Key to getting a key to the city? Just ask
In terms of symbolism, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's presentation of keys to the city to the Yankees last week was hot stuff. A practice that traces to medieval times, awarding a key to the city traditionally is conferred on heroes and luminaries and usually recognizes some notable accomplishment.
But not necessarily. New York comic Mark Malkoff, who has embarked on such stunts as visiting all 171 Manhattan Starbucks franchises in one day and living in a New Jersey IKEA store for a week while his apartment was fumigated, currently is traveling the country asking majors to give him keys to their cities. Malkoff told National Public Radio on Saturday that he is up 94 keys, bestowed him in exchange for community service or, in some cases, merely for asking.
That sort of availability, and the long list of Big Town's key recipients, recalls the old story of an award's perceived preciousness relating to college football's Heisman Trophy. Les Horvath, the 1944 Heisman winner, had been trying to convince his wife just how special the trophy was - and therefore worthy of a place of honor in their living room - when the Horvaths visited the homes of friends Tom Harmon and Doc Blanchard, who (Mrs. Horvath did not realize) also had won the designation as college players of the year, in 1940 and 1945.
"Les," Mrs. Horvath said, "you told me that football trophy of yours was really something special, but it turns out everyone we know has one."
Roger Clemens has a key to New York City (given prior to accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs). And John Franco, David Cone, David Wells and Tom Glavine. The roll call of personalities, who were not Major League pitchers but also were given New York's keys, ranges from members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to Mikhail Gorbachev, from Olympic skating gold medalist Sarah Hughes of Kings Point to Nelson Mandela, from every New York City marathon champion to Mother Teresa, from the 2008 Super Bowl champion Giants to Pope Paul II.
Each key costs the city $100, is 5 3/4 inches in length and gold plated, with the mayor's name engraved on it. It is a replica of a key to the back door of the current City Hall - originally the front door from the building in the early 19th Century.
But it doesn't open anything. (In effect, the city has changed the locks.) The whole idea is merely to express welcome, "an honor at the discretion of the mayor," said Jason Post of the New York City mayor's office. In medieval Europe, cities were protected by walls and gates, and a "key to the city" bestowed visiting dignitaries the permission to pass at will.
Several countries continue to hand out "freedom to the city" or "key to the city" honors to celebrities and other notables; Liverpool, England, for instance, gave keys to each of the Beatles (John Lennon posthumously) in 1984. In the United States, the practice has begun to emphasize sports stars and also to take a few odd turns.
Six months ago, Buffalo handed the sometimes-troublesome-but-talented football pro Terrell Owens a conditional key to the city if he were to catch a minimum of 10 touchdown passes and lead the Bills to the playoffs this season. Detroit has given its key to hockey's Steve Yzerman and football's Jerome Bettis - but also to then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. (That was in 1980, when Iraq was a U.S. Cold War ally and Saddam reportedly had donated money to a Detroit church.)
Prior to the Yankee presentations last week, in recognition of their World Series victory - and including Roger Kahlon, who worked as interpreter for Series MVP Hideki Matsui - New York's key most recently had been bestowed on airline captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger and his crew for their dramatically successful ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River last January.
Meanwhile, Malkoff, the comedian who is mining cities across the nation for a key, has inquired about getting one from New York. Even though he didn't produce any runs in the World Series, pilot a daring rescue, institute Glasnost in the former Soviet Union, fight apartheid in South Africa or minister to the poor in India.
"We haven't yet" agreed to Malkoff's request, Post said. "But I've been e-mailing him."
Les Horvath's wife would suspect as much.