Friday, August 31, 2007

Ein echter deutscher Schlüsseldienst

I got locked out of the apartment again. 2C2E. I went to the Schlüsseldienst in Hagelbergerstraße, who knows me well by now. Ähm, ich bin aus meinem Haus geschloßen, ähm, leider habe ich kein Geld zuhause, ääääähm. He calls Christian (who has got me into the apartment twice before) but he is busy. He calls Esmond. Esmond can be there in 20 minutes.

I ring the bell at the building, hoping to reduce the number of locks to be picked. Hallo, hier ist Frau DeWitt, ich bin ausgeschloßen... Frau Finke buzzes me in. She says I should leave a spare key with her. I know I know I know. Esmond turns up with a bag that means business. We go to the apartment. I point to the lock. He asks for ID. Ähm, ich habe meine Fitnessstudiokarte? I pull out the card for my gym, Axxel, the only 24-hour gym in town, and you can pick up a free copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine on your way out. I hand it over. He is unimpressed. He asks if there is ID in the apartment. Oh yes. He asks about the price, I say I was told 50 euros, I say, only there's no money in the apartment, I'll have to go to the bank, and he looks unenthusiastic. He opens the door. I go in to get my ID and my bank card. I show him my passport, I say, OK! (time to go to the bank)

Esmond [I translate] Aren't you going to lock it? It's really easy to break in.
HD: I don't think I can.
Esmond tries turning the key to relock the door, nothing happens.
Esmond: But it's really fast to break in.
HD: Well...there is another key, maybe some other time...
Esmond: But it's really fast to break in.
I go to the kitchen, haul out the key to the serious lock. Esmond tries it, something doesn't work.

My friend Ingrid Kerma used to tell me about German apprenticeships. In England, if you go to B&Q to buy wood, the salespeople know nothing about it. You ask them a question. 'Dunnooooo.' You ask another question. 'Dunnoooo.' In a German store, the salespeople know all about wood, they can tell you all about it, and they will not let you buy the wrong kind of wood -- because they have done apprenticeships in which they learned all about wood.

We now see the German apprenticeship system in action.

Esmond: Are you insured?
Yes, I say, not because I'm insured (are you serious? have you looked at these forms?) but because it looks like the easy way out.
Esmond says something, the gist of which seems to be that if you have a lock that can be picked in 2 seconds your insurance probably won't cover you. (If you are uninsured this will not be a problem.)
He looks at a hole in the floor, a hole into which a bolt goes if you use the good key. Since the key has not been used in over two years, the hole is packed with dirt. He gets to work with a screwdriver. He gouges out dirt. He gets a hammer and pounds the screwdriver, deepening the hole. Tries the key. Something still doesn't work. He takes the screwdriver and gouges dirt out of the hole above the door; dust pours down. Tries the key. Something still doesn't work. Gets out the old WD-40. Spraaaaaaaaaaaays the motherfucker. Tries the key. Back and forth, back and forth, alles in Ordnung, wow!

He makes me lock and unlock the door five or six times to ensure that the owner of the key can operate the key.

I don't have the heart or the German to explain that if you are the sort of person who gets locked out of an apartment on a regular basis, the last thing you want is a lock that is hard to pick.

My German is even less up to an ad hoc discussion of existentialism. Every time I get locked out of the apartment I think: I could get on a train, never come back, how good that would feel.

We go in his car to the bank. Which bank? asks Esmond. I explain that we can go to any bank because I am using a card from a British bank. Esmond tells me I should have a German bank account. I do have a German bank account, I explain, ich habe ein Postbankkonto, but I have just been sent a new card and I have not been sent the new PIN. We pull up and park by a branch of Deutschebank. Bourgeois to the core, I think all this hypererogatory effort should be rewarded, I offer an extra 20 euros for sorting out the good key and getting it to work. (Since Ilya is a Nietzschean Bataillean socialist, one very good thing is that my mismatched co-scripteur is not here in the hour of shame.)

I do think hypererogatory effort should be rewarded. The things the lock protects are not things I care about very much, but I was touched by this workman who knew what he was doing and wanted to see a good lock and a good key put to use.

When I hire a lawyer or an agent or an accountant, when I negotiate a contract, I think I am putting in place something like the lock that a German Schlüsseldienst thinks is a good lock. Es ist ein gutes Schloß, says Extremely Fabulous Esmond.

Here's what interests me. EF Esmond doesn't know me from a bar of soap. He isn't 'passionate about my work', to use a favourite phrase. What's more, he has absolutely no reason to think there is money to be made from getting the good lock working and getting his clueless customer to use it. He just HATES to see an apartment open to the first thief to come along. He doesn't know about books, but he knows about locks. He wants the customer to use a good lock.

Nicht zu fassen. Unbelievable. Even if there is money it, it's a rubbishy 20 Euros. Whereas, [have suddenly remembered a comment by Virginia Woolf on H G Wells, how tiresome he was always talking about the business, how right she was, OK]

After EF Esmond rode off into the sunset I realised that using the good key should not present a problem. I could lock the door with the good key only if the key and I were both on the same side of the door. Also, if I left a spare copy with Frau Finke there would be no need to break in. So I went downstairs and gave a spare set of keys to Frau Finke.

