May 22, 2014
I pass a tiny shop in Greenwich Village with a no-nonsense signboard above that says ‘Greenwich Locksmiths’. Just below this, an additional tag-line reveals ‘Master Licensed Locksmith Since 1968’.
I glance through the small entrance door to see in the dark interior a sixtyish, hawk-faced man bent over a work-table, deeply engrossed in filing away at some small piece of metal. He doesn’t notice my presence. I don’t know why I stop to watch him, but having done so I am transfixed. I look at his face as he works away and am amazed at his level of concentration and the intensity of his gaze as he keeps checking the metal object in his hand from time to time. I must have been watching him for a while when suddenly he turns his head towards the door and looks out. I feel incredibly stupid standing there on the sidewalk looking in. So, I smile at him and then realize that he hasn’t noticed me because he rubs his eyes for a moment and goes back to work: he was giving his eyes a much-needed break.
I now I decide to survey his shop by standing at the edge of the sidewalk. Framing the frontage is a chunky, eighteen-inch wide and half-inch thick metal mural that has some strange patterns on it. On closer scrutiny, I realize that the piece is made from melted locks and keys that have been hammered and shaped into an intricate design which, viewed from a distance, would not reveal its secrets. Outside the shop, on the sidewalk and under a small awning, are two large cast-iron safes. Next to one of them is a metal chair for visitors, once again made from sculpted keys. The two windows, adjacent to the entrance, are scruffily functional with certificates, photographs, newspaper clippings, trade and membership affiliations plastered on them.
The entrance to the shop, considering the fact that it is the year 2014 in New York, is embarrassingly inelegant. In fact the entire shop reflects a time-warp: an age of innocence set in the age of excess.
What the hell is a shop like this doing in the most awe-inspiring, wealth-creating and greed-producing—apart from avant-garde art and rock and roll, haute couture and haute cuisine, hard news and manufactured myth-making—name-dropping and celebrity-worshipping, state-of-the-art thinking and scandal-mongering capital of the world?
I smile to myself. I will have to meet this out-of-place hawk-faced man in that out-of-place shop.
I, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, film-maker, writer and traveller, would be meeting Philip Mortillaro, the Greenwich Village locksmith.
What follows is a conversation the two of us had in May 2014 at his shop on 56 7th Avenue South:
Saeed Akhtar Mirza: Let’s start with your family. Tell me about your parents.
Philip Mortillaro: My father came as an immigrant from Italy and my mother was from here. My father had a good job and my mother was a seamstress. Both of them worked really hard to raise a family.
S: How did you get into the lock business?
P: I was in high school and it all started out when I was looking for a summer job when I was 14 years old. All kids look for a summer job, you know. Someone told me there was a hardware store and they were looking for someone to help them move. It turned out it was not a hardware store… they were locksmiths. I kind of offered to help them move, and worked there all summer long. When the summer was over, they asked if I wanted to go back to school or work with them and learn a life-long trade. I chose the life-long trade.
P: I got to like what I had learned, so I started out as an apprentice at 14th and 2nd Avenue. By the time I was 18, I opened my own shop, and worked there till I was 20—till 1970. Then someone offered to buy my shop…it was an open air space that had a license for 10 years. He gave me 25,000 dollars for it. That was a lot of money...a lot of money! So I decided to travel…I bought a car and I travelled all over the country ... to San Francisco, Seattle, Idaho, Wisconsin ... then I came back here and bought another shop…the one right here.
S: What did your father think about your move to quit school and learn a trade?
P: He didn’t like it. He expected more from me.
P: It’s tough convincing the mindset of the poor immigrant. He works with his hands and he expects his children to go to college—work with their minds. My father never once visited my shop till the day he died.
S: That’s a pity.
P: Yeah. He couldn’t believe I could be proud of my work. Liking your work is one thing, to be proud of it is another. Let me tell you a story. I was about 21 years old and I got this call from a Japanese gentleman. He had a problem with a door that had come apart. Now to fix that sounds simple but it was not. The door had the lock and hinge in the middle—most door have it on the side. It was a complicated job…but I fixed it. The Japanese guy was surprised and smiled. You know what he said? He said ‘Yankee Ingenuity’. Can you believe it? ‘Yankee Ingenuity’! I felt so proud for a job well done. And we Yankees did have ingenuity. We could make things. Fix things. Look at us now—we can’t do a damn thing with our hands, we’ve lost our respect for it.
