Lucky Strike

I don’t take much to jewelry, personally. In high school, I convinced my mom and dad that I had to have a class ring — I needed it, yo — only to stop wearing it as soon as I graduated high school. (Hey, at least I only pressed for the fine Ultrium® ring, and not the gold one.1)

I used to want to get an ear pierced back then, too. Maybe I would’ve worn the earring, I don’t know. But I can tell you that sometimes I see a grown man wearing a leather bracelet or some such accoutrement and I feel this inexplicable pang. What the hell? Is that envy?

So when we traveled to Sicily and Florence last month, I thought I might add a splash of metrosexual by adding a leather bracelet to my shopping list of otherwise functional souvenirs: a scarf, a good black leather belt, a Sicilian-style cap. Oh, and a pair of gloves, since my winter gloves had vanished sometime last year. Florence is known for its leather goods, so it seemed like a good mecca for such products, and if we were able to find a small knickknack for the tiny curio shelf Jenn assembled on a pallet-wood end table, that would’ve been fine, too.

Fact 1: In preparing for this trip to Italy, I needed some new pants. Something less than dress pants but nicer than my beat-around blue jeans. I have, traditionally, terrible luck at the resale centers (the boutiques, Jenn will say) — because I’m not a large man and my typical lunch doesn’t consist of two Big Macs, two Filet-O-Fish sammiches and a chocolate shake. But not only did I find a pair of black jeans and a pair of chinos that fit with no alterations, when I got home, I found a tenspot in the pocket of the jeans. I was out net $2 for the both of ’em. (Also, count this as proof positive that Goodwill doesn’t wash the clothes they sell. You have been warned.)

So, the hat, belt and scarf were easy pickups in Florence’s central market. Jenn and I have had enough experience in similar chaotic spaces in Cuzco, Peru and northern Cambodia that we were unfazed by the shouting sellers, the bumping crowds, the haggling in what was clearly the sellers’ third-best language. But I had no luck finding a good match on gloves, and the bracelet was a nice-to-have that went by the wayside whenever my nerves frayed.

Our last night in Italy was our only time in Rome.

We didn’t expect to be able to do much there in just a handful of hours. But when I looked at the Google, there was a piazza with a fountain just two blocks from our hotel. “Let’s check out the Piazza della Repubblica and see what that’s about, at least,” I told Jenn. She just wanted a walk and was game.

It was a lovely little circle where we enjoyed the bubbling fountain and pondered where we might find either an espresso or a stiffer drink. Down one of the side streets, I saw another statue in what looked like a piazza a quarter mile away. We ambled in that direction for a while, but the statues on the horizon never seemed to get closer. After probably a mile, the road dove low and what we took for a piazza was actually statuary atop the Altare della Patria, a giant monument built for the first king of a united Italy.

And then we noticed we were standing in the middle of an ongoing dig at an urban archaeological site. We stumbled forward, mouths agape. And then Jenn looked to our left and doubled down.

“Is that the Colosseum?” she asked.

Yes. Yes it was. It was one hell of a bonus on our little stroll.

On the way back, we were pausing at restaurants, looking at menus for a light dinner.

“Maybe just split a pizza?”

“Sounds good.”

And that brings us to…

Fact 2: As we scoured one menu, the host approached us and said, “Buonasera! This is for you, sir,” and handed me a leather bracelet decorated with an etched elephant. “And this is for her,” he said, nodding to Jenn as he handed me a carved figurine, also an elephant. “Thank you, but the food is too heavy for what we want to eat tonight,” I said, handing them back to him. He refused to take them, saying, “Those are for you.”

It’s an event that’s become more surreal looking back. Why would he give me the bracelet and her the figure? How could he have known? What’s the story behind the elephants?2

We didn’t even get the name of the place. I know I could probably figure it out with some web searching or by retracing our route with a Google street view. But the magic of that moment is probably nicer without close scrutiny. In the words of Iris Dement, think I’ll just let the mystery be.

I’m not a big believer in things like predestination. Or in Fate as some sort of sentient entity. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ve had things happen that I can’t understand and have heard ghost stories from people I trust who have witnessed things firsthand.3

Maybe our little run of luck is just that. Maybe we explore more than other people, which makes us more likely to bump into fortunate events. Maybe chance favors the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur, a man who seemed to leave nothing to chance, said. Karma, justice — whatever you call it — it’s really there, just keep looking for it.4

Look for it, yes, but let the mystery be.

So anyway, we’re home less than a week and off to run an errand. We’re just a couple blocks from the house when I slam on the brakes.

I back up a few feet.

I put the car in park.

I open the door.

Fact 3: I lean out of the car and grab two pairs of gently used gloves that are there, on the street. It’s a pair of cotton gloves, and a pair of thin, high-viz work gloves that fit over the cotton ones. Probably belonged to a city worker who threw them on the truck and drove off forgetting he’d done so.

I gave them a wash when I got home. They’re a good fit.

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Ultrium is “a non-precious alloy” says ringmaker Herff Jones. Nice to see they’re still selling this quality product.

One intriguing notion is that it’s a reference to Hannibal’s famous invasion of Rome using war elephants. Another is that it’s a nod to Elephas antiquus, the remains of which were recently found in the city as workers dug a new subway line. I could probably figure it out by tracking down the name of the restaurant. But I won’t do that. In part, I’m afraid I won’t be able to find it, but I’m also a little afraid that it’s not even there.

The most convincing of these stories occurred in Columbus’s Springer Opera House, over and above the hair-raising stories in Paul Pierce’s “Springer Ghost Book: A Theatre Haunting in the Deep South.”

That line’s from drivin’ n’ cryin’s Kevn Kinney, of course.

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