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Locked Out of Our Connected World

A week or two ago I was locked out of my house.  Here’s the story of what happened and what I did, in case any of you find yourselves in a similar situation.

I was outside digging an underground pipe and dry well for my new gutters.  The ditch was out-of-sight of the back door and on the way from the back door toward the street.  My back door is always locked except when I’m working outside, when I leave my keys, wallet, and phone inside.  I leave those inside because when I’m using power tools, like the diamond saw I used to cut through my patio, I don’t want things in my pockets making it hard to move or squat.

My brother, who lives with me, and his fiancé, who was visiting, came out of the house.  They walked into view and we chatted about the ditch, then they left to get on with their day.  Normally, the conversational ritual is like this:

My brother: “I left the door unlocked.”

Me: “Okay.”

That day, however, his fiancé left the house first.  She opened the back door — the fact of it being already unlocked indicating no special procedure to her — and my brother’s muscle memory led him to lock it as if that’s how he had found it.

Two shovelfuls after they left I realized the frightening truth.  The door was locked and I didn’t know when they’d be back.  I ran into the street looking for their car, saying “Shoot shoot shoot” (equivalent).  But they were gone.

Shovel digging in dirt.

Traveling Salesman 101

“Hi there,” I said to the neighbor as I walked up her driveway.  “I’ve been locked out and I was wondering if I could borrow your cell phone to look up a number.”  I should remember my brother’s number, but he’s on speed dial, so I’ve never had to remember it.  I tried to think of the hundred or so other numbers I have saved in my Contacts, but none of them came to mind, either.  Panic causes amnesia.

My neighbor was not impressed.  I offered $10 to refund the 411 fee.  “Is 411 like the operator,” she asked?

Cell phones are generally unlisted, so we tried Labcorp in Westborough, MA.  A friend of my brother works there and would have his cell number.  The 411 computer suggested some car dealerships.  I dialed 411 again, thinking it had misheard me.  We got the same result.  I stood in silence thinking about my options, and then the computer offered an operator, to which I said yes.  The operator found Labcorp’s number and dialed it for me.  On the other end of the line, a fax machine picked up the phone and started making all those noises.  I hung up and thanked the neighbor.  I said I’d pay her back.  Then I wandered searchingly back into the street.

I started to walk towards downtown Worcester.  I thought if I could find Sandra Katz, she would have a computer and a phone I could use to look up and find some number that would get me to my brother.  I thought it was more than a mile to her office (it’s actually 1.5 miles).  That didn’t seem as close as NU Cafe, which was seven minutes in the other direction, so I went there instead.  I’m there regularly, so I figured they’d let me use the store computer.

It was lunch time when I walked through the door.  I was unshaven, covered in dirt, and looking pretty wild.  A concerned looking patron glanced up at me from his table.  I saw him and thought it would be better to talk to him, who obviously had a computer right there, than it would be to wait in line for the cashier, who might not be allowed to let me use the store computer.  So I started walking towards him.  He concentrated very hard on his laptop, trying to make me disappear.  But I introduced myself, and before long he was less afraid than when I had first burst onto the scene.  I sat down across from him.

He helpfully Googled and dialed some numbers for me but we couldn’t get anywhere.  Cell phone numbers really aren’t listed, and we confirmed that Labcorp’s listed number was definitely a fax number.  I really needed some time to work at a computer, but to ask the man to quietly eat his panini while I spread dirt all over his keyboard was too much to ask.  So we pulled up qpmservices.com and dialed Sandra Katz.  Before long I was in Sandra’s car heading to her office.

(It’s worth mentioning that I keep all of my phone numbers in Google contacts.  In principle, I should have been able to access these from the man’s laptop in NU Cafe.  The problem is, I use Google’s two factor authentication.  So when I tried to log in from an unrecognized computer, Google treated it like a criminal enterprise and sent a text message to my cell phone.  I needed to use the content of the message to log in from the man’s computer.  Without my cell phone, I couldn’t log in.)

Numbers, Numbers Everywhere

As it turns out, a great many phone numbers are available online.  When you’re locked out of your home, most of them are not helpful.  You can, in certain circumstances, find office numbers or other work numbers for people who know the person you need to reach.  I left a couple voicemails like this.  “Hi, this is Doug, can you call my brother and tell him he needs to go to 90 Madison St, 4th floor…”

What eventually broke the logjam was a little bit of an exaggeration.  I found a corporate headquarters’ number for the workplace of someone I knew who knew my brother.  I used a deep, measured voice and told the person who picked up that I had a family emergency to report and that I believed the message needed to go to an employee in that building.  Could she use an internal company directory to look him up?  She connected me right away.

From there it was all quickly resolved.

“Locked Out” Lessons Learned

  1. Digging ditches, like everything else it seems, now requires that you have your cell phone with you.
  2. A winning smile and deferential tone of voice get you access to other people’s phones and computers, even when covered in dirt.  People are basically good.
  3. It pays to know local folks who can come give you a ride.
  4. In an age of concern over privacy and security, a great many things really are private and secure.