Fast Walker with Nice Eyes – w4m – 22 (Upper East Side)
Date: 1981-11-22, 8:45AM EST
We’ve seen each other nearly every morning this fall, walking down Lexington Avenue to work. We both walk faster than everyone else. This morning, as you peeled off east down 47th Street, you glanced over your shoulder. Our eyes met, briefly. I wonder if you could tell I was blushing as I mouthed, “Bye.”
If Craigslist had existed thirty years ago, I might have posted this chance encounter under “Missed Connections.” Instead, I dutifully recorded it in my diary. These days, a missed connection is a solvable problem (post it on Craigslist!), but back then missed connections were the norm.
In 1981 I was fresh out of college and newly transplanted to Manhattan for my first job, working for a small startup that produced educational software and videodisks. If that sounds sexy, it wasn’t. Back then, Steve Jobs hadn’t even made his first million, and no one my age aspired to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. As an English major, I’d dreamed of a career in publishing, but an editorial assistant’s salary wouldn’t cover rent and student loans, so I signed on to be a technical writer for what seemed like a princely annual salary of $15,000. Living in Manhattan was expensive, even back then, and I couldn’t afford much of a social life on my take-home pay ($895.61 per month, as my diary records).
Not that I would have known where to meet and meet up with people my age because, of course, back then we didn’t have Facebook or cell phones – or even answering machines. I couldn’t have afforded unlimited texting and a data plan on a smartphone, anyway. I was lonely and, in hindsight, probably clinically depressed, but that also was before we became a Prozac Nation. I spent most evenings at home, reading Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, pouring my heart out on the pages of my diary, and wondering whether I would ever connect with my soulmate. (A long overdue apology to my former roommates: I must have been lousy company!)
I recalled this unhappy, but thankfully brief, period of my youth as I read in recent New York Times piece that the Millennial Generation suffers from “FOMO” (the fear of missing out). It’s not news that the younger generation is always online; even when they’re out with a group of friends, they’re glued to their smartphones, texting and checking Facebook to see what everyone else is doing. I’ve watched in awe as my own three children toggle between multiple virtual chats, and I confess I’ve become something of an online multitasker myself. I had to laugh as I read about the young Manhattanite whose iPhone battery ran out mid-evening, stranding him back in the Dark Ages of my youth: “‘I feel like I’m in 1983,’ he said.”
If only he knew just how disconnected we felt back then, without a virtual social life always beckoning us from our screens and buzzing in our pockets. (One plus, we never worried about battery life!) My cohort and I flocked to the bright lights of the big city – Jay McInerney’s bestseller by that name would follow us in 1984 – and (some of us) were instead plunged into the twilight of social isolation and anonymity. Even back on our cozy college campuses it hadn’t always been easy to track down our friends. We wasted a lot of time hunting for each other, and sometimes we missed out. In retrospect, we, too, suffered from FOMO, but there was no ready technological solution. We coped.
Several of my Princeton classmates also had moved to the city, but they may as well have been in Missoula, since we couldn’t post a steady stream of status updates and photos to stay in touch. Meeting up in real life required advance planning and group decisions that made socializing more of a logistical challenge than gathering in someone’s dorm room. Naturally, we began to drift apart as we set about finding our paths toward independence and true adulthood. Friends moved away, and we lost track of each other’s new phone numbers and mailing addresses. Missing friends, even those just across town, was inevitable. We coped.
One drizzly morning a few weeks after our missed connection, the fast-walking mystery man offered to share his umbrella. “Want to come in out of the rain?” he asked, chivalrously. We walked together for another thirty blocks, matching each other’s long strides and chatting easily. Neither of us had to remove our headphones and shut off our iPods – no one walked to a personal soundtrack track back then. I learned that he’d graduated from Wesleyan a couple years earlier and that we had a couple of acquaintances in common (“mutual friends” by Facebook’s definition). Another English major, he’d found a job in publishing like I’d always hoped to, writing the blurbs on the backs of paperback novels. My fast walker was as smart and charming as he was good-looking, and we made plans to meet for dinner that evening.
As it turned out, our chance encounter would have been better left to fantasy, a missed connection truly missed. We didn’t have a real connection, after all. For the next few weeks the fast walker and I continued to cross paths, nodding without stopping to talk. One day I spotted him walking with another young woman. It was awkward, as if Lexington Avenue had become a crowded high school hallway, so I began taking Park Avenue, where the sidewalks were wider and I could cover my fifty-block commute even faster. Having changed my route and moved on, it’s probably a good thing I couldn’t Facebook-stalk him.
I didn’t think of the fast walker again until last summer, when I came across his obituary in Wesleyan’s alumni magazine, which I’d picked up during a visit to the college with my daughter. He’d died suddenly and too young, leaving a wife and children. From the photo, I saw that he still had those nice eyes, but he’d lost a good deal of hair and his face was fuller. I wouldn’t have recognized him if we’d walked headlong into each other. As I read about his professional accomplishments, I wondered how he’d met his wife, and if she was a fast walker, too.
On the way to our car after the tour, I asked my daughter what she thought of the campus. She was walking slowly, but her fingers were skittering over the tiny keyboard on her BlackBerry; she was busily making plans to meet up with her friends when we got home. A digital native, she already straddles two worlds, even when we’re together.
With the power and speed of today’s technology, her transition to adulthood will present a different set of communication challenges than mine did, though doubtless she will feel the same yearning to find meaningful connections, a soulmate even, as she makes her way in the world. Rather than wondering what her friends are doing and how to reach them