Morning At The Bar

Break-in Blues

This happened a while ago, but it stands out in my mind as a shining example of, well, I don't know exactly what, but here it is. . .
A safe company in SF subcontracted me to hurry over to a well- known SF bar after a break-in. As often happens, the burglars' forcible safe-opening attempt hadn't gone well. The damage done to the safe made it unopenable by its owner. It was obvious that they didn't know the first practical thing about forcibly opening even a lightweight box.
The other part of their misfortune was that the object of their attention happened to be a lot more than a lightweight box. The burglars had tangled with a Hermann round door chest, a made-in-San Francisco burglary resistive chest whose claim to fame was, "never successfully burglarized." I don't know if that was accurate, but if it wasn't, it wasn't ,too much of a stretch. The Hermann round door chests were tough propositions for burglars.
The erstwhile safecrackers had chosen a unit set into a surrounding waist-high block of rough-poured concrete. The attacks they tried, with hammering, prying, dial-smacking, and so on, were a testimonial to their ignorance of safe opening how-to.
Hermann Safe of San Francisco was once well-known for making burglary-resistant round door safes. One of Hermann's claims to fame was that in their day, none of their cannon breech models had ever been successfully burglarized. These safes were once very common fixtures at businesses in and around San Francisco
I arrived just after eight. A small crowd of edgy barflies was milling around on the sidewalk near the still-locked front door, waiting for the police to finish investigating and the bar's owner to open their watering hole. The police investigation had delayed their morning tee- o by at least a couple of hours, and these were guys who relied on their 6am shots and beers to kick start their respective business days.
The bar owner opened the door to my knock, let me in, then went back to what he'd been doing; running around, picking things up, sweeping broken glass, and stopping every minute or so to shout at a helper.
Between diatribes he showed me around:
The burglar(s) had gained entry through a back door via pry bar, then went to all the usual places: oce, not much there, bar room, game and vending machines. There was an opening till in the register, then whatever jackpot awaited whoever was willing to tear the vending machines open. When the burglars found the safe they must have figured the jackpot was inside it, and made all the more or less standard "Know-Nothing" moves, all involving a hammer.
The safe, a 1940s-vintage Hermann unit, featured a round door that operated like a cannon breech. Opening the combination lock allowed a user to rotate the door until a set of steel tabs (commonly known as lugs) on the door cleared mating lugs in the door frame. At that point the door, whose front faced the ceiling, could be swung upward like a hatch on a submarine's deck. Such safes are known in the industry as lug door chests.
Hermann lug door safes were tough cookies, then and now. Lug door safes were designed for resistance to drilling, torching, and explosives like nitroglycerine. The bar burglars were woefully under-equipped; the safe hardly knew it was under attack. Often in attempted safe burglaries the work transcends simple crime for profit, instead becoming a self-imposed Machismo Challenge. When erstwhile safecrackers fail miserably, as in this bar burglary, they often get angry and vindictive, again typical.
Thus, when a stupid steel box makes a fool of you and casts a shadow on your machismo, you do what comes naturally: You start channeling Mighty Hulk. Smash and break whatever sticks up, you break the glass in the video machines, throw bar supplies around, tip over bar stools, and in general show your displeasure by creating a huge mess.
Trashing a premises after failing at safe opening is infantile but common behavior. I remember thinking it was lucky they hadn't smashed the big old mirror running the length of the bar's back wall. Maybe they just hadn't gotten around to it when they called quits. Or maybe they were superstitious.
After assessing the damage I got to work. First the safe had to be opened so the owner could get yesterday's money out, then it had to be repaired.
Despite the damage, the opening part went quickly and easily. It was easier and safer to remove the heavy round steel door from the safe and repair it on the floor, where there was more room and better light.
The repair work was going okay, but I needed a decision from the owner about one aspect of the repair, so I asked, "Do you want me to replace this handle? It will cost an additional
The mere thought of adding more money to what this break-in had already cost seemed to have set the owner o. Upon hearing my question, the owner stopped in mid stride. Without answering me, he went behind the bar to the cash register, opened the drawer and  snatched up a handful of ones. He came back around the end of the bar, crumpling the bills in his hand into a shapeless wad as he walked over to where I was sitting cross-legged on the floor with the safe door.
I've worked around distraught and angry people before, and I knew his emotions had to be at flood tide. All understandable, excusable even, considering his plight. But then he did something inexcusable: Loudly enough enough to be heard on the sidewalk outside, he loomed over me and shouted, "You want more money? Here, take the rest! You might as well finish cleaning me out!" opening his clenched fist over my head and letting the wadded bills flutter down on me and his safe door.
To say the least, I was surprised. I hadn't gone there to be his lightning rod, especially in such a public and humiliating way. The barflies went dead silent as they waited to see how I would handle the owner's display.
Seething, I weighed my options, decided, then quietly began a fast and perfunctory reassembly of the parts I'd removed, with few if any worries about exact parts placement or any fine-tuning for optimal future operation.


