Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer columnist

A man I know dropped an iron weight on his foot the other day. Accidentally, of course. After all, you don't ordinarily drop heavy metal on yourself on purpose.

Although, the man did confess, there have been moments of idleness when he would look at the weights and think to himself: Wonder what it would feel like to have one of those babies fall on my foot?

He got his answer, and it was this: It hurts something fierce. It feels like an elephant stepped on his toes.

Not that he ever had an actual elephant actually step on his toes, or that he planned on letting an elephant step on his toes any time soon. The man may have his momentary lapses, but he isn't a total idiot.

This happened at a gym the man frequents, in search of, as the iron pumpers are fond of saying, getting a buffed body. But instead of getting a buffed body, he got a three-week limp.

Here's the thing about broken toes: They're great conversation starters. You casually let drop that you have recently fractured the large digit on your left foot, the one that starts the nursery rhyme: This little piggy went to market . . . and interest is immediate, and only mildly perverted. People automatically lean in and look down. If it is a time of cold weather they're in for disappointment, for the offended digit, mummy-like, is concealed by assorted wrappings and shoes and socks.

So the curious are left with having to work up a sympathetic nod and offering the universal observation that is reserved precisely for such times:

"There's nothing they can do about that, you know?"Ah, but if it is warm weather, you can hobble around on lace-less slippers, which can be whipped off in an instant for the show part of your show-and-tell.

Now you're cooking. Your foot has transformed into a small rainbow and the big toe is swollen like a blimp. You lean back in satisfaction and await their reaction, which is almost always an appreciative murmur and that familiar, solemn observation:

"There's nothing they can do about that, you know?"Well, no. No, there isn't. No cast. No splints. No tape. None of the usual triage applies.

You can thrust the wounded digit toward your daughter-in-law, who just so happens to be a nurse, and she will offer an encouraging and sympathetic grimace, a healthy dose of empathy, and even a small intake of breath. But the diagnosis is unbending:

"There's nothing they can do about that, you know?"Yes. Yes, we do know.

She has broken a toe or two in her time. Most people have. Or at least the ones you encounter while you are limping along, and they are more than happy to share their tales of fracture. So happy, in fact, that you suspect they are trying to one-up you.

Another man I know broke one on each foot. Not at the same time. But in the same way. He has a dog, a black Lab. He also has need - frequently an urgent need - to be out of bed and walking, at a brisk if stiff-legged gait, toward what European sophisticates call the water closet.

In his haste, the man was not as attentive as he should have been. He did not turn on a light.

Black Lab. On the floor. In the dark. Followed by:

"There's nothing they can do about that, you know?"Why, the man's wife asked, didn't you use a flashlight? In such moments, all husbands learn, try to remember what it was that made you want to marry this sweet thing.

Two years later, same dog, same urgent need, same darkness. Also the same:

"There's nothing they can do about that, you know?"Yes, the man says, through gritted teeth. I know, I know.

The toe is a curious thing. Certainly not the most beauteous portion of the human anatomy. Gnarled and stubby. But, we are told, surprisingly important when it comes to locomotion. They serve as stabilizers. Lose a couple of toes and you tend to tilt to one side, rather like a drunken sailor trying to negotiate an iced-over deck.

You give a broken toe a couple of years to marinate and you've got yourself a nifty little barometer, every bit as reliable a forecaster as the arthritis in your fingers and shoulders and knees and wrists . . . and all those other twinges and stabs that made the aging process so wonderful.

You will eventually reach that exalted state in which your body becomes the Weather Channel, and you are, on occasion, tempted to kick the TV set in exasperation. Don't. Because, as you may have heard by now:

"There's nothing they can do about that, you know?"