The Key to the Problem

Lately I’ve been asking myself what the point of a blog is if I never write in it. It’s just easier to post little updates in Facebook all the time than sit down and write something. Especially when life is pretty normal and there’s nothing much exciting to write about. But I’ve decided I need to get back to posting in here at least a little more often than I have been, and yesterday Floyd and I actually experienced a blogworthy event, so here goes.

Floyd and I took the bus to Taipei Tuesday evening so we could spend Wednesday at the International Flora Expo there. Everyone we know who’s gone has said how fun it is, and how worth it it is to see before it’s gone in a few more weeks. So we decided we’d go during our Easter break when local schools wouldn’t have time off so it wouldn’t be too crowded. We would go up to Taipei on Tuesday, spend the night with our friend Linda who teaches at Morrison’s Bethany campus, get to the Flora Expo right when it opened in the morning, spend most of the day there, and take the bus back to Taichung Wednesday night.

A good plan, in theory, even though four hours in a bus is a bit much for one day of flowery fun. The problem started when Linda emailed us back and said that yes, we were welcome to stay at her place, but no, she wouldn’t actually be home at the time. She was going to Thailand but would leave her keys with a neighbor across the street (also a teacher at Bethany) and we could make ourselves at home in her apartment in her absence.

That sounded okay to us, so we made the arrangements and showed up on Tuesday evening as planned. The neighbor met us outside her apartment and gave us an envelope with Linda’s keys, which we promised to return the following evening. We found our way to Linda’s apartment (where we’d stayed once before) and successfully let ourselves in. This may not sound like any big deal until you consider how complicated the locks on Taiwanese apartment doors can sometimes be. Like many local apartments, there was a metal security gate that had to be opened before we could open the front door, and each needed different keys which turned all the way around multiple times in different directions with loud clicking sound effects. But after a couple of tries we got them both open and then closed behind ourselves.

Well, the rest of the evening was uneventful, as we went almost straight to bed (it was pretty late by the time we got in). We got up early the next morning (well, early for being on vacation), planning to leave the house by 8:00 so we could take the subway and be in line for the Flora Expo in plenty of time before it opened at 9:00. We were running a little late, though, so it was about 8:15 before we were ready to leave the house. Only to discover that the house was apparently not ready for us to leave.

Floyd tried turning the knob that unlocks the front door (there’s no keyhole on the inside) this way and that, and we heard the familiar clicking sounds from within the mechanism, but the door didn’t actually unlock. There was a second little knob on the lock, so he tried that too, and then tried different combinations of turning one one way and the other the other way, but nothing helpful happened. I gave it a try as well, but it was as though the door didn’t even recognize that we were trying to unlock it. That is, the lock kept clicking, but the bolt wouldn’t turn all the way. And when we tried both knobs at once, it reminded me of that scene from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi when Han Solo is trying to hotwire the door of the bunker on Endor, and just as he thinks it’s about to open, a second security door crashes shut in front of the first. Instead of unlocking the first bolt, the second knob eventually turned another bolt, locking us in doubly securely.

I was proud of us both for not getting more stressed than we were, considering that we were in a hurry, no one else was home to help us, we didn’t know very many people in the city, and we don’t speak much Chinese. After 45 minutes of peering into what he could see of the lock mechanism with a flashlight and struggling with two butter knives to try to pry back the bolt, Floyd finally gave up. We decided against unscrewing the screws on the hinges and removing the door completely (we couldn’t find a screwdriver anyway) and instead called the neighbor to see if she could recommend a locksmith, preferably one who spoke some English. She said she’d call around and see if any of the mechanically-minded workers at the school were available (not necessarily likely since everyone was off on Easter break).

After she hung up, I had the idea that perhaps the door could be opened from the outside with the key. Of course there was no way to pass the key through the locked door to anyone, but maybe we could drop it off the balcony (Linda’s apartment is on the 4th floor) to someone below. We decided to try this when the locksmith showed up so that we wouldn’t end up with as big a bill from him having to pick or break the lock.

Well, we heard the guy come to the door, and Floyd tried to explain our idea in a mixture of English and a bit of Chinese. Unfortunately, neither of us knew the words for “lock”, “key”, “balcony”, or “drop”, which might have helped. And the other guy didn’t speak a word of English. We had no idea what he was saying through the door, and I’m sure he was equally frustrated with our inability to communicate. Finally Floyd heard him get back on the elevator, so I hurried out to the balcony with the keys. (I should mention at this point that I wasn’t sure where we had put the keys Linda had left for us with the neighbors, but I found a spare set sitting on a shelf, so I grabbed those.) I saw the guy leave the apartment building, but he never even looked up, and I wasn’t about to toss the keys down onto a public sidewalk if I couldn’t get his attention first. I watched him get on a scooter and disappear down the road, and with him our hopes of getting out of there any time soon.

We decided to call the neighbor again and see if she would be willing to come over and try to unlock the door from the outside. She was, and I successfully tossed the keys down to her without getting them stuck on any of the neighbors’ balconies below us. (Wouldn’t that have made things interesting!) She got on the elevator and a moment later we heard her trying to unlock the doors. But she couldn’t even get the metal security gate to open with Linda’s keys, let alone the inner door whose lock was stuck. We conversed through the door while she tried all three keys on the ring, and I happened to mention that the locksmith had been there but had given up and left. So she called him again from her cell phone and convinced him to come back and that she would stay and translate for us.

The locksmith returned in just a few minutes. From the moment he stepped off the elevator, it couldn’t even have taken him five seconds before he got both the metal gate and the door unlocked. Floyd and I had never been so thankful for the sight of a door opening in front of us! As he stooped to examine the lock, he handed us two sets of keys. It took a moment before it occured to us that he shouldn’t have had two sets to give us. There was the one I had dropped to the neighbor, but where had the other set come from? On closer inspection, we realized it was the set we had been given in the envelope the evening before. But how…?

Oh. We had left it in the lock when we let ourselves in last night.

So that was why the lock had felt so stuck! Boy, did we feel stupid. It was a relief to hear the locksmith say (via the neighbor) that there was also a problem with a faulty lock mechanism. While we waited, he unscrewed the whole thing, took it off the door, and installed a new one, all at no charge (because he works for Morrison, and Morrison provides free housing for its staff, including certain basic repairs).

(Here’s a picture of the guy at work replacing the lock; you can see the security gate open behind him.)

He gave us two copies of the key to the new lock, and was nice enough to remove the old one from one of Linda’s keyrings so we wouldn’t get mixed up and end up jamming up the new lock with the wrong key or something. After he left, I decided we’d better throw away the old key just to be sure we didn’t have any more problems with it. I tossed it in the kitchen trash can while Floyd tried out the rest of the keys just to make sure of everything. And boy, I’m glad he tried them before the trash got emptied! Turns out the locksmith had given us the wrong one to get rid of! It was the key to the security gate. So I hastily dug it out of the trash and reattached it to the keychain, thankful that we had realized in time.

Well, it was after 10:00 by the time we finally left the apartment. Neither of us could believe that we had just spent an hour and forty-five minutes locked in, mostly because of our carelessness in leaving the key in the lock. The key to the problem had been that the key was the problem, at least in part.

Well, when Linda gets home from Thailand she won’t be able to get into her apartment. We left a note on the door to tell her so, not that she won’t be able to figure that out on her own when she gets there. And before we left Taipei on Wednesday night (after a day full of lines and crowds and 95,000 people at the flora expo – but that’s another story) we gave the keys back to the neighbor to give Linda upon her return. So, Linda, that’s why your door might look a little different when you get back. Sorry about that… but at least you have a brand new lock!!

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