Help! I have an ethical dilemma!

Keys I found, originally uploaded by ericandkatherine.

PoP contributor Eric Nuzum  has an ethical dilemma and needs your help in figuring out what to do.
“Good morning,” I called out to my neighbor Angela, who, despite living a few doors down from me for almost a year, still looks at me every time she sees me with a grimace that implies that she isn’t entirely unconvinced that I plan to kill, rape, rob, burn, mutilate, or bother her. “You didn’t…by chance…lose anything in the street…did you?”

“Like what?” she flatly replied, almost sounding interested.

“Like, I don’t know, a key or something?”

“You found a key…but you don’t know it’s a key?” she asked.

“I know it’s a key.”

“Then why’d you say you didn’t know? If you found a key, just say ‘I found a key.'”

“I found a key,” I said.

“Well, it ain’t mine.”

“Thank you, Angela.”

This was the second conversation I’d had about the keys I’d found right where the curb meets the street in front of my house. You know, that crevasse-like collecting point for potato chip bags, bottles, chicken bones, leaves, and syringes. However, one recent morning I looked down and saw something shiny: a set of keys. They were two identical keys, fairly new (but didn’t appear brand new) held together on a cheap metal ring. They looked like standard size keys–like for a door lock. Outside of a five-digit code on the side of the keys, there was no distinguishing marks, tags, or brand names. 

My first key-related conversation hadn’t gone much better.

“Hey there,” I called out to my neighbor, an old retired military guy (as evidenced by the multiple bumper stickers on his fleet of vehicles announcing this fact) who occasionally parks his pick-up in front of my house (instead of across the street in front of his house).  [Ed. Note: In Petworth parking is copious and there is an unwritten rule that the resident of the home parks in front of it.]

“I found something of value in the street yesterday and I’m not sure who it belongs to,” I said.

“Well, if it’s money–it’s mine.”

“It isn’t money,” I replied.

“Well, what is it?” he asked.

This was my real problem: how do you ask people on your street if they’ve lost something when you don’t want to reveal much about what it is? I thought about giving him hints like “They’re shiny,” or “They’re made of metal.” But eventually decided on the direct approach.


“Keys?” he asked rhetorically. “What are they to?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, how are you supposed to find out who they belong to if you don’t know what they open?”  Story continues after the jump.

It was a weird piece of logic, but I admired his novel approach to problem-solving. He was suggesting that instead of finding the owners, I should find the lock. Then, once I’ve found the lock, the owner should be pretty easy to ascertain. But this would entail roaming through the neighborhood, walking up to every lock I find and trying my key in it. It didn’t seem like the best idea.

But that is the general problem here–there are no good ideas. Thus, my big dilemma, which I now bring to you, dear neighbors and readers: If you found an unmarked pair of keys in the street, what should you do with them?

These two conversations ended my attempts at “Option #1: Ask around.” Obviously, it was time to move on to Option #2, or #3, or #4, or whatever 17 others you come up with in your comments.

It’s just so hard. When confronted with a lost item, “doing the right thing” shouldn’t be complicated. But it is. These damn keys have been a pain in my ass since I found them.

When I’ve asked others about what I should do, everyone first scolds me for picking them up in the first place. They say I should have just left them there, which is also no good. I mean, who is to say that the next person to happen across them would be so honest and neighborly. Who is to say they wouldn’t go around the neighborhood trying to stick the keys in every lock…and then steal the contents…and then spray paint a big “fuck you” on whatever they unlocked…and then it would all be my fault because I hadn’t picked up the stray keys.

This line of discussion inevitably leads to the next potential solution:

Option #2: Put the keys back. This seems smart on the surface, but it negates any potential benefit of a friendly/honest person finding them in the first place. It’s kinda like helping an old lady across the street, then, when you reach the other side, pushing her back out into traffic again.

