Raiders of the Lost Key

In which we search - and search, and search - for the missing Key to San Francisco

In 1973 the Rev. Sun Myung Moon got one. The Dalai Lama received his in 1979. Placido Domingo's was bestowed in 1983. We're talking, of course, about the Key to San Francisco. You know, the oversize faux door opener the mayor presents to important muckety-mucks in gala civic ceremonies. But when was the last time the key was awarded? We can't recall anybody getting one in many years now. Which is strange since you'd think our Royal Willie would be all over this kind of thing, gleefully handing out shiny gold keys and other ceremonial trinkets.

Dog Bites happens to know that the original Key to the City is kept at Mission Dolores. Or at least it was. It's been missing for quite some time. All that's left in the little glass display case where it should be is a sign reading, "The Key to the City will be on exhibit in City Hall from Jan 4, 1999 to Sep 30, 1999." We ask the Mission Dolores people, but they don't know a thing about it.

Hmmm. Time to visit City Hall and ask some pointed questions. Unfortunately, we're not very good at this. So we decide to recruit our friend Rachel. She's sweet, smiley, and seemingly innocent, but she'll bite your head off if you mess with her. Perfect for kicking bureaucratic ass.

We arrive at City Hall just after lunch, and march past the busts of Feinstein and Moscone and straight into the mayor's office. It takes a few moments to realize we're not actually in the mayor's office -- it's more of a holding pen. There's fancy furniture and official flags and two secretaries monitoring four unmarked doors. (Behind one of these doors, we presume, is the person who knows the answer to our question. But we have no illusions about being able to talk to the king.)

The secretary to our left is a smiling woman in her early 30s who seems rather pleasant. The secretary to the right is, well, not so pleasant. He's got close-cropped hair, a mustache, and a look on his face that's not exactly welcoming. Although he did stand up when we entered.

"Hi! We're looking for the Key to the City!" Rachel announces to the pleasant secretary.

"The Key to the City?"

"Yeah, you know. The symbolic key that the mayor gives to important people. We'd like to see the key and the list of people who've received it," Rachel explains, grabbing my shirt and pulling me toward the desk. Meanwhile, the unpleasant secretary is staring hard and stepping toward us, mirroring our movements. This is strange. We take two more steps forward. He does the same.

"Are you a cop?" Rachel chirps.

"Yes," he replies.

Rachel's the only one in the room who's amused.

"How come you don't have one of those earpiece thingies?"

"You watch too much TV," he says humorlessly.

The pleasant secretary is still smiling, but now it's more of a confused smile. "I don't think we have anything about the key," she says. She makes a call to an unknown official, presumably behind one of the secret doors. She puts down the receiver and tells us they'll look into it. And suddenly we find ourselves back in the lobby of City Hall, scratching our heads.

"They didn't even ask for our phone number!" Rachel snaps.

"Oh. I didn't catch that," we lamely reply.

"This is ridiculous! It's not like we're Woodward and Bernstein looking for top-secret information. It's just a stupid key!" She grabs our shirt again and we march right back into the mayor's office.

Needless to say, we get the same exact routine as before. An unsuccessful phone call, another excuse, and more dancing with the cop. We give up on the mayor's office and spend the next two hours interrogating bureaucrats in every other department in City Hall. Each department we talk to refers us to another one.

Neighborhood Services: "We issue proclamations. We don't issue keys."

Records Department: "We only have property deeds and marriage licenses. You guys can get married for just 89 bucks!"

Building Management: "I seem to remember a key was here at some point."

City Hall Gift Shop: "We have key chains."

A janitor in the basement: "Maybe it's in a huge secret warehouse, like in the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark."

What's going on here? Is this really such an obscure request? Every Podunk town in the nation offers a key to the city. What started as a simple question now seems like the most daunting mission of our lives. And nobody at City Hall appears to know a thing about it. Rachel fumes on the car ride home.

"There are only two types of people in City Hall! Civil servants who know nuthin' about nuthin', and Willie Brown people who know but won't say!" she blurts. "Unless City Hall has a lost-and-found, we're totally screwed."

There is a glimmer of hope, though. A name kept popping up in our inquiries, a person we shall refer to as "Deep Throat." We collected three different phone numbers for Deep Throat, which seems reassuring. But Rachel's had enough of this key nonsense. We buy her some ice cream, drop her off at her apartment, and excuse her from further duties.

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