A couple of weeks ago, a stranger came up to me on a train platform knotted with people in Florence. He looked about 50, had a sling on his arm and that unnaturally deep walnut color people here in Italy cultivate in the summer.
“Scusi, can I ask you something?”
I looked around to see if there was anyone listening, or if there were other people with him.
“My daughter left for Milan today, but she forgot something. Could you bring it to her?”
I didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know. What is it exactly?”
Expecting him to pull out a package or container – and, of course, any dimension would’ve sent me bolting lopsided with bags to the police – I was surprised when he pulled out nothing more than a simple door key.
A perfectly normal, non-combustible house key.
Turns out that the usual pile of newspaper stories decrying a summer crime burst had prompted the family to use all the bolts on the apartment door instead of the usual one. His daughter Chiara left that morning without one of those “extra” keys.
That was it.
I smiled and took the key. He called Chiara and let me talk to her on his cell phone. I took her number and said I’d call when the train was pulling in to Milan.
During the trip, I wondered whether I had made a mistake, but decided to trust my instinct: There was no more to this than a silly girl who forgot her house key and a cautious parent looking after a child.
Chiara, a university student with angelic blonde curls, picked me up with her boyfriend at the train station, thanked me for bringing the key, gave me a lift home. That was the end of it.
This story has become my 9/11 litmus test. What would you do?
Some people say I’m crazy. So what if it wasn’t a bomb? You never know. The world – our world – is not a safe place to these folks. Besides, wouldn’t the excuse of a key be perfect bait for Chiara and boyfriend to be, let’s say, white slavery wranglers or garden-variety sickos?
Others have taken it as a sign of hope: after all the psychological terrorism that followed the actual terrorism, you can still ask a stranger for help, they’ll still give it to you.
I prefer the latter interpretation. It’s key.