Vonfranklin Marshall, master automotive locksmith, is deep in a downtown Washington parking garage, facing the passenger window of a rather dusty 1992 Ford Escort.
He smiles softly. His hands begin moving.
He has a long, dark tool--it's called an "under-the-window tool"--and it is whipping rapidly around and about the car window. From behind, Marshall looks as though he might be energetically conducting the National Symphony Orchestra.
Suddenly, without a key, he has opened the car door. It has taken him precisely 20 seconds.
"There is no car I can't get into in under 30 seconds, and without damaging it," Marshall has stated earlier in the evening, though he later concedes that there are some cars that simply cannot be so easily opened--if at all. They are designed that way; they cost a lot of money.
Marshall opened one, however. It was a BMW 325-I with deadbolt locks, parked one night on the valet platform down at the Marriott at 14th and Pennsylvania. The keys were in the ignition.
"I don't know why I tried it," Marshall says, "but I did." He peered through the window, noticed that the key chain had an electronic door opener, and inserted a tool all the way in to snag the key chain. Then, with the skill and patience of a surgeon, he manipulated it to where he could use a tool to press the remote door opener.
"Sometimes," he says, "people are frightened at how easy it is to get into their cars. I can just look at a car and know exactly how to open it."
The Escort owner in the downtown parking garage the other day--Thomas Proctor, 26, a data entry contractor for the federal government--wasn't frightened, however. He was delighted.
"I left the keys in the ignition," he'd explained to Marshall when the locksmith had pulled up in his immaculate white van at 5:30 p.m. "Usually I'm driving my VW, and you can't lock the keys in because you have to use them to lock the door. But today I'm driving my wife's car.
"A silly mistake like this cost me a night's work," he added ruefully.
Then he smiled. After all, he'd had to wait only 45 minutes for the locksmith and now he was going home early. He'd even called his wife at work, and she was going home early to meet him.
"I just love this job," Marshall says, driving off to the next emergency. "People are always glad to get the service. They're just so grateful, so happy! I get lots of hugs."
Marshall, 38, was born and raised in the District. His father was a corrections officer at the D.C. Jail. Luckily for young Vonfranklin, who admits to having been a bit of a hell-raiser in his youth, he found the straight and narrow path in time to avoid being locked up himself.
Now he's a man who talks happily about his wife, Gia, as "the love of my life. I get my strength from God, and my motivation from my wife." They have a new baby, and Vonfranklin has three children from previous marriages. As he roamed the city on a recent evening responding to distress calls from stranded motorists, he kept in touch with his family via cell phone.
Marshall got into locksmithing just four years ago, running calls for AAA on the suggestion of a friend who taught him the business. "It was a blast," he found, and a great relief after his years as an emergency room technician at D.C. General. Instead of facing blood and guts on a daily basis, Marshall suddenly found himself interacting with a broad range of humanity in a whole new and deeply satisfying way.
As he moved into his new line of work, he kept his day job at a Coalition for the Homeless house on 14th Street NW. There, he works with veterans who are recovering from alcohol and drug problems.
Branching out on his own, Marshall also taught others the locksmithing business. Now he has a small network of buddies--one specializes in residential homes, another in commercial, and they cooperate with one another. Though automobile work tends to pay less, Marshall likes its special variety and excitement, and has focused on it; he'll still take house and other jobs from time to time, however, if they seem interesting.
Now, as sole proprietor of his one-truck business, "Locked Out--Lost Keys" (Motto: "We unlock your problems!"), he regularly works 18-hour days and says he earns in the six figures annually; he spends $600 a month for an ad in the Yellow Pages, and nearly $1,000 on cell phone calls.
On a winter weekend night, you might find Marshall on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, lying on his back under the steering column of a car, reading the secret "key codes" that will enable him to make a new ignition key from scratch. Or in the heat of a summer night, you might find him over at a housing project in Southeast Washington.
"Southeast is taboo to most locksmiths after dark, but I'll go over there," Marshall says. "Those people are so happy to see you, they want to name their firstborn after you." He prides himself on being available to needy people in the city almost every night, adding that he's never had a serious problem with security in such situations.
Variety is the spice of the locksmithing life.
