Was it Douglas Adams who said “The universe isn’t smaller than you imagine; it’s smaller than you can imagine”? Here are my three biggest examples:
1) Sophomore year of university, first day of class, in a political science class waiting for the professor to arrive and begin the lecture. Bored, I turn to the guy beside me and start making small talk. “Where are you from?”, I ask creatively. Turns out he is from Canada. “Oh, me, too,” I respond. He asks where and I tell him near Toronto, from a small town he likely has not heard of. But he is apparently from a small town near Toronto, too, so we keep delving and asking questions. Turns out, not only is he from the same small town as me, his dad took out my appendix when I was 13.
2) Korea, late 1990s. I was in a smallish town, a couple of hours from Seoul, and bored. So I ask around and find a bar where westerners have been known to hang out. I go there and indeed some sort of party is going on, consisting of mostly English teachers. We begin chatting and the usual. While talking to this one red-headed woman who is around my age, I again ask “Where are you from?” She says “Canada.” I say “Me, too, but from a small town you’ve never heard of” and the dance begins again. Turns out, not only was she from the same town, she sat beside me in high school for a couple of years.
3) Italy, last week. I was at a conference (sponsored by the wonderful folks at the Legatum Institute). During dinner one night, I end up yakking with one of the lecturers. I knew that she went to the same university as I did, so I start asking about classes she took, professors, etc. We’re not getting much overlap, but something about her answers is scratching at my subconscious. I thought she was four years younger than me or so, but now I am not sure, so I ask when she graduates; she says just one year after I did. So I ask if she lived at 42nd street, in one of the row houses. She looks at me, confused. I asked if Mxxxx and Bxxxxx were her roommates then. She looks more confused. And then it all comes together.
Turns out, this is woman lived with some friends of mine and was there on one of the stranger, booze-fueled nights of my early 20s. We ended up on the roof of the oldest building on campus around 3am, just hanging out in the light rain and watching helicopters come and go from the roof of the nearby university hospital. It wasn’t a revolutionary evening, but it was quite nice and I repeatedly pillaged the scene in my early attempts at short story writing.
There have been plenty of other odd events over the years — bumping into old friends in European museums, meeting my university advisor at a party in Seoul 15 years after graduating. Sometimes I fear that online networking risks making those surprising bursts of coincidence obsolete, as we drag behind us all the random encounters from out lifetimes. Probably not, at least not entirely. But, nonetheless, that is one reason why I try to stay off Facebook and Google Plus and the rest. If, as Joni Mitchell tells us, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, sometimes you need to get rid of things (people, connections) to appreciate them again.