash register, looking bored.

ME: Do you have a fish net?

[PET STORE GUY #1 points to net hanging on wall.]

ME: Do you have a bigger one?

PSG #1: Got a lot of fish, huh?

ME: No, I dropped my keys in the sewer grate.

PSG #1: Ohhhhh. Can you just open your window?

ME: What? No, I dropped my keys in the sewer.

PSG #1: Yeah, but you just jump to your window?

ME: No. I dropped my keys. In the sewer. And I need it to unlock my bike.

PSG #2: You know what you need? Magnets.

ME: THAT is a good idea! Well, if this doesn’t work, I’ll try that.

I buy two fish nets for about $10. We say goodbye and I walk briskly back to the hardware store again, this time to get a less bendy, thicker wooden dowel and a roll of duct tape for another $5. I GOT THIS! I CAN FEEL IT! SUCCESS IS WITHIN REACH!

I return to my corner of adversity. A Park Sloper who has been sitting nearby comes over.

PARK SLOPER: We’ve been trying to figure out what you lost.

ME: Oh, it’s my keys.

PS: We thought maybe you lost a ring or something.

ME: Nah, just my keys. But I think I can get them.

PS: Well, good luck.

I lay back down on my stomach. A girl crossing the street nearly gets hit by oncoming traffic because she’s so distracted by me. She’s 20 feet away and she yells.

STREET GIRL: WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

ME: I DROPPED MY KEYS. BUT I AM FEELING CONFIDENT. THE STARS ARE WITH ME.

STREET GIRL: YOU GOT IT, GIRL. I FEEL IT, TOO.

(You know, I really love how New Yorkers are up in other people’s business. I do. I’ve never been anywhere like it. Certainly Stockholm and London are nothing like this.)

I tape the fish net to the end of the dowel. It’s sturdy, there’s plenty of surface area on the net to catch with, and it’s PERFECT. I lay flat on my stomach again. My fishing net goes down into the opening and I start scooping. First scoop, nothing. I empty the net on the street. Ew. I start stirring the muck up some more. Nothing. A third time. A fourth time. OHMYGODWHATISTHATSMELL?! I gag.

That’s when I realize, hold up, I AM STIRRING UP SEWAGE. And that’s also when I realize that I’m not trying to get my keys, I am just scratching an OCD itch. It’s not like I need the keys — I have spares for every key on the keyring at home, and I have enough cash to take the bus home, where La Doug is there to open the door for me. I consider what I would do with the keys if they do come up from the muck. Would I wash them off and put them in my pocket? Would I get some bacterial infection from them?

There’s nothing my brain likes more than the triumphant glow of solving a problem. The flipside is that when I find a problem I can’t solve, I burrow, burrow, burrow at it like a blind mole. But this is like that time in fifth grade when I lost the Mathathon after getting stuck on problem #5 because I was having such a hard time solving it. Except this problem has GRAY-BROWN BILGE THAT SMELLS LIKE POO all over it.

So, I don’t get my keys. But, having tried my best*, I feel pretty confident that nobody else will get them, either.

EPILOGUE: The DEP actually called me back to make an appointment to get my keys! Of course, I don’t have time to get them during the week, but it made me very happy that they didn’t just dismiss my message. Yay 311! Go Bloomberg!

MORAL: Make copies of your keys. And don’t stand on the curb side of the bike rack.

*Okay, I didn’t try the magnets, but I’m not sure how well that would have worked. There was A LOT of solid matter in that catch basin.

6 comments

  1. Jed W

    G – what a story! Good thing you had backups to them all. Me, I had same experience many years ago. Trying to unlock my bike over a grate, my keys slipped out of my hand and fell through the subway grate 12 feet below near Carnegie Hall. Night-time, had to wait an hour or more but was lucky a MTA worker finally came, unlocked the grate and was able to get my keys for me. Lucky, lucky. I didn’t have backups and the bike would have been there forever. For 20 years now every tme I lock my bike up over a grate, I keep a death grip on my keys, lest history repeat itself!

    • Ganda

      I’m beginning to see the charm of the keychain with the retractable cord you put on your belt loop. Which means I’m turning into my sad bachelor calculus teacher.

      • Greg

        Did you eventually get the keys back? Tremendously wellwritten post and blog… looking forward to the archives… cheers!

  2. david hamilton

    Great(!) story well told! As a highly experienced key-loser (and thus, problem-solver), i was drawn into it and reminded by one random remark of this favorite anecdote (from an ancient Los Angeles Magazine article): As a man changes a flat tire in downtown Los Angeles, a pedestrian stops to offer advice. Q. how can you tell that the pedestrian is from New York? A. because Angelenos don’t walk around the city the way New Yorkers do, and New Yorkers will give you advice whether you asked for it or not.

  3. Fred

    Fantastic story…problem #1 is my bike key jumped out of my hand and threw itself down a subway grate. I’ve had MTA get something off the tracks before and I’ve heard they will open grates for people. Problem #2 it’s Sunday, and I work on Monday as a what? Bike messenger…kicking myself. I have been so worried about this happening during work I never lock my bike over grates…what was I thinking? Your blog post made me feel hopeful, actually my first thought was magnets….but maybe there is a spare key, it’s not my lock so there’s problem #3 Anyway, thank you your story is awesome. I think I’m going back to see where that grate leads to…

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