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A LOCKSMITH'S STORIES FROM THE MEAN STREETS

KEYS TO THE CITY:
Tales of a New York City Locksmith
By Joel Kostman
DK Ink
136 pages, $19.95

People in need of a locksmith are often people in crisis. They've locked themselves out of the car or the apartment, or someone -- a spouse, a relative -- has done it for them. Or they've suffered a burglary, and only new deadbolts and different keys will begin to restore their peace of mind.

Into the breach steps Joel Kostman, who for 19 years has driven the New York City streets with his bag of tools and his natural talent for observing and listening. The result is "Keys to the City," a quite engaging little collection of 14 vignettes from the locksmith's life.

Kostman, an unpublished novelist, dictated these stories into a tape recorder as he cruised from job to job. And they read like well-honed conversation -- full of illuminating detail, putting emphasis on the people involved, and easy on the attention span.

"Mint Condition," for example, is a seven-page gem in which we meet a resilient 10-year-old boy, caught up in the majesty and wide green spaces of baseball -- while Kostman adds a third lock to the door of Apartment 8M, in hopes of keeping the boy's crack-addict father at bay.

"The Chapel of Love," even more brief, starts in a tiny one-room apartment beneath a railroad bridge, the apartment of a failed guitarist, and ends with a pickup jam session on the big bad streets of New York -- the guitarist, a saxman and six little kids riffing sweetly on "Goin' to the Chapel and We're Gonna Get Married."

One more: In "The Going Rate," a young woman in a Sutton Place apartment and Madison Avenue clothes quibbles over the price, then finds a moment of connection with her working-stiff locksmith when they're interrupted by a nasty phone call from her ex-husband.

Kostman doesn't shy from revealing some of his own sore spots in these encounters: his painful romantic history, his schizophrenic brother. And he has a writer's knack for setting up a punch line that makes suddenly clear, for example, why five wrinkled grandfathers are sitting around without clothes in an apartment when, outside, the wind chill is 35 below.

There are a million stories in the Naked City. We could use more storytellers like this one.