Monday, September 26, 2011

Making Keys

The shop bordered a large, dusty parking lot, full of ruts and rocks, broken concrete and potholes. It was little more than a hole in the wall, a rusting grey-green metal door with a sign above and a dirty window to let light through. My director, Rudik, and I pulled up in his car, looking to have a key made for me so I could get in our NGO's office on days my coworkers were busy with the WorldVision monitoring and audit that is going on right now.

Inside the shop, five old men stared intently at a nardi board. Two faced off over the black and white pieces, throwing the small dice and slamming their pieces across the board with a practiced intensity. Rudik took the key out of his pocket, said something to the men, and one bald man, wearing a greenish sports coat over a faded deep purple shirt glanced up for a moment from his black soldiers marching across the field of battle. He gave no more than a slight nod before taking up the dice again and throwing them.

The game continued with nary a care for us waiting there, watching them. The dice would tumble across the scratched, well-worn board, and hardly before the pieces were moved, the dice would be picked up again. The only sounds in the small, stuffy shop were the click of the dice as they tumbled, the slam of the pieces as they were forcefully placed in their apportioned spot. Only occasionally would this be interrupted by one of the men intently watching mumbling, "mek, yerkus, yerek, chos"--one, two, three, four--after doubles were thrown.

The game was lost long before we got there, this was obvious to even a beginner's eye such as mine. White was penned in at the end of the board, while black, played by the old man who gave us the nod, deftly moved his pieces off the board. Despite this we waited 5, 10, 15 minutes as white fought this losing battle to the bitter end.

Only when the game was over, only when the loser had taken a hand-rolled cigarette out of his pocket and put it between his lips, lighting the match with a snap on the edge of the board, did the winner rise and fix his glance on Rudik. Words were exchanged, and this short, old man took the key from Rudik's hand and looked it over.

Slowly he walked behind the counter and deeper in to the small, cluttered shop we had entered. How he knew where to look is anybody's guess. Old machinery, drawers, cabinets, wires, old telephones--the room was so packed the seven of us could hardly fit with the detritus of years, much of it dating from the time of the Soviet Union. But the man found what he was looking for, a small key that nearly matched ours.

In the center of the room, a new challenger had sat himself across from the smoking man at the nardi board. The dice began to click again, the pieces slammed, the numbers counted in grizzled voices.

The old man with the key fished out a pair of glasses from his pocket. These glasses magnified his eyes, and yet seemed to age him years. The keys he lined up, and then, with a flick of his finger he turned on an old Soviet desk lamp, secured the keys in a clamp, and took a file off the table next to him.

And so this man began his art. Eyes magnified a hundred times by the thick, plastic rimmed glasses pitted with a thousand scratches, he drew the file up to the key. With swift movements of his hand, he began to file the virgin key, angling the file this way and that, tilting it, maneuvering it, whittling the key down to its apportioned shape.

As this was going on, nardi raged around him. Another game started, and the old men watched the slamming as intently as the last one. Occasionally the man filing away our key would look up from his work to watch the match.

On and on this went, with the man occasionally lifting the keys up to his eyes and aligning them before he set them back in the clamp and returned to work.

Once he was finished, he handed my director the two keys and my director handed him some dram. Despite us standing there for thirty minutes, no point did the nardi game stop. As we walked out in to the dusty parking lot, the only sounds we could here were the clicking of dice, the slam of pieces, and the occasional counting off from the smoke-filled key shop.