99 Percent Invisible Almost Turned Me into a Master Criminal

Sam Greenspan's manifesto on Transom.org encourages radio producers to wander in the world, field recorder in hand.  Like the "flaneurs" (men of leisure) of 19th century Paris, a producer should meander through the streets, observing and discovering stories.  It reminds me of Sean Cole's story of a fence he stumbled upon while drunk one night.

I do enjoy coming across unusual, unexpected things, though I've never wandered specifically to find them.  I did come across the Colt Park Shrine by way of a wrong turn while driving to watch a girl I had a crush on play rugby, but that was while driving.  To get out and walk -- that is another story.  I'd much rather scour the street view images on Google Maps.

However, when I heard a 99% Invisible story on Knox Boxes yesterday, I became a bit of a wanderer, albeit with a specific purpose in mind.  If you don't want to read that or listen about it on a segment on this podcast, here is the brief rundown... In order to save firefighters time and keep them safe, some buildings install a locked box near the entryway with keys to all the important doors.  A master key for the city is stored on the firetruck.  The lock boxes, called "Knox boxes" for the most-common supplier, are a bit of overlooked architecture that you'll start seeing everywhere once you know what they are.

I'm intrigued by this.  Stored in plain sight near a door on buildings across the country are keys to get in.  And very few people know about it (prior to the podcast being released, at least).  I must admit, I was tempted with visions of becoming a clever criminal who could break into office buildings without any sign of forced entry, if only I could figure out how to break into the Knox boxes.  Ah, but why take that risk?  I'll need to find my name somewheres else...

I was still curious, however.  I'm assuming these boxes would of course be found in NYC or San Francisco.  But what about Hartford?  So, this afternoon, I parked downtown and took off wandering.  I walked up and down streets, searching building walls for these boxes.

Not every building has them, apparently, but few do.  About a half-hour of walking around produced about eight or so boxes.  Here's one at the main entrance of TheaterWorks.


There it is, in plain sight, without anybody knowing what it is!

But the interesting thing that happened when I was walking was that I was, for a time, super-sensitive to the building and spaces around me.  I found an electric car recharging lot I never knew existed.  I found a small park, that I also never knew existed.  I found stores I had overlooked, and discovered that other business had failed when I wasn't looking.  I really saw the city like I hadn't really done before.  Amazing!

Of course, this is only part of the game of being a flaneur.  Next, I'll need to find an interesting, populated spot, take my field recording gear in tow, and actually wander around looking for interesting people and their stories.  As an interesting side note, last night I also read about WCAI's use on "sonic IDs": brief little vignettes of local people.  I do believe these two activities would go hand in hand, am I right?  Maybe it's time to try this out for Random Waves?