Latching on to some good old-fashioned reliability

October 05, 2002|By ROB KASPER

HOUSE PARTS, like hippies, have a tendency to drop out.

For any teen-agers in the audience who don't know what hippies are, the short answer is they used to be your parents. When your parents were much younger, they spouted off about peace, love and freedom. Now they advocate curfews, driving restrictions and mandatory testing.

Eons ago, dropping out was a popular concept. Roughly translated it meant getting out of the mainstream, getting in touch with your feelings and not working too hard. That is pretty much what the latch bolt on my screen door did this week. It dropped out of the door, then rolled around on the backyard bricks, catching some rays of sunshine.

What it didn't do was its job. Namely keeping the back door closed. This meant that our household had an "entrance that was not secure." That was bad news, especially these days.

I did not delve into why the latch bolt dropped out. When you own a house you learn pretty fast to avoid wading into the quagmire of causality. Maybe the fall of the latch bolt was caused by global warming, or shifts in the Earth's plates, or harmonic convergence. Whatever the big picture explanation for the latch dropping out was, I did not want to go there.

Nor did I want to look too hard for the smaller explanation of the trouble. The answer probably had something to do with the "o-word." That would be "old," as in "it was old, it couldn't take the day-to-day stress, it fell apart." We members of the peace-love-and-freedom generation don't like to mention the o-word, nor its frequent companion the "a-word" age, as in old age.

Moreover, when you own a house, a car, or anything with working parts, you quickly become familiar with "UFOs" - Unidentified Fallen Objects. That bolt that rolled out from under the Barcalounger, that rogue piece of metal that appeared behind the television, that strange sphere found under the front seat of the car - all of them are UFOs. You pick them up, put them in a jar, and bide your time.

That is what I did with the latch bolt when I found it basking on the bricks near the screen door. I had no idea what it was. So I took it inside the house, and waited for a sign from the cosmos telling me what I was dealing with.

It didn't take long. As soon as the wind kicked up, the screen door started flapping. As I studied the broken screen door latch I had a revelation: A journey lay before me.

There was a time in my life when travel was seen as an opportunity for self-discovery. Fueled by tales in books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I once yearned to set out on the open road and find meaning and fulfillment.

This was not going to be one of those journeys. Instead it was going to be a trek to four stores - Belle Hardware in Bolton Hill, Roberts Key Service in Mount Vernon, the Wal-Mart in Port Covington, the Lowe's in Timonium - before finding what I needed, Kwikset screen door latch No. 341BCP, in the hardware section of Walbrook Mill & Lumber on West North Avenue.

Along the way, I did learn things. I learned when seeking a latch replacement, your "backset" is crucial. That is the distance between the edge of the door and the middle of the hole drilled through the door that the latch assembly slips into. After peering into myriad numbers of shrink-wrapped packages of latch and doorknob assemblies, I learned that I had an abnormal backset. The norm is anywhere from 2 1/4 inches and 2 3/4 inches. Mine was 2 inches.

I learned it is not a good idea to show up at a mega-hardware store 15 minutes before closing. Service tends to fall off when the loudspeaker system is urging customers to vamoose.

And I saw amazing sights, such as the kid on a bike, doing a wheelie down the middle of North Avenue, just west of Fulton, as aggressive morning rush-hour traffic whizzed past him.

When my quest ended - the clerk at Walbrook immediately recognized the broken screen door latch I had taken with me - I felt more relieved than fulfilled.

As the clerk handed me the replacement screen door latch, he used the "o-word," describing the assembly as "old but reliable."

That was a description I could live with.

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