"People call me on the most amazing things," Marshall says. "A kitchen door needs a lock, a suitcase won't open, a closet locked shut. You'd be amazed. Yesterday a lady called and said, 'Thank God you're still doing locks!' "
It turned out that he'd opened her car a few years ago, and she was so satisfied that she'd saved his card. Now her daughter needed new locks on her house, and she wanted Marshall to go over and take care of the matter. He did, offering to put new high-quality locks and deadbolts on four doors for $211.
Once he was called over to the White House, where some high official or other had locked his keys in the car.
"After I took care of it," Marshall recalls, "he said, 'Want to go on a tour of the White House?' It was 10:30 at night, and I'm walking around the White House in my jumpsuit--I mean, the Oval Office, the situation room, the cafeteria. He gave me some Bill Clinton M&Ms."
Then there was the time he got a call from a housewife in a fancy neighborhood. "What a looker she was!" Marshall says. "She'd caught her husband cheating and kicked him out, so that at 3 a.m. in the morning she wanted me to change all 23 locks in this huge house they had.
"So there I am changing the locks, and the guy comes in. He's 6-6, he'd been a football halfback, and I'm on my knees in the theater they had in their basement, changing the locks."
"What the [expletive] are you doing?" the husband asked.
"Er, changing the locks," Marshall replied.
Fortunately for Marshall, the husband and wife started shouting at each another at that point and the locksmith was able to beat a quiet retreat.
Then there was the time he got a call from a downtown men's club, where sadomasochism was practiced.
They'd locked themselves in the dungeon.
One recent evening, Marshall starts off by running a few Triple-A calls. As an independent subcontractor, he doesn't make much money on these but they keep him busy while he waits for the more lucrative business that comes directly to his "Locked Out--Lost Keys" cell phone.
Donna Campbell is locked out of her 1996 Ford Windstar van. In fact, she explains when Marshall arrives in front of a Northwest Washington row house, she doesn't have a key at all.
No problem, the locksmith assures her, after checking her driver's license and AAA card.
He rummages inside his van and returns with several big key rings holding a total of 226 keys. One of them will open the door, Marshall explains, because for this type of van, Ford made only 226 different keys.
He tries one after another, going through almost all of them before finding the right one.
Of course, he might not have found it--for the simple reason that he might not have turned the key in just the right way; minuscule variations in individual keys and locks can affect how a key needs to be turned.
If Marshall doesn't find the right key on the first run-through, he's prepared to try again. (Campbell's AAA membership covers a $125 job like this with no out-of-pocket expense to her.)
"Now," Marshall explains, "this door key will point us in the right direction for the ignition key."
That's because on this van, one key operates both door and ignition--but different parts of the key, or "cuts," are for each, with an overlap of two cuts. By identifying the overlapping two cuts, Marshall is able to narrow his search for the ignition key to 18 possibilities. He goes to his van and returns with yet another key ring, this one containing those 18 keys.
He tries each. Six of them start the van!
The reason for this, he explains, is that the vehicle's ignition is worn and loose, so that a number of keys will start it even though those keys vary slightly from one another. Marshall picks one of them and, working at a grinder in the back of his van, makes a copy for Campbell.
The whole process takes about 40 minutes, not counting travel time. While this seems like a lot of work, Marshall says the job was comparatively easy. On some makes and models, he must locate the secret key codes that tell him how to cut an ignition key--or even disassemble the ignition to map the intricacies of its wafers and tumblers.
Marshall presents the new key to the van's owner.
"It's going to be a little rough at first," he warns her, "but it'll smooth out as you use it. Be sure and put it all the way in."
"Thank you," she says with a warm smile.
She seems very happy, indeed.
One day, Marshall recalls, he had the ultimate automotive locksmithing experience: He locked himself out of his van.
"I went to the van to get my tools and left my keys on the seat. Everything I needed to open the van was in the van. It was embarrassing!" Finally, however, Marshall saved the situation by calling upon a rarely used skill--but one that any locksmith worth his salt could employ blindfolded:
He picked the lock.
CAPTION: Trying nearly 226 keys, Vonfranklin Marshall helps Donna Campbell get back into her Ford Windstar.
CAPTION: Donna Campbell is delighted when Vonfranklin Marshall provides a new key.
CAPTION: "I get lots of hugs," says locksmith Vonfranklin Marshall, below.