S: When you say America has lost respect for people who work their hands, is there a price being paid for that?
P: Of course there is. No one wants to work hard with their hands anymore. We’ve let the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans make things for us—and they do a damn good job of it. There is such an emphasis on kids getting a college education—a finance degree or study to be lawyer or a doctor. By the time they do so, many of them are up to their necks in debt. They become adults in trouble rather than children in trouble. Most of them don’t get the jobs they want and end up in the mail room or some such hell-hole.
(He took a deep breath and then continued)
P: Let me tell you another story. I know this one lady, her daughter didn't go to college and became a beautician because she wanted to. She worked hard and five years ago she bought her own shop. She did what she wanted to and now has her own shop. She's doing great and is earning more than most college graduates, who start out in life with a debt on their heads.
S: Are you saying a college degree has no value?
P: No. What I’m saying is that it isn’t everything. Can every kid with a college degree get a job that he really wants? It isn’t possible. So many of them are miserable—jumping out of windows, getting into drugs. They think money is the answer. If only they have more money! For me work has to come first. Not the money. When I look at a job I try to figure out how am I going to do it—What’s the best way? How to get it right? Kids today think differently: they want to know how much does it pay? They don’t ask themselves what they’d really like to do, just how much will they earn.
S: How did all of this money mania happen?
P: Through the government and the media—they sold a dream. And everybody got sucked in. (Shakes his head) It’s entered our blood stream. Young kids today have a hard time talking to a person. They don’t look you in the eye. They are constantly on their phones, on their iPads, on the internet. They are scared. They can't meet people. They don't meet people. They work at jobs they don't really like. They only get an identity when they buy a home they can’t afford, when they wear a thousand dollar suit—two hundred dollar sneakers or shoes, most of it on credit. That’s the dream being sold by the media. Can all this shit give you an identity? Look at me. I have an identity in this old tee-shirt and this old pair of jeans. Everybody in the neighborhood knows me. They know Philip, the locksmith.
S: Is Philip, the locksmith, happy?
P: You bet I am! I earn more than a hundred thousand bucks. I have had three wives, two mistresses, I have five children, two grandchildren. Isn’t that a life of a happy man? I’m better-off than most guys with degrees.
S: Do you always compare yourself with them?
P: Not really. But sometimes I do because I worry where kids are heading today. Not just kids, adults too. I worry about what we’ve done to ourselves. Ever seen people on the streets? When they see a work of art or a piece of architecture that they like, they don’t soak the experience in: they just take pictures and move on. They are in such a terrible hurry—fucking pictures. Can you believe it?
S: They have no time to stand and stare.
P: Yeah. I hope they have time to see the pictures they’ve taken.
S: How long do you think that people like you, who work with their hands—how long do you think they are going to last?
P: Depends on the part of the county. In other parts of the country it will last for a little longer, over here I don’t know. I don’t even know if any of my kids would take over from me.
S: What kind of an America would you like to see?
P: Let me think. There were some things in the 60s that I didn't like. I didn't like the Vietnam War. I didn't like the racism. If you were black in this country, you were fucked. You had to face a lot of shit. It’s much better now. But the wars are still happening—we are into too many wars.
P: I don’t know—we are a violent country. Look at our movies, television, video games. There’s a lot of violence out there. When we had the draft during the Vietnam War people questioned why their kids were being sent. We questioned the war. We don't have the draft anymore. It was scrapped. So now we have an army that can’t question and many of our soldiers are new immigrants. So we promise them a Green Card after their stint. We promise them some kind of college education, so now they do four years in the army just so that when they get out, they can get to go to college or get a Green Card. So they go to fight, they have no choice.
S: It sounds very mercenary.
P: It is. It’s sad but that’s the way it is.
(There is silence for a while and then I ask)
S: Do you have any hobbies?
P: (Smiles broadly) Yeah, see that green shutter over there? (Points to a shutter that is on a side-street diagonally opposite his shop). That’s my studio—lots of equipment out there.
S: What do you do at the studio?
P: I create my sculptures. It helps me relax.
(I look across the street and then turn back to Philip. A customer walks in. I decide to leave.)
S: Thanks for giving me your time.
P: You’re welcome.
I depart. I cross the street, pause and glance at the shop once more. I see Philip the Greenwich locksmith hunched over his out-of-place work desk in his out-of-place shop. He is back at work. I wonder if will raise his head and look out. He doesn’t. I smile and walk on.