When I was little, people were sometimes given the Key to the City. It was a reward, either for doing something heroic or for winning a lot of football games. At least that’s what I remember. It’s possible that I’m recalling a scene from a cartoon I saw on television, or one of those ridiculous situation comedies that I breathed in like oxygen, and wouldn’t have missed for any reason that didn’t involve death or pizza.
The key itself was about three feet long, and I would try to imagine what kinds of places these were that had such huge doors. And I would wonder where you would put a key that big when you weren’t using it. There would be almost no danger of losing an object so gaudy and enormous, but at the same time you’d have to keep it hidden from burglars and other troublemakers.
I would dream about getting my hands on the key and unlocking the gates at Yankee Stadium, so I could stroll into the clubhouse and offer the players a few helpful tips. Money was scarce, so I’d also use it to enter bank vaults, which would allow me to mail away for all the incredible merchandise that was available back then, like secret spy cameras, X-ray glasses, and two-headed nickels. But mostly, I’d fantasize about being able to open candy stores in the middle of the night, when I could browse at my leisure, and without the pressure of the owner asking me every five minutes, “So you gonna buy something, or what?”
For those of you who grew up outside the splendor of New York City in the 1960s, candy stores were the source and repository of all that was good in life. They sold comic books, newspapers, and baseball cards. There was an entire wall of toys, as well as ice cream and cold soda. Racks were filled with every kind of candy and gum, all so cheap that I still berate myself for not stocking up.
There were a half dozen candy stores within four-blocks of my house. Walking into one of these establishments on a bright summer day, I’d crash into the cool darkness, then float through a haze of cigar smoke that mingled with the ink from fresh magazines. The stores were narrow and deep, and my strategy was to move down one side and back up the other, working my way around the counter where men in undershirts sat, drinking beer or coffee and arguing with each other about last night’s game. My earliest career goal was to be employed in such a store, and to be the first one in the neighborhood to read the latest editions of Superman, Archie, and The Flash. True, you had to be sixteen to get a real job, but with unlimited access, there would be no need to wait.
Charles Lindbergh received the key to New York in 1927 for flying by himself across the Atlantic Ocean. More than eight decades later, Chesley Sullenberger got the award for landing an Airbus A320 onto the surface of the Hudson River after the plane had slammed into some geese and lost all power. In October of that same year, the New York Yankees were honored for beating the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. I only hope they got their own key, and didn’t have to wrestle Sullenberger’s away from him.
The next step down from the key to the city was the skeleton key. Again, I never saw a real one, but they had them on television, and that was proof enough for me. A skeleton key could open every door in an entire building. So if you owned an apartment house, for example, and there was a known maniac living in 5-B who had locked himself inside his room after murdering everyone in 6-B for vacuuming the floors at three in the morning, and J. Edgar Hoover himself had requested your assistance, you could say, “Sir, we can get in there with this skeleton key!” Even as head of the FBI, Hoover would be stunned that you possessed such a device. And who knows? That alone could make you a hero, and they might give you the key to the city, which would be a nice reward, because when you own an apartment building you’re pretty busy helping tenants fix their sinks and asking them to please stop throwing firecrackers down the incinerator. There’s almost never time during the day to get to the candy store.
There were people who had keys to the church, the school, and the convent, but these were not as attractive, as those were places we were usually trying to get out of. At home, I was never entrusted with a house key, and even if I had been, I couldn’t get in anyway because you had to do some weird, jiggly thing with the doorknob, and it was too difficult for me. Car keys were just as complicated. The square one was for the door and the ignition, while the round one was for the trunk and the glove compartment. My father once sent me to get something that he’d left on the front seat and I stuck the round key into the lock and it got jammed. He learned his lesson after that.
My roller skates had a key, which would be used to loosen and tighten them so they could be made shorter or longer. These were true, one-size-fits-all skates, passed down in my family from generation to generation, going all the way back to the fourth century.
And finally, at the lowest end of the scale, there were the keys that came glued to the bottom of coffee cans. When you wanted to open a new can, you inserted the key into a slot, then wound it all the way around. This peeled away a thin band of metal, and you ended up with a lid that was now separated from the rest of the container. There was also a spiral of razor-sharp coiled aluminum, which my mother would pull off and throw away. Then she’d hand me the key. It was a worthless item that couldn’t be used to open anything else. But to me, it was an award — the Key to the Coffee Can. True, it wouldn’t get me into Yankee Stadium, the bank vault, or a candy store. But I didn’t have to qualify for it by flying over a body of water, or landing on one, either. And it was easy to hide.
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Candy stores are all but extinct, eventually evolving into present-day convenience stores. In the early 1980s, there was a missing link called variety stores, but I believe they’re gone, too.