Burglarizing Apartments: A Cautionary Tale

If you are anything like me, the question of how best to burglarize an apartment has rarely if ever crossed your mind. It’s time to change that, for today I am going to tell you a story, a story which will make you think twice about your home’s security. It may even harrow up your soul, freeze your young blood, make your two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, and cause your knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine. But probably only if you live in an apartment.

Let us set the stage with a hypothetical scenario: you are close friends or relatives with some persons who have left town for a week or so. In their absence, you’ve been helpfully doing a job for them which involved moving stuff into their apartment (they left you a key). You’ve finished the job, and you want to leave their apartment key behind for them when they return. (They live some distance away from you, too far to conveniently just hand them the key in person when they return.) They have another key to the apartment with them, so they’ll be able to get back in upon their return regardless of where you put the key they gave you.

What does the reasonable person do in this situation? It’s simple, right? Lock the door, leave the key in the apartment, and shut the door. Unfortunately, in this more-or-less hypothetical scenario, there are one or two additional circumstances I didn’t yet mention:

  1. The apartment door only has a deadbolt, no doorknob lock, and thus from the outside it can only be locked with a key.
  2. The third party you’re helping out lent you one of their vehicles to use, and you also intend to leave it parked in the apartment parking lot. (You have your own vehicle with you as well.)

What’s the appropriate solution to the puzzle now? Go ahead, think about it. I’ll wait.

Time’s up. If you came up with a better answer than “unlock their car, put the car keys in the apartment, lock the apartment from the outside, put the apartment key into the car, and then lock the car”, then tell me, because this scheme was the best that I, my parents, and my sister’s new in-laws could come up with on the spot at 5:30pm on a dark, cold, windy night earlier this week outside the absent newlywed’s apartment.

It was immediately after I slammed the locked door of my sister’s car–the one containing the key to her locked apartment–that I turned and saw one of the aforementioned four individuals, a frown upon his face, rummaging through pockets, and at once I knew that the great Master of all plots was busily adding flour to this one.

Unfortunately, twenty minutes of searching our cars and the ground left only one place the missing car keys could be: locked inside the apartment whose key was locked inside my absent sister’s car whose key was also locked inside the apartment.

No worries; surely an apartment complex of this size would have a management office to deal with unusual circumstances such as this. Arriving with casual haste at the manager’s office, I was dismayed to find the doors locked and all the lights off. A sign on the door indicated that office hours are Monday through Saturday, 9am to 6pm. I could tell this was a diligently-managed apartment complex with a wholesome respect for punctuality because my phone clock read 6:01pm and sure enough there was not a soul to be found on the premises. A cursory inspection of the office exterior revealed no phone number to call and no apparent recourse for hapless residentsvisitors experiencing an after-hours emergency, but a broadened search revealed an advertising sandwich board (proclaiming the availability of glorious apartments) stuffed into a corner, and it listed a phone number to call. I called it.

For my pains, I was rewarded with about 40 seconds’ worth of a cheerful woman’s voice proclaiming the insurpassable virtues of the apartments she was renting. I had nearly given up hope when she informed me (in a somewhat less cheerful voice) of a number to call for “after-hours maintenance emergencies”. This number I called, and another helpful recorded voice informed that I could leave a message and the after-hours maintenance person would call me back at their leisure, but that this had better dang sure be an emergency (paraphrasing here). That was not exactly encouraging, but I left a message anyway:

“Hi, my number is [elided] and I live in [apartment number] and I’ve locked myself out of my apartment, please call me back.”

I helpfully omitted my name or any indication that I was not in fact the renter of the apartment; I find it better policy to explain these things in person. This preliminary impersonation complete, we began considering other options lest the after-hours maintenance worker view our request somewhat less urgently than we viewed it ourselves. However, to his credit, the after-hours maintenance worker called back before we even finished debating the merits of calling a locksmith to break into the apartment and/or locked car.

My conversation with the man was fairly one-sided, in that the wind was blowing, I have an El Cheapo™ dumbphone, and he had a heavy accent so I could only make vague guesses at what he was actually saying.

Arglcg wrd bfshdi maintenance turi emergency?
Yes, I locked myself out of my apartment, [apartment number].
Wfdtch hgdsf bfrlment?
I’m sorry, what was that?
Wfdtch hgdsf bfrlment?
Me (on instinct)
I’m in [apartment number].
ok. Ghfpl cost grty-five dollars.
Me (to the others)
Is it worth $35 to us?
Me (to the phone)
ok, that’s fine.
ok, srdl fake thirty frgty mimics; lim out of town.
ok, great, thanks, bye.

What a relief! Only thirty or forty minutes and a nice heavily-accented man would arrive to take $35, or $45, or $something-five dollars, in exchange for solving our problems. Presumably the solution would be conditioned upon our being able to adequately explain why, given that none of the five of us present were the actual apartment tenants, we thought ourselves entitled to entry, but as I mentioned before–better to explain this sort of thing in person. Anticipating this end, some members of the party asked (not without trepidation) just how heavily accented the man was (would we need to resort to drawing pictures rather than fluent conversation?), and others offered pessimistic estimates of how long it would take us to convince the worker of the justness of our cause. I responded that rather than wondering how much we’d have to explain, I wondered how little we would have to explain–I have always been fascinated by these little social engineering experiments. Naturally, as a well-intentioned relative who was freezing in the dark night outside a sister’s apartment, I hoped the answer would be “very little”, but as a former renter of apartments, I hoped the maintenance worker would have a portable polygraph device and be taking fingerprints.

It was a mere 15 or 20 minutes later when a woman arrived at the bottom of the stairs to the apartment where our group was congregated, and she asked: “One of you in [apartment number]?” After a moment’s hesitation, a member of the group volunteered “Yeah, that’s me.” These formalities concluded, the woman walked up the stairs with him, unlocked the door, wished him goodnight, and walked off.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Matt has made an error whilst editing this blog post and omitted certain vital portions of the conversation with the after-hours maintenance worker lady.” Indeed, I was thinking this very thing myself as the event itself occurred, also wondering if perhaps I had just experienced one of those missing-time episodes the UFO nuts talk about. But no, after checking the time and conferring with my fellow conspirators, I realized that the entire exchange did in fact consist only of what I have faithfully reproduced above. The observant reader will note that the maintenance lady’s dialog lacked certain socially-desirable elements, such as:

  • Asking how it was possible to lock ourselves out of an apartment that only locks from the outside
  • Asking for some kind of identification and checking to see if that was in fact for the person renting the apartment
  • Asking what any of our names were

But no, the maintenance lady evidently considered a request from a group of five anonymous people to unlock a random apartment to be eminently reasonable and not worthy of any particular comment or inquiry.

What are the morals of this story? It is difficult to say, but I can think of two:

  1. If you want to burglarize an apartment, leave the lockpicks at home; just ask the apartment staff to unlock it for you
  2. If you live in an apartment or other place where you don’t control all the keys…well, I guess it stinks to be you

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