So schönes Wochenende, Extremely Fabulous Esmond. Vorsprung durch Technik.


Jenny Davidson said...

I once had an incredibly depressing conversation with the young kid at the hardware store while buying an air conditioner. He was a fairly bright-eyed fifteen- or sixteen-year-old (do you kind of have to be 16 to get a job in a store? maybe...). I had measured the relevant room and written down dimensions on a piece of paper, which I showed him. He got out the special calculator supplied by the air-conditioner company and started to calculate. I was, like, um, it's X (whatever number). He looked at me like I was a genius and said, "How did you know?" I said, I multiplied the first side by the second side to find the area. He again looked at me like I was a genius, the spark of understanding was in his eye, and he said, "That's cool!" He had clearly never heard such a notion before in his life, I'm not kidding...

How did this perfectly intelligent kid get to AT LEAST TENTH OR MAYBE ELEVENTH GRADE without learning that you can find the area of a rectangle by multiplying side A and side B?!??

It kills me--esp. b/c you take my point, some people just don't have inquiring minds, they might hear this and not really care, but this kid would have LIKED to learn a bit of math!!!


(This is not really to the main point of your tale BTW. Sorry...)

Ithaca said...

Well, that is very bad. Though strangely touching.

Jenny Davidson said...

Yes, it WAS touching, b/c he was kind of excited, it reminded me of being, like, in ancient Greece or something where it was a DISCOVERY that this should be true! I hope he learned some more math along the way BTW...

Lee said...

Interpretation no. 1: a good apprenticeship

Interpretation no. 2: busybodiness
(not sure if there's such a word, however)

As you can tell, I've lived in Germany too long.

Ithaca said...

It WAS officious. This was what Ingrid always said, when you deal with Germans who have come up through this system, they will not LET you do something the wrong way. They KNOW they are right. I normally have a problem that is exactly the opposite of this, though; I try to get people to do things right and they fight tooth and nail to do it badly. So I found it disarming.

Lee said...

And I have a very different problem: I'm never sure what's right, which ambivalence is pretty much driving me mad at the moment in terms of my writing.

Lee said...

Jenny (sorry, Helen, to commandeer your comments like this), after my years in Zimbabwe, I tend to think that real underdevelopment is lack of education, not poverty per se (though of course they're often related). I've just got off the phone to my daughter who's on a high school exchange in Montana, and though she's enjoying it a lot, she's astonished by the kids who think that France is identical to Paris. Or that what they're now doing in 11th grade maths her class at home covered in grade 8 (and she's no brilliant maths student). So it seems your area-of-a-rectangle story isn't an isolated case. And what does this say about first-world underdevelopment?

peanut and planet said...

When I was in 7th grade I was in a mechanical drawing class and the teacher, Pete Zebrowski, realized that no one in the class, except for me knew how to use a ruler.

That was when I realized that something was dreadfully wrong.

thomaspa said...

I know they are tragic and it must be terribly annoying for you but honestly -I really enjoy the Locked Out Chronicles, if this is their end...

Ithaca said...

Lee. I may sometimes be unsure about a piece of writing; the same does not apply to simple arithmetic. Let's say I have a book with 26 permissions to clear, and I do not want to clear them myself because my time can better be spent finishing 5 other books. The friend who has set up the publishing deal tells me a lawyer can do anything an agent can do; we have a conference call and the lawyer tells me permissions won't be a problem. I fax through a schedule of all passages for which permissions must be cleared, including the contact details of the entities controlling the rights. The lawyer's associate tells me it's better for the author to do this. I explain that I am trying to finish 5 other books.

The lawyer negotiated the original offer for one book up from $75,000 to $70,000. Since his office dug in its heels and flatly refused to clear permissions, they placed in jeopardy 100% of their client's income from 5 other books. (Anyone who has cleared permissions will be unsurprised to know that an average of 9 pieces of correspondence per permission was required -- it's very disruptive.)

Their position can be justified only if we assume that all five books, sight unseen, are worth less than the money that would be spent on a legal secretary paid by the hour to do the work -- at a guess, a whopping $500. It is no more the business of my lawyer to assume the worthlessness of my other books than it is of my locksmith to assume the worthlessness of my possessions.

I'm sorry to hear about the poor attainment in mathematics of students in Montana. If they seek careers in entertainment law, though, they will undoubtedly do very well for themselves.

p&p. Another catchment group for the field of entertainment law, perhaps?

thomaspa. To tell the truth, once I realise I am locked out I know it will do no good to get upset; I had better just deal with the problem. It would be better not to get so distracted, though.

Penthe said...

Hello. I am so glad to hear that someone else is locked out of their home often enough to have developed certain attitudes and responses to the procedures required to get back in.

I nearly always leave a window unlocked so I can break in myself, and not a single burglar has taken advantage. But I do appreciate the attitude of the locksmith. I wish I had that attitude to my writing.