As far as I was concerned, the safe only had to lock once more. The moment I knew it would, I gathered my tools and locked my case. Last, I carried the heavy safe door back to the waist-high concrete block behind the bar that held the safe body and carefully replaced it without reattaching the hinge.


Satisfied that it not only worked on the new combination I'd set but that it would also lock properly, I rotated the door back to it's locking position and gave the dial several turns to scramble the wheels inside the lock. Turning to the owner, who seemed to have already forgotten, I said, "You don't owe anything for this visit." Then I got my case and left. My original intent when I picked it up was to heave the safe lid through the large mirror over the cash register, but it was way too heavy for such histrionics.


After putting my tool case back in my truck and rolling out of there, I called the people who had subbed me on that job. When the dispatcher answered I gave a brief thumbnail sketch of the incident, finishing with, "If that guy calls and wants me to return, I'm not going, not today, not tomorrow, or ever. You'll have to either send someone else or tell him he should find someone on his own."


The dispatcher said "okay." I hung up and kept driving. Minutes later the dispatcher called back, saying, "He just called. He was super-apologetic, says he was too upset by the break-in to think straight. He says to please call him, he'll make it up to you if you'll just go back and finish the job."


I figured he'd do that, but my mind was made up. He wasn't going to make it all better with crocodile tears, more money, and a show of penitence. This time I would exercise my option to not serve this guy. I never went back.


As an independent business operator I can indulge myself and do things like that whenever I feel like it. You'd think that would mean I don't have to hold still for any of the rude treatment I'd just been subjected to, but in the course of my career I've walked away from very few jobs. While it's true that I don't have to be a doormat for the safe users I meet, it's also true that if I gathered up my ball and catcher's mitt and left every time I felt insulted by a rude customer, in no time at all I'd have no business. Some people just live rude.


While an immediate punch in the nose would have been more apropos, I definitely wasn't going down that road.


I've had shouters, screamers, whiners, and super-rude clients, but the dollar-sprinkling in that bar was a first. However, when I looked at it and factored how it fit into the Grand Scheme of Things, that little contretemps qualified as no more than "super-rude." Certainly not worth the trouble a proper nose-punch would have caused, no matter how soul- satisfying it might have been.


I don't know if that bar owner ever got his safe open again. If he did, I hope he was nice to the safe tech who did the job. END
Ken Dunckel
Owner, Safecracker
Serving San Francisco & Bay Area



Mister C said…
That story was great! I was so excited when I saw that you had a new article in my custom RSS feed. Keep up the great writing.
Ken Doyle said…
I think you could have made your point and still taken the money that you had earned by walking out and forgetting about replacing handle. You opened the safe and repairs/parts are extra. That handle is obsolete and would be difficult to replace, but somehow, I think you had one on a shelf in your shop.

Don't get me wrong. I would have packed up and left in a hurry, too but without a word and WITH the money. Rudeness earns nobody a free ride in my book.

Just another opinion from another safecracker

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