In the latest
installment of our recurring feature devoted to students’ hidden talents, Safecracking Bureau Chief Mark Hay shows us that some talents require anonymity.

Schnitzel’s talent is not so much hidden as it is, of necessity, clandestine. Under New York Penal Law 140.35, just by possessing the tools of his trade, Schnitzel (ed. note: nickname was self-chosen) is already a criminal offender – hence the need for anonymity. But Schnitzel doesn’t care all that much; he is a proud lock pick. In fact the first words he speaks to me as I enter his room are these: “So wait, do you want just lock picking stuff or miscellaneous breaking and entering tools? Because I’ve got some useful stuff here.” He pulls out a dark package and lays out a selection of picks – the eager tenderness, the absolute love and devotion, with which he handles each one tell do not speak of larceny, but rather of intricacy and art.

Although Schnitzel received his first set of picks as a gift from his father, he did not start to practice until his sophomore year of high school. At this point, he was a practitioner of what he refers to as “urban exploration, or exploring abandoned factories and opera houses and stuff” – an adrenaline rush, to be sure, but that was never the point. Rather, the goal was the youthful euphoria of discovery – to attain an experience most people will never achieve. And in the case of the lock picking involved in these explorations, the adrenaline can actually be a profound hindrance, given the meticulous and subtle nature of the craft.

Through a series of diagrams and demonstrations, Schnitzel shows me how lock picking works: a standard lock is a cylinder, within which there are (usually) five pins with randomly placed splits in them. The goal of the lock pick is to, through touch and experience – sheer mechanical skill – apply pressures to the pins in the proper sequence and align their splits along what is known as the sheer line, at which point the bolt of the lock will be released. Only the slightest of pressure changes tell the lock pick that he has succeeded with a given pin.

After all this detail, Schnitzel pauses and pulls forth one pick with an undulating tip – a rake pick. He recoils in disgust as he tells me about raking – jamming in a pick and rubbing it quickly along all of the pins, hoping that luck and chance will let all of them slide into place simultaneously. It’s not about getting in. The pride of accomplishment and sureness of his own skills when Schnitzel managed to open another man’s mailbox for the first time, the joy of overcoming a struggle – these are the ultimate ends for most recreational lock picks.

Back in Rumania, this sort of joy was not too hard to achieve. Their locks were so primitive that Schnitzel says he never came across one he could not open – “I’m talking houses, hotels, all sorts of things.” But in the modern world we have security pins – from the top, they feel like regular pins, but their bottoms are shaped with false grooves to trick the lock pick into thinking they have fixed the pin, then sliding out of place once the pick is removed. They cost almost nothing to install, and they are killing lock picking as an art. One could, Schnitzel tells me, learn to tell the minute pressure difference between a real and false hit on a pin, but it would differ with each type of security pin, and for Schnitzel the arduous training process, the need for constant practice, just isn’t worth the time investment. And to top it all off, in America pins are on the top of the cylinder, whereas in Europe they are on the bottom, meaning Schnitzel has gravity to contend with as well. Up against so many challenges, Schnitzel says he toys around with locks here – simple ones – but he is past his prime.

But watching Schnitzel undo a basic door lock (he keeps one handy for practice) in under a minute (unfamiliar ones take him between one and fifteen minutes – depending on the stress he’s under and attention he can devote), it’s hard to believe that a man with such skill wouldn’t be able to master a little security pin. Especially considering the time he has invested in this craft in the past – one of his tools was hand filed from a knife blade over the course of several weeks. When pressured, he admits that he tries yet – he’s even taken a crack at campus dorm locks. But these, he says, have thirty modern pins; it’s neigh on impossible without the sort of electronic tools used by modern locksmiths in lieu of the traditional picks. So rest easy, Columbians, behind your deadbolts – they’re strong enough to end a venerable art and drive its practitioners to the brink of madness. They’ll keep you safe at night.