“Look at the way they’ve hinged this!”
Last May, Liz Gordon and I were standing in her antique hardware store, looking at an image on her phone. She’d just returned to Los Angeles from the 2019 Salone del Mobile in Milan, the world’s largest furniture fair, where she’d taken a photo for me of the most unusual hinge she’d seen in years. Four metal rods upheld a peacock-blue cabinet. Large circular hinges embedded the wood a quarter of the way through, like dazzling hoop earrings. She told the designer, “You’ll never believe it, but I have a meeting soon with a gal about hinges.”
My yearning to know about hinges was first sparked two summers ago in Dumbo, after a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. My partner Alan and I had just sat down to happy hour. The man next to him asked why we were in town. “I’m here from Los Angeles for work. I’m a hinge salesman,” Alan said. I elbowed him gently, but he went on. “Did you know that in North America, you’re never more than six feet from a hinge?”
The man shifted away from us, toward the Mets game on TV.
My partner does not sell hinges. He’s a cinematographer with a quirky sense of humor. When he tires of answering questions about celebrities during his nonstop travel in nonpandemic times, he assumes this guise because the hinge, he says, is the most mundane conversation topic of all.
As a writer, I’m fascinated by the metaphors that appear in my life. I despise goodbyes of all kinds because they remind me of the ultimate goodbye: the final disconnect of death. And the hinge happens to be the jointed device responsible for the opening and closing of doors, hence, the villainous facilitator of our partings. I’ve accompanied him to Chile, Malaysia, and more locations — but his trips don’t always align with my work. Last year, we endured our longest stretch apart, when he shot an action movie in China.
Days before Alan left for the airport, I told my therapist about the anxiety I feel when he leaves, as well as his hinge salesman trick, which made her laugh. She encouraged me to follow my hinge curiosity — suggesting it may even calm me.
The night Alan did go, I shuddered at the abrupt double thud of the door closing behind him. But I didn’t fixate on his empty spot in bed. Instead, on YouTube, I watched an exuberant white-haired Swedish man named Lennart enumerate the determinants for choosing the perfect hinge (finding the core of gravity on a door is an important one). Another video mesmerized me with the monotony of human hands feeding sheets of stainless steel through a metal press. The next morning, I did a quick search, surprised to find a hinge enthusiast nearby.
I’d passed by Liz Gordon’s store frequently, but I’d never before had a reason to go inside. On my visit, I learned that four decades ago, she’d seen beauty in a foot-high pile of strewn, used hardware in a Chicago warehouse. The loot included an astounding number of unmatched hinges — and she bought them all. Now, in her 29-year-old store, she led me to her wall of hinges, findings from her buying trips around the world.
They were rows and rows of jeweled birds, flying diagonally. Even though their wings were made of brass or iron, they were buoyant and luminous. Each one had a center. Each one shone a distinctive glint, microhues I’d never seen, creating a rainbow of yellows, coppers, silvers. The outside light elucidated their incised patterns, some winding vines, others a sunburst of lines and leaves. Liz informed me the hinges came from gutted and demolished homes.
I reached for the physical embodiment of goodbye that caught my eye: a 19th-century Eastlake brass shutter hinge. It felt cool and elemental, like the rose quartz my mother placed in my palm to calm me as a child. The blackened background lured my attention to the raised, geometric Japanese-style design. I felt its grooves with my fingers. When I turned it over, the patina gleamed sunflower and ochre like a Klimt painting. Hinges like this one were hand-wrought to be beautiful, golden tomes containing time and dimensions. They were meant to fold and unfold: iceboxes, windows, and doors — for generations.
If life is a finite series of openings and closings, of beginnings and endings, hinges are the physical interfaces that link us with them. They’re timeless, tactile treasures that grant us our part in the matter, or at least give us the illusion we have a say. We cannot touch goodbye. We cannot clasp our hands around it.
But we can hold a hinge.
With the motion of our fingers, we can will it open and closed. We can receive, without recoil, all the times our loved ones need to leave. And for a moment, goodbye is not shapeless and daunting.
As I beheld the hinges in front of me, I thought of our collective ancestors, alive, yet unaware of the possibility-unlocking hardware that mobilized their comings and goings, and even their safekeeping when forced to stay put. We come and go through our own doorways only so many times. Every entrance and exit is singular. Each instance the hinge fulfills its function is extraordinary. Without hinges, our doors would get stuck — and so would we.
In my research, I was struck by a female statue holding up a handful of hinges like a torch. Cardea, the Roman patron goddess of hinges and pivotal life changes, withheld evil spirits from crossing thresholds. The poet Ovid wrote that her power is “to open what is shut; to shut what is open.”
As my therapist later suggested, I slid the delicate hinge Liz gave me onto my grandmother’s gold chain like a holy medal. First it was a bird, then a book. Now a totem, draping my chest. It’s become an auspicious reminder for me, like a mala bracelet or a Buddha statue. Hinges are the points from which change emanates. They evoke motion; they offer access, axis. The hinging of a door moors us all.
This time last year, we were leaving and returning, knowing no other way. We didn’t think twice about the ease with which we migrated to the other sides of our doors, and back again.
Now, I am experiencing the inverse of my forced separation with Alan; we are beside each other indefinitely. I didn’t want it to happen like this. But while we’re here, I think of the hinges: They are closed books at present, but the stories haven’t stopped forming. They are birds whose wings we can’t see, but we trust they’ll someday unfurl.
Our separation from the lives we knew is temporary. When this pandemic passes, and the doors on their hinges swing freely again, we’ll let in all that we’ve missed.
Lauren DePino, a writer based in Los Angeles, is at work on a memoir.