There are two other ideas that I hear often:

Option #3: Throw the keys away. No way, because with my luck–the minute DPW carts away the contents of my Supercan, I’ll figure out who they belong to and I’ll have made things even worse by getting rid of the keys. Let’s imagine how I’d feel when my neighbor Joseph comes knocking on my door at 3 a.m. in a desperate search for the lost keys to the cabinet that holds his nephew Haji’s cancer medication. Little Haji would die–all because I “didn’t want to get involved.” Pul-eaze.

Option #4: Put up a sign/ad on Craig’s List/call the 5-0/etc… I thought of this one, which probably explains why it is such a stupid idea. What if I put up a sign saying “Lost keys” and someone calls–a notorious marauder or something–and claims to be the keys’ owner. I ask them to identify them, what are they going to say? “They’re shiny?” “They’re made of metal?”

There you have it. I still have the keys. They are sitting here waiting for me to figure out what to do. And I’m stuck. On one hand, you could say that, since I’ve had them for awhile, whatever damage is done. They have been replaced, lock rekeyed, or weren’t that important in the first place. On the other hand, you could say that any good act I was attempting to accomplish is moot unless I do something other than pick them up and put them on my kitchen table.

So tell me, friends and neighbors, what should I do with these $%@#*& keys?


27 Comment

  • Throw them away.

    Being a manager in retail, I would always collect people’s ids, credit cards, metro passes, keys, everything. And I would drive myself nuts trying to get them back to their owner. But look at it from their point of view. You lose your keys. You retrace your steps and they’re nowhere to be found. Crap. Well you can’t live on your porch, or Haji needs his meds, so you get a locksmith, or you have new keys made, or you change your locks entirely. At this point, the old keys are useless to you. And until the locks are changed, having them floating around is just a security risk to you.

    So after an initial effort to find the person and let them know I have their whatever, I destroy them. That way, I can know (and assure anyone who might call in months later) that they were never used improperly. And really, it’s so easy to get things like that replaced.

  • I imagine that a set of keys with only the cheap metal ring (no keyring) is usually a spare set anyway. Toss them.

  • Terminate with extreme prejudice.

    The right thing and the easy thing coincide nicely in this case.

  • Your method of asking neighbors about the keys does imply a certain distrust, so I’m not too suprised at the response you got. I’d continue to ask around, at least the nice folks, who you don’t think are out to take keys that aren’t theirs.

  • I would like to address the parking in front of you own house issue.

    First of all it is not possible for every one to have a spot directly in front of their house, furthermore your neighbor may have someone visiting and they park in front of my house…..well guess what! I might then park in front of your house.

    It drives me nuts when people come out of their house and tell me

    “hey! I pay my taxes, you can’t park in front of my house”

    When in the hell did I ever accuse anyone of not paying their taxes.

    My house has four professionally employed adults and three cars. So if parking spots are given out based on who is paying the most taxes, then sign me up.

    Finally (and I promise this rant will be over) When you park your car and you have enough room to make your spot two spots, please either pull all the way forward or all the way back.

    Oh (I am going break my promise) Please Learn how to parallel park and stop tearing up my bumper! If have trouble parking your enormous brand new Cadillac then get a smart car or something.

  • Eric I think you did the right thing in picking them up and then trying to find the owner. Like you said someone could have picked them up and used them to do bad things.

    Maybe you could just make a couple of signs near where you found them.

    “Found Keys. You show me what they unlock and you can have them back”…

    Or something like that. So you know the person is the honest to god owner of said keys and you return them and you have peace of mind.

    mjbrox-I agree, sometimes you just can’t park in front of your house…and sometimes the people that are so concerned with parking in their house end up hogging perfectly good parking for other people because then they leave huge gaping spaces on either side of their car that combined would make an excellent spot for one more car. Instead that one space that doesn’t get used ends up forcing another neighbor to park on an entirely different block-that is rediculous and un-neighborly.

