I was in the Cleveland Park Post Office a few days ago and happened to notice a customer using a strange-looking pen to fill out a form. Actually, I couldn't avoid noticing it because the pen was at least three times the normal length, and at the non-writing end it erupted into a gargantuan red flower. When I got to the postal window and had to sign a receipt, the clerk handed me a similarly-sized pen, this one topped by a flaming orange bloom. I signed and handed the pen back to the clerk, and then went across the street to California Tortilla, where I found the pen to be used for signing the credit card slip quite normal -- but attached to the counter by a mighty chain, one that would work just as well for tethering a ship's anchor. There is no way on earth a customer could walk off with that Cal Tort pen.
Of course, I understand the need to make one's pens unstealable. It's not that customers actually plan to make off with the pen, but that it's just too easy to stick one in your bag as soon as you're done with it. It's almost second nature. Rather than have to watch the customers with an eagle eye and then confront the pen-swipers when they're all but out the door, businesses take defensive measures and tie their pens down or, following the Post Office model, they provide oversized pens that won't fit in anyone's purse.
At the bank the pens are always tied down, but the problem there is that customers use them so much that they quickly run out of ink. So the odds are good that any time you pick up a bank pen, you'll be unable to get any use out of it. When you slide sideways along the counter to the position of the the next tied-down pen and you test that one with a scribble, you find that it's out, too. So your next move is to ask another customer if you could borrow a pen, at which point you put yourself at risk of absentmindedly walking off with that kind stranger's pen.
The solution to this problem is, of course, to never be caught without your own pen. That's one of those simple life lessons I've learned over the years. The only trouble is that my pens have a tendency to hide themselves in my bag. They slip out of the penholder strap and somehow burrow their way down to the bottom of the bag, where they lurk under the mini-umbrella or the packet of tissues or any of the dozens of other things that I always carry with me, as prescribed by all those other little life lessons I've picked up over the years. My bag is basically a survival kit that could sustain me indefinitely, should I suddenly find myself abandoned on a desert island. In the time I spend rummaging around down there, holding up the line, I usually find some sympathetic soul reaching out to me to supply the thing I need. I abandon my own search and gratefully accept the stranger's pen. I just have to remember not to walk off with it and turn a good deed into a regrettable one for us both.
Pens are not the only thing that need to be made impossible to pocket. The other object that needs similar treatment is the key, whether to the bathroom in an office building or to a room in a small hotel or inn (the type that's too quaint and old-fashioned to have card-activated door locks). There the standard practice is to keep the key a normal size but attach something to it that turns it from a small sliver of metal into something so bulky or heavy that if you drop it, it could break your toe. A chunk of wood, for example, the size of a breadbox. Or a metal ring that could double as a juggling hoop. At the dentist's office, the attachment is a two-foot-long plastic toothbrush advertising the dental practice, so you not only feel foolish lugging around this outsized object, but everyone knows which dentist you see.
On rare occasion, however, the key is big because it needs to be that way. This happened to me once and only once. We were staying at an old hotel just outside of Inverness, Scotland. Long before it was a hotel, the Culloden House was a country estate owned by supporters of the English crown during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. It was taken over by the rebels and was the last place Bonnie Prince Charlie slept before the Battle of Culloden (which he lost). On our last night at the hotel, we told the hotel-keeper that we were being picked up by a taxi at four in the morning to make the the early morning flight from Inverness that would get us to London in time for our connecting flight home to DC. Declining to get up at the same time to see us off and then lock the door behind us, the hotel-keeper asked if we could just lock the front door behind us after we left and then drop the key through the mailslot. We agreed, and then he pulled out what looked to us like some sort of strangely designed fireplace iron. Except that it was in the shape of a key – that is, the sort of key that might lock up a dungeon in a Hollywood version of a medieval castle. Or the front door of a Scottish manor house, apparently. "I bet no guest of the hotel has ever inadvertently walked off with that key," I commented. And even if one did, a key like that would set off every metal detector at the airport. The next morning, bleary-eyed from our too-brief night's sleep, we had no problem remembering to drop the key through the mailslot before we got into the cab. Fortunately, the slot was low to the ground. If it had been a long drop, a key of that size would surely have shattered the beautifully polished tile inside.
I doubt very much I'll ever handle a more memorable key than that, but if you have a story about a strange key or key attachment, or a funny pen or method of securing a pen so that it can't disappear, I'd like to hear it.
Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on July 23, 2010.