Eric Dion moves quickly for hours at a time, an unusual trait for someone with his particular expertise. Dion is a certified registered locksmith who specializes in cracking safes, an activity that demands patience and a delicate touch.
Opening safes isn’t all he does, of course. Dion can open virtually anything with a lock on it, from a desk drawer to a bank vault. One minute he’s unlocking an 1860 steamer trunk; the next he’s rekeying a 2012 Ford Focus.
Dion works in his family’s business, Dion Locksmith, which was founded in 1971 by his late father, Edward Dion, a former Burlington firefighter. Dion (pronounced “dye on”) is now one of the largest locksmith businesses in Vermont. Eric’s mother, Millie, still works in the shop at 92 North Street in Burlington, cutting keys and answering phones in her native Bronx, N.Y., accent.
And the phone rings often, especially during the holidays. Eric Dion says it’s not uncommon to get calls on the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas from stores that normally stay open 24/7 but closed for the holiday and can’t reopen their doors. Someone, he explains, has usually lost the only key. September and June are also busy times, when students are moving in and out.
Dion, 36, is tall and lean, wearing a scraggly beard and a New Yorks Giants hat turned backward. He cut his first key in sixth grade and has been working in the family business since shortly after high school. Over the years, the work has taken its toll on his body. Dion has gotten metal slivers in his eyes and stitches in his head (from a fluke drill accident) and crushed his finger in a vault door.
Friends and customers occasionally joke with him about using his skills for nefarious purposes, but Dion is dead serious about his responsibilities. Once a local news crew asked him to pick a lock on camera, which really irked him.
“Face it, you’ve got to trust someone in this world,” Dion says. “If you can’t trust your locksmith, who can you trust?”
SEVEN DAYS: Does your work change much from day to day?
ERIC DION: I try to learn something new every day, just like in life. There are new cars every year, with new technology. It’s not a $2 car key anymore. A car key is $70 or $80, with a computer chip that makes [the car] harder to steal.
SD: What are the most common myths about locksmiths?
ED: Some people think there’s a master key that fits everything in the world. Or they think things are easy, such as picking a lock.
SD: TV shows always make it look easy.
ED: It would be a boring TV show if it took the locksmith two or three tries to open a lock. It actually takes a while.
SD: How far do you travel for work?
ED: Safes bring me the farthest. I go a little bit into New Hampshire, all over Vermont and upstate New York. That’s the most specialty job in this business.
SD: And you can open a safe just by listening to it?
ED: Yeah, it’s an art form called manipulation. I was first taught it 13 or 14 years ago. It’s something that you have to get a feel for, and it takes a lot of time and practice. I was taught by feel and by sight, not by listening.
SD: How long does it take you?
ED: My best manipulating opening was on a four-wheel Mosler lock. Four wheels mean 100 million possible combinations. It took me about a week and a half to get it open. I would go to my garage where it was quiet at night so I could focus and use my skill to dial it open. My fastest on a three-wheel lock [1 million possible combinations] is 20 minutes, which is pretty good. The masters of the art are under four minutes.
SD: You’ve never been tempted to go over to the Dark Side?
ED: No. I’ve visited people in jail, and I don’t ever want to be there myself. It is true I think like a burglar all day, showing customers the easy entry points, or how I could get in. But my mind is wired to do good in this world. I love my wife and children too much, and I will never put myself in a predicament where I would be taken away from them.
SD: What’s the worst part of your job?
ED: We see struggling businesses keeping the secret of closure from their employees right up to the moment when we arrive to rekey the office locks and lock everyone out of a job. We see people getting evicted with a court order and the sheriff there to back them up.
SD: And the best part?
ED: The variety of it. I find it an honor to go into people’s houses every day. They put their trust in me to keep their homes safe. Businesses, pharmacies, schools, banks, military bases ... I was working up in St. Albans installing deadbolts on this woman’s house. Abusive, domestic-type violence. So I was on my way out, and this 5-year-old girl says, “Thank you for putting the locks on and protecting us.” It really touched my heart and stuck with me. We’re out there trying to keep people safe.