  • Asking around would’ve been nice, if you’d done it in a nice way. But I don’t understand the suspicion you felt — and I’m sympathetic with the neighbors who treated you somewhat rudely. What did you expect they would do — say they’d lost keys when they hadn’t? Where would that get them? They’d have keys to a lock they didn’t know. Even if they were inclined to do nefarious things, they would have had to, as you said, go around trying random locks to see if the keys worked. Not a very efficient way to be a nefarious villain. Plus, you already had the keys, and _you_ weren’t going around doing nefarious things — so you are assuming that your next-door neighbors are more villainous than you. If I were Angela, I’d give you strange looks, too!

  • i have found all kinds of things…and generally i treat it like a mystery…i totallly work waaay too hard to find the owner…and then i feel like im BRILLIANT some kind of Hercule Poiroit when/if i find the owners…i still get christmas cards from a girl whose wallet i found and tracked for two days….as it only had a few credit cards, an out of state id and a furniture receipt… and its a fun game…. that said keys are hard….
    and while im sure the overall opinion will be to toss them…
    and im sure that is prob the right advice …
    i never do! of course im a barely pushing 5′ tall blond with a twangy southern accent…so im not very threatening when im trying strange keys in locks alll over town…

  • A couple quick responses:

    @mjbrox: I get your point, but the only reason it bothers me is that our street is quiet enough that you can often find spots on either side of the street–it just seems that he doesn’t want to go down the block and turn around. Plus, he live alone and has three cars–give me a break. Oh, and I *do* know how to parallel park–my skillz in that regard are poetry. And I wish I had a Cadillac (actually, I don’t). 😉

    @Simon: The point of the conversations with my neighbors was to illustrate my stupidity and confusion–not their rudeness. I’m only being silly with my comments about my neighbors (none of them are identifiable from the info I give). They are both great people. I completely recognize that *I* am the new guy on the block (anyone who’s lived there less than 15 years is considered “new”), so I often defer to their interests and preferences. I really do like them–and I think they like me too.

    @Kalia: I just should have emailed you first, that would have been a great idea.

  • Agree with Simon Says – you should have just asked – “did you lose any keys?”

    My mother in law lost the keys to my house. I told her and my partner that there is no way anyone would take the time to find the house the keys belonged to. It would be a stupid way to be a criminal – going door to door checking locks – dumb. Everyone insisted that we change the locks – to my strong opinion that it was not necessary, but I lost the arguement. $350.00 later all of the gates had been rekeyed. We had four gates, so it got quite expensive. Three days, three freakin days after getting the locks changed I found the damn keys right outside in the tree box. I had looked there previously, but somehow missed them.

    If after a few inquiries you cannot find the owner, throw them away. The person who lost keys will get over and get new ones.

  • throw them away.

  • What’s wrong with just saying you found some keys. It’s not like saying “did you lose 50 bucks” — they’re of no value to someone who didn’t lose them. Unless you think your neighbors would actually take the keys and start trying every lock on their street, hoping to gain access to one of their neighbor’s homes for the purpose of robbing it or killing the residents.

    I would just have asked the immediate neighbors if they lost keys and then chucked ’em. People lose keys all the time, it’s not the end of the world if they aren’t reunited.

    On the other hand if it was a CAR key with a remote unlock… now we’re talking good times.

  • after reviewing everything Eric you unfortunately come off like a drama queen. Perhaps the real exchanges weren’t as confusing as what you wrote. Perhaps you wrote up the exchanges to show a sort of nuanced city living confusion not unlike Jerry Seinfeld’s show or George Costanza, where the simple quickly escalates into a big deal. I sense there’s some of that artifice in what you’re trying to write… about it being “so hard to do the right thing.” But… I’ve found three sets of keys on the ground since I moved in. I’ve got a job, kids, wife, car, house, elderly parents, I travel for work, and I’ve got reports due every week. I don’t need to invent something intriguing to write about when I’ve been calling 911 once or twice a week on the drug dealers at the end of the block. If we come off a bit gruff its because rarely does this blog go off on this kind of minutiae, but we’ve all dealt with one friend or neighbor who tried to get us wrapped up in their confusion.

