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Raiders of the Lost Key 

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

Wednesday, Sep 24 2003
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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.

The following afternoon we attempt to call Deep Throat. And wouldn't you know it, none of the three numbers is good. We're repeatedly told, "There's nobody here by that name." Time to Google.

We learn that some interesting characters have been awarded the key, including the queen of England, the owner of the San Diego Chargers, and (perhaps to balance out the queen) a leader of Sinn Fein. Not to mention a Russian guy who invented the machine that sticks sticks into lollipops, and a Japanese woman skilled in the art of ikebana (Japanese flower arranging).

We further learn that the tradition of awarding a key dates back to medieval times, when many cities were enclosed by fortified walls. The key symbolized the political relationship between a city and the king under whose jurisdiction the city fell. When the king visited for the first time, municipal authorities greeted him at the gates and handed over a key to signify that the city was now under his control. The key was later handed back to the local honchos as a sign of respect.

We also come across a site called "The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco." We call the phone number listed and eventually get a live person.

"Listen, is there any way we can come down there and talk to you?"

"Well, there is no there, really."

"What do you mean there is no there?"

"The museum is virtual. There is no museum."

"Oh. OK. But where are you right now?"

"I'm not sure."

"You're not sure?"

"I don't really know. I think I'm at 12th Street. I'm looking out the window and the sign says 12th Street."

After a few more baffling exchanges, the woman suddenly brings up Deep Throat's name. We're more convinced than ever that this is a central figure. We call Deep Throat yet again, only to -- yet again -- get a wrong number.

We spend the next week going in circles over a key that may or may not have vanished and a list of recipients that may or may not exist. Furthermore, it seems the key hasn't been awarded in an awfully long time. The most recent awardee evidently is a local guy named Michael Pritchard, who got his from Mayor Frank Jordan in 1995. Is it possible our current king hasn't given out any keys? Maybe Willie decided there were too many people to give it to, and so he just nixed the tradition altogether. Hell, each of his 8 zillion girlfriends would demand one. And each time they broke up he'd have to change the locks.

We eventually reach a nice man at the mayor's office, who tells us Willie has indeed given out the key but he can't say to whom. Isn't this public information? Yes, yes, it is, he admits. He then offers to compile a list from the past seven years by examining Willie's records. He also notes that this could take weeks. We begin to suspect the nice man is actually a not-so-nice man blowing us off.

Then one day the phone rings. It's Deep Throat! And Deep Throat -- who turns out to be a very knowledgeable ex­city librarian -- knows all sorts of things about the key. We compare notes and talk about the mysterious key and what it looks like and little-known Key to the City trivia. (Contrary to popular belief, for example, it wasn't Mayor James "Sunny Jim" Rolph who issued the first key, but his predecessor, P.H. McCarthy.) And then we start getting down to it.

"So, when did you actually last see the key?"

"At the Mission Dolores in '99. That was the year the key was loaned to City Hall for their reopening after the renovation. I believe it was on exhibit there for about a year."

"Have you ever seen a list of people who've received it?"

"Just like you, I also tried to get the information. This was many years ago. I found a partial list, but it wasn't much. I remember 'Elsie the Cow' was on there."

We talk for a while, and it gets to the point in the conversation where Deep Throat is supposed to reveal the answer. Or at least provide some direction, a clue, "follow the money" -- something. But that doesn't happen. There's an awkward silence. "You'll probably never find it," Deep Throat advises us.

And just like that it's over. Done with. Fini. We sit there in silence for what seems like an eternity, knowing we've been beat yet again, staring at the phone and our notebook filled with 100 leads and 100 dead ends, and our mind goes blank except for a vague image of a huge secret warehouse in the depths of City Hall.

About The Author

Dan Siegler

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