A couple of days ago I helped some young man in Iowa to find his car keys over the Internet. Every day of the year the Internet make the improbable, probable.
I found him calling for help on a social media site. Somewhere between Saturday afternoon and returning home the previous night, his keys had gone missing. He had to go to work in a few hours, too. He needed his keys. Badly.
“I have no idea where they are.” he said. “I’ve looked in all of my usual spots. Can you suggest some spots I may not have thought of?
No. But I introduced him to St. Anthony of Padua.
“You think you’ve looked everywhere, but you haven’t,” I wrote. “Your keys are somewhere that you’ve assumed they couldn’t possibly be. But they are.
“Here’s a mind trick that may help you search. It is technically religious, but you needn’t believe a thing.
“There’s a prayer to St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things, that goes simply, ‘Help me, St. Anthony, to find that which I have lost.’ Chant it over and over, and start searching again.
“The chant breaks your assumptions about where the keys could and couldn’t be. It keeps you from giving up until you search every single place, not just the places that you think are realistic. Because ‘St. Anthony’ is helping you.”
And I told him of a time and place where it had worked for me. Then I posted the comment and wandered off for a little bit.
When I returned to the laptop, a message was waiting:
“HOLY FUCKING SHIT, thank you dude and thank you Saint Anthony wherever you are! It was in the recliner which I checked about three times before!”
Score one for the big guy. St. Anthony comes through again. And I made a guy in Iowa chant the St. Anthony prayer while he ransacked his apartment. Double win!
I would be happy to believe that St. Anthony actually exists. I can see him in a cavern filled with silvery light, somewhere deep beneath Padua. He sits atop a colossal pile of all the lost car keys, cell phones, wallets, pocket knives, and styling combs of the world
He listens to the pleas of the faithful. He sends them strength and guidance to find that which they have lost. He idly flicks a solid gold Zippo lighter that somebody lost down a storm drain in Las Vegas. It’s pretty.
I would be happy to believe that, but I do not. As I told the young man, he was St. Anthony. The chant — or prayer, or spell — opened his mind and widened his vision to include all the places where his keys “couldn’t possibly be.” Until he found them.
And I know this because I’ve been where that young man has, only in even more despair. And yes, it was about keys.
This was nearly 30 years ago. I had driven eighty miles to San Francisco to visit friends: attend a party, stay overnight, and visit a friend’s newly-rented craft studio.
I parked near my friend’s apartment house and locked the car. Then I walked over to the studio, fifteen blocks away in a business district. Parking down that way was hopeless; and as a recent San Franciscan, fifteen blocks was nothing. It’s a walking town.
But instead of putting my key ring back in my pants, I stowed it in the breast pocket of my old leather jacket. The pocket was torn half open on one side. But secure enough, right? All seemed well.
The studio was in a converted flat above a storefront; San Francisco has thousands of such buildings. I knew about the building was: between 11th and 12th. But — was its number 1134 or 1143? Or something else? I couldn’t remember. I always forget addresses.
I tried the wrong building the first time and broke in on a family of gypsy fortune-tellers eating lunch on the second floor. I faded back down the stairs before they noticed me. The second building was correct. And I visited my friend in her new studio. “My friend,” was in fact my current wife Rhumba — still somebody else’s girlfriend, but already a good friend to me for many years.
And after I’d been there a few minutes, I realized: my keys were gone. Somewhere across fifteen blocks of San Francisco. And I freaked out. Eighty miles from home. Car on the street where the feral meter maids would fall upon it. No idea what to do. I think I was hyperventilating.
And Rhumba told me the St. Anthony prayer. “Just keep saying it, and keep looking. Retrace your tracks. It always works.”
And so I did. I searched Rhumba’s studio: every room that I’d been in. Then I retraced my steps across the entire Richmond District, peering in every gutter, under every vegetable cart in front of every produce store, in the doorway of every Chinese bakery, in every street planting and by every tree trunk, all the way back to my parked car. Chanting, “Help me, St. Anthony, to find that which I have lost.”
And I didn’t find my keys. I just about declared it hopeless. But I kept chanting. And so I retraced my steps all the way back to the craft studio again, back along every gutter, every trash bin, under every car and up the stairs again into the studio to search it one more time. Help me, St. Anthony, help me.
And still, nothing. I walked back downstairs to the street. “Help me, St. Anthony…” But I had looked everywhere.
And then I remembered that I had not. The gypsies’ flat: I’d run up the stairs thinking it was Rhumba’s studio. But I hadn’t dropped anything there. I couldn’t possibly have. And for reasons I couldn’t quite analyze, I was reluctant to return there.
“Help me, St. Anthony, to find that which I have lost.” Well, the big guy can’t help you if you don’t help yourself, so I finally tried the door. It was locked. But there was a doorbell. I pressed it; something squawked inside the building.
“What do you want?”
A 10-year-old girl with delicate features stared down through a second-floor window. She had a bandanna tied over her head.
“I came up to your flat by mistake a little while ago. Now I can’t find my keys. Could you see if they’re anywhere on the stairs?”
She vanished. I waited, really too beaten down even to hope at this point. Then she reappeared in the window, grinning, with something in her hand.
MY KEYS. SHE HAD MY KEYS.
I raised my hand, and she tossed them down. I almost caught them; they hit the pavement. But they were old-school keys of solid metal: no electronics, and no harm done. The girl waved, and vanished back into the flat.
To this day, whenever somebody mentions anything about “a gift from the gods,” I think about a pretty little girl in a bandanna, smiling down from a window with my keys in her hand. And St. Anthony.
But really, it was all me: running halfway across the Richmond District and back because I wouldn’t see, couldn’t see, that the best place to look was right next door to where I started. Only Saint Anthony’s prayer kept me going long enough to figure it out.
You know that old joke about always finding something in the last place you look? Maybe that’s because, sometimes, the last place you look is the place you least want to look. Maybe for me it was a case of “Ooh, gypsies, scary?” I don’t know. Just a thought.
Anyway, seems these days that so many people have lost something, or are about to. A job, security, health care, an election they were sure they’d win, American democracy. And hope.
So where do you find those things again? How do you get them back? Maybe it’s time to say the St. Anthony prayer and start looking. What do you think?
Just keep going. Look everywhere. Look in places you wouldn’t think to look, ask people you wouldn’t normally ask, make alliances with people who aren’t like you. But are also looking.
“Help me, St. Anthony, to find that which I have lost:” but you are your own saint. Look not where you want to, but where you have to. Who knows what you might find?
If you don’t keep an open mind, though, even Saint Anthony can’t help.