  • stick ’em in a drawer somewhere. if you don’t find the owner in a 2 months, toss them. it’s not a wallet or a phone or something. just (likely) spare keys. as someone who habitually loses things (and consequently is hard-core about returning things I find), I’d say keys are no big deal.

  • The obvious answer is to place the keys in a transparent lock box with a series of instructions to a zany scavenger hunt pasted to the bottom. A successful hunt will lead to the lock box keys and ultimately to the original lost keys. Inconvenient yes, elaborate certainly, but only two types of people are that dedicated to the keys: their owner and/or a dickens-esque attention starved street urchin… either way your brightening someones day.

  • Not to gang up but I completely agree with Simon and Neener here. I want my 10 minutes back from reading this drivel. The part where you think there may be a chance that DPW finds discarded keys in your trash and takes them for any reason is delusional. Please just throw the keys out. Put them in a half full mayonnaise jar if it makes you feel any better.

  • I’ve gone through what Kay went through…losing keys, re-keying, then finding keys. If my neighbors (who I am close to anyway) found keys, I’d appreciate knowing.

    Another thought…is there a house for sale on your block? I only ask because I copy keys frequently for lockboxes, so am often carrying around newly copied keys like that.

  • Id probably suggest just keeping them for awhile. There not a huge item to store or anything, and that way if someone does turn up, youll have them. Maybe wait a year or something, by then its probably pretty safe to toss em

  • A friend of mine dropped her car keys -with remote – on the street near Sherman & Harvard last year. Needless to say, someone easily figured out which car was hers, and took it on a month of joyrides. Just when she was hoping to get the insurance check, it was found, in very sad shape.

  • Make a copy of the keys then find the owner. Now you have a set of keys to someone else’s home! Party time…

  • To a few of the commenters who have criticized Eric’s post, perhaps you guys should use more discretion in choosing what you read. You don’t have to read every single post and comment on PoP, if a posting looks too long or uninteresting to you, you can simply skip over it — I do it all the time. And I’d rather not have to read some of the snarky/critical/negative comments that certain posters feel the need to express every day, but you know what? People are free to write whatever they choose (within reason) and I either skip over them or read them and then get on with life instead of complaining about it (until now, this has been on my mind for awhile). Ok, off soapbox now. Sorry if that was snarky.

  • Oh man, if I had a dime for every time someone asked for ten minutes of their life back following a conversation with me, I’d have gold plated teeth and use $100 bills as napkins.

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if it is about me. 😉

    It’s all in good fun folks. When the stock market loses (or gains) double digit percentages every day, neighbors are being foreclosed on, and it seems that someone you know is losing their job every day–sometimes arguing about what to do about a set of keys is a welcome distraction.

  • Anyone who doesn’t like my posts are welcome to skip them and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

  • I, for one, appreciate Eric’s posting something for us to argue about — it beats reloading realclearpolitics every five minutes! Cheers to his good humor.

  • Break them and then throw them away. If they’re broken they’re useless and no one will want them. Especially not murderous psychopaths searching through garbage for anonymous keys to use for ill will.

  • I have an alarm system with my new apartment and it came with a remote. It would cost me $100 if I lost it. So I registered at I also registered my iPhone there too. Hooray anonymous!

  • In posting a lost and found ad, you aren’t limited to “shiny” and “metal” in ID responses. You could ask them to identify the color (while silver and gold are the norm, keys come in other colors too), if it was a square or round head, the type of keychain, and whether there were other items on the chain. If someone lost their keys, they would be able to answer those questions, anyone else would just be guessing blindly and would be wrong on one of those points. Of course, now that a picture of the keys is out there, you can’t post an ad now.

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