Day 49: Off-Key – Why I’ll Never Be A City’s Pride

originally published February 18, 2012

The Key to the City.

It sounds so glamorous. What does it open? Everything in the city? Is it a magic key? To the city’s vending machines? An unending supply of Twix and Fresca?

I’ll probably never be awarded the key to any city, but the arbitrary honor remains a curiosity. I came upon a list of Keys of the City for the United States, and it really makes me question Wikipedia’s thoroughness.

Is it possible that the only people to have been given keys to the city of Beverly Hills are the Kardashian-Jenner family and Larry King? According to this article, that’s the case. Corona, California has only given out one key, to a cat. The world’s tallest cat.

Bonus: he can probably reach the keyhole of whatever the key might open.

Hollywood’s only keys were given out to Victoria Secret models in 2006 for holding their fashion show in LA for the first time. This one seems logical, somehow. The only other keys listed for California include ‘Sully’, the pilot that landed US Air 1549 in the water, and Sam Born, who invented a machine that shoves sticks into lollipops.

The more I look at this list, the less impressed I am with the key concept. Miami has given a key to Shaquille O’Neal and rapper Pitbull, that’s it. It seems that people who cure diseases or invent things that make our lives better (apart from the lollipop guy) don’t get keys. Keys are given to sports stars and celebrities, and occasionally politicians. Either that or Wikipedia is only listing a select few from each city. But that theory doesn’t allow me to complain, so I’ll just keep going.

There’s Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, who was given the Franklin Springs key to the city after cutting the ribbon on the new city hall, after the old one had been destroyed by Hurricane Ivan. Perdue cut a ribbon. The people who designed and built city hall were given their paycheck and sent home.

The Harris County Hospital District received the key to New Orleans, just for providing health care to a bunch of evacuees after Hurricane Katrina. Wait, that actually sounds like a valid one.

So what do you have to do to get the key to Detroit? Start a record label that’s synonymous with the soul of the city? Sorry Barry Gordy, no dice. However if you play football for a competing team (Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers), play hockey (Steve Yzerman – this makes sense), or become Enemy #1 of the United States (Saddam Hussein), that’ll do.

That’s right, Saddam had the key to Detroit, probably tucked in that little underground hidey-hole of his. It was given to him in 1980 because he donated a few hundred grand to a local Detroit church. I’ll pause a moment to allow the what-the-fuckedness of that sink in.

Terrell Owens was given the key to the city of Buffalo when he was traded there in 2009, provided he catch at least 10 touchdown passes and lead the Bills to the playoffs. He caught five, the Bills missed the playoffs, and TO was released after that season.

New York has the right idea – this is a town that knows how to honor heroes. Andrew Hamilton, Charles Lindbergh, even Sully got the key to New York, which means he’s one of the only people who has had to purchase a Keychain To The Cities. The only football heroes honored are the only ones that matter: the two Giants teams who stuck it to the Patriots in Super Bowls 42 and 46.

Sad Brady is the best Brady.

Going more local, I see there are no recipients of keys to Edmonton. Either we don’t have keys or we lost them somewhere and dammit we’re in a hurry – did we check the freezer? Hmm. Calgary has given away its fair share of city keys, to noble people like Vladimir Putin, Pope John Paul, Prince Charles… then we have Dr. Phil, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, Kevin Costner, Tommy Chong and George W. Bush.

As I understand it, W. was awarded the key to Calgary when he visited the city after his presidency, so when a great deal of people (especially in Canada) loathed him. I’d like to think that W. and Tommy Chong were awarded their keys in the same ceremony. That would have made great television.

Winnipeg has, for whatever reason, bestowed its keys onto Shannen Doherty, Shirley MacLaine, Gene Simmons and the Fonz.

Bogota, Colombia has a lengthy list of foreign presidents, dignitaries, chancellors and Hillary Duff, all who have keys to the city.

In most other countries, the ‘keys’ are replaced with the term ‘Freedom of the City’, which sounds even more exciting. I’m not certain, but I think this would give you the right to break whatever law you want, then follow it up by yelling “Diplomatic Immunity!” like that guy in Lethal Weapon.

That is, until it just gets revoked.

Liverpool is a town that’s just gushing with Freedom to bestow. The Beatles all received the honor, of course (in 1984, but that’s better than never). They also honored Nelson Mandela and, because they didn’t want to leave anyone out, the entire city of New York.

London has been awarding Freedom of the City since 1237. If you receive this honor (which you normally have to request, then pay a small fee for), you get a guide to conducting your life in an honorable fashion. You also get a certificate. Your children can go to the City of London Freemen’s School. You can drive sheep and cattle over London Bridge. You can carry a naked sword in public (possibly not a euphemism). If you are found drunk on the streets, the cops put you in a cab and send you home, they don’t bring you to jail.

Roughly 1800 people apply for this honor every year, mostly people who really want to spend a year being naked and drinking on the streets of London. The most noble honor London can give you though, is a free pass. All monarchs have been awarded Honorary Freeman status, as well as a small number of others, like Bill Gates, Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. No Hillary Duff here, no Pitbull, no tall cats.

Perhaps in the next couple years I’ll write a piece about some town and they’ll love it so much they’ll give me a key. I doubt it though. I’m just going to have to take my chances and hope my public drunkenness is tolerated, even though I lack…


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