I was planning on running a quick errand. In the elevator of the AirBNB apartment I was renting, I made a to-do list: Pack. Ship. Mail. Dinner. Write. Check travel itinerary. Get ready to head back to the States tomorrow, early. I grabbed my keys and my bag and scurried outside to make it to the post office on the corner before they closed at 7pm. The light was fading; it was dusk. I thought briefly about grabbing my jacket, but it had been so warm all day. Short sleeves?

Sure, I’ll be fine.

I walked out around the corner, past the pharmacy store and over the subway grates. A blast of hot air shot upwards from below the grates and I shifted my one-arm bag higher on my shoulder, adjusting my weight. The metal ring of the two keys wrapped around my finger and I curled them in and out around the key, humming. Thinking. Distracted, I jiggled the stuck key off of my finger and–

Swish, plop, blink, click.

The keys dropped down onto the ground and my gaze followed, 100 milliseconds seemingly expanding to record every moment. They hovered on the grate edges, balanced precariously, pausing, and before I could reach down to swoop them up a blast of subway air shot up my shirt, lifting my hair upwards in a halo, my arm outstretched downwards, and the keys rolled lazily over the side of the grate, falling.

Falling. It was slow motion.

I heard the click of the keys hit the dirt surface six feet below and my mouth dropped open.


This – this – welp. This is bad. I looked around, up at the store lights, at all of the passersby, back at my apartment.

I’m gonna need those.

Oh yeah, I definitely need those. The keys were six feet down, far beyond my grasp. The next thing I did was kneel down and press my face up against the grate and stare at the keys.

What. Am. I. Going. To. Do. 

A few thoughts flashed briefly through my head: first, I can’t get into my rented apartment without them. Second, I have no telephone or internet access out here, unless I find a store. Third, I have a plane to catch in less than 12 hours. And fourth, damnit, it’s kind of colder than I expected.

I’ll get to the punch line(s) quickly: First, I managed to get my keys, with a contraption of rope, magnets, tape, and a long metal stick. Second, I am astounded and amazed by the number of people that helped me. Third, things don’t happen the way you plan them, no matter how many times you write a list down on a piece of paper. Give up, Sarah, I thought at my to-do-list-brain. And fourth, there are times when you can’t give up. There was a problem, and I needed a solution, no matter how long it took.

A curious passerby stopped and asked me what I was doing. I pointed. Someone else stopped. A small crowd gathered around the gate. They watched my keys while one of us went into the drug store, on a scavenger hunt of sorts.  Another person walked down to the dollar store. One woman gave us everything in her purse she thought might be helpful – ribbon, paperclips, wire.  As people walked by, some offered useful suggestions of good luck.  To come up with a contraption, we made up with a number of options. The first attempt – with a ribbon that someone donated – didn’t work, because it kept flying through the air every time the subway vents went off.  Another problem? The rope and magnet had to be lowered through the grate hole exactly above the keys. The first magnets we used weren’t strong enough. One solution – before we found magnets – was to put sticky tape on the side of a big wad of rope. However, getting them back up and through the grate afterwards wasn’t happening. We had to figure out a solution that fit through the 1″x 3″ grate opening – with the keys on the return trip.

It actually took almost two hours outside of running back and forth and gathering supplies. Throughout it all, I was amazed – AMAZED – at the number of people who stopped. I’m sure there aren’t too many people who take prayer positions in flimsy yellow t-shirts at the edge of sidewalk grates, but everyone smiled, curious – and asked if they could help.  The time, solutions, and ideas people had were thrilling, and collectively inspiring. I laughed – I walked through the dollar store on our second trip grinning because I was enjoyed the adventure. Okay, around dinner time I got grumpy, too, particularly after the fourth time someone told me to use a coat-hanger (Sure, buddy, sure thing: do you have one? No. And, do you see how deep this is? A coat hanger won’t do the trick. Maybe 3 of them, want to wire bend?), but my mind reminded me that how you behave in the tough circumstances is who you are, and this was a minor notch in the test of mettle and tenacity. Really, Sarah, if you can’t get through this – what else will you give up on? My inner voice can be quite a driver.

Lastly, as I sit in the warmth of the apartment and think about this evenings’ hours gone awry, I can’t help but note that the tactility of the puzzle was encouraging. I feel like sometimes, behind computers, we forget to solve real problems in real time, with puzzles and pieces and objects and mass. Conservation of mass, estimating space, working with physical properties – I don’t think I’ve done puzzles like this in a while. Add in the drama of a foreign language (some were speaking French, some Spanish), an international country, and no cell phone or emergency contacts, and it was like being on Survivor – or it felt like such, for a hot minute. A shout out to Canadians and their warmth and spirit. Felt wonderful to have a crowd of thirty or so helping me get my keys. I’m now back, warm, in front of my computer, doing the things I like doing: writing.