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by Joshua Bernstein

For a period in the eighth year of my life I couldn’t get enough of my doorknob. Nothing was unusual about it; the doorknob was cheap brass, not unlike millions found in suburban bedrooms across the country. The doorknob featured a push-button lock that would’ve caused an incompetent cat burglar to laugh. To unhinge the mechanism all one did was take a wire coat hanger, preferably with a flat lip, and insert the tip into the horizontal slot on the lock’s exterior. Wiggle. Shimmie. Twist. POP! A bedroom’s contents revealed. And though I was a curious child who, with the turn of a hanger, interrupted his parents’ noisy, mid-afternoon coitus, what the lock concealed hardly intrigued me—I craved the POP.

When the lock was disengaged, the latches and hinges would hastily slide into a resting position. The result? A slight metallic POP. The sound was dismissible, even trivial—it was akin to an old car radio crackling on or the hiss of a gas stove awaiting a pilot light. These sounds barely registered on hammers and anvils, white noise blending into the aural landscape. My bedroom lock’s POP, though, sent my internal Richter scale into a San Francisco tizzy.

As the eldest of three children, I had my own bedroom. My younger sister and baby brother shared. It was an ideal situation for a son schooled in privacy by a dad with a den and a mom with a sewing room. They loved their locks. But I didn’t use my lock for their reasons; I was too young to keep secrets, too young to lead a separate life.

At eight I was frightened of three things: my closet, the space beneath my bed, and my bedroom door. With lights off, benign objects and areas assumed sinister bents. The coat rack revealed itself as a zombie. Clandestine closet monsters were keen to suck my brains. And beneath my bed? Another 15 years must pass before such horrors can be recounted. To keep closet fiends at bay I closed the door. A second pillow was my defense against beneath-the-bed baddies. As for my bedroom door, through which criminals would surely dash to pilfer my precious baseball card collection, my defense was, of course, the lock.

After brushing my teeth and peeing, I’d retreat to my bedroom and engage the lock with my index finger. PING. My Mark McGwire rookie was safe. I’d close my closets, peek under the bed, and hop onto my mattress. With everything secure I’d pull my Star Wars covers tight around my head and drift into dreams, a land where POP was just a Midwesterner’s way of saying soda.


A stormy night flipped my compulsive switch. Lightning and thunder, in my television-polluted mind, were fertile ground for criminals. I had to be double sure my door was secure. That night, after preparing for bed, I depressed the button. PING. I twisted the knob, testing the lock. I twisted too far, though, because the door unlocked with a loud POP. I engaged the push-button. Again I checked. POP. Engage. Check. POP. Engage. Check. POP. And on and on until certain my room was secure.

It took me five minutes.

I saw nothing wrong with that.

And that’s where my problem began.

At first I’d double-check my door. PING. POP. But after that stormy night, I was never convinced my door was properly locked. Hence, I’d try again. And again. Usually four or five tries satisfied me. That was manageable. But somewhere along the line the locked door stopped concerning me so much as that POP. It equaled safety. It equaled comfort. It had to be perfect.

Pretty soon, before I could fall asleep I had to hear a flawless POP. A clear, concise SNAP of metallic latches. Because it was so personal, it’s difficult to describe POP perfection. The closest analogy is Diet Coke Man.

In my brick-lined college town walked a middle-aged man. He always cradled a half-finished two-liter of Diet Coke. He would stroll the streets at night, his head dipped groundward, intermittently stopping to examine a scrap of paper or lift a rock. Diet Coke Man intrigued me; for what was he searching? One day I asked. "There’s an A and a B world," he mumbled. "I’m trapped in the B world and I’m trying to find my way back to the A world." Diet Coke Man knew what he wanted. So did I. POP.

Twisting and pushing and POPPING and PINGING. I’d lock and unlock my door more in one night than most in a lifetime. It was quite a ruckus, a rapid-fire mélange of snapping and twisting metal, punctuated by POP, blessed POP. My mania would’ve driven many to a bell tower. Luckily for fellow suburbanites, my parents owned no firearms.

Sound traveled easily in our ranch-style home. In later years, no matter how much I tiptoed, my mother always knew how late I slunk home. "I heard your doorknob creak at 2:30 in the morning, Josh," she’d say. "In the morning. What type of son comes home at 2:30 when his curfew is 12?" A stupid one. Their bedroom was across from mine.

In the beginning, my parents ignored me. "It’s just a phase," I could see my dad saying as he scrunched another pillow over his ears. "He’ll grow out of it, just like he grew out of eating cigarette butts." They allowed me to click and twist unfettered. Some nights I only needed a few turns; others a few thousand. But like with most manias, the latter soon swallowed the former alive.

I was losing sleep in search of my sound. My parents were, too. That’s when they intervened. Sort of. "Joshua Michael, will you please stop whatever it is your doing and go to sleep!" my mom would holler from her bedroom whenever my twist-o-rama began. "Like us," she’d add, "if only you’d stop making that noise! You’ll be sorry if you don’t stop!" I needed to hear my sound, but I feared punishment even more. As a reprisal, my dad was partial to hiding the monitor of my cherished Apple IIE. I was eight years old and dog less; the computer was my best friend.

Thanks to parental intervention, I started going to bed without my POP. I say went to bed, not sleep. The POP had become my Halcion, Xanax, and NyQuil; without it I was an insomniac mess. After a POP-less night, I’d make sure I heard my sound the next eve. Like an addict, I started sneaking around for my fix. I’d retire early to bed, feigning exhaustion, while my parents remained in their respective studies at the opposite end of the house. Then I’d work the door until I got what I wanted.


All these years later, a number of things still strike me as odd, which they should. First, I never trifled with the lock during the day; my obsession only arose at night. During the day, my fixation was limited to locking the front door when I left for school. And I only did that once.

Secondly, even though the other bedrooms had push-button locks, they little concerned me. Maybe it was a juvenile lesson in territoriality. Don’t sleep in another man’s bed. Only twist your own doorknob. It made sense.

My parents’ reluctance to discuss my problem was another curiosity. There was no, "Why must you unlock the door 800 times a night?" or even "Stop doing that or we’ll put you up for adoption." Maybe they, like most parents, were reluctant to admit their child was off-kilter. Remember, in suburbia abnormalities were kept behind closed doors. But, as I mentioned earlier, they probably placed their bets on my outgrowing the obsession, thereby avoiding confrontation. Like my teenage years, when their attitude toward my copious intake of both marijuana and Zima was, "If we don’t see him doing drugs, he isn’t doing drugs." For some, blind ignorance is, assuredly, bliss.

Lastly was how my doorknob mania ended. It would be nice to say a steady diet of parental protestations caused me to curtail my obsession till I kissed POP goodbye. It would be even better to say three electroshock sessions a week cured me. Better yet would be if my parents removed my doorknob and I was committed. And then I could say I conquered my demons to become a well-adjusted member of society, a veritable after-school special. Yeah, I could say all that, but I’d be lying. I just sort of, you know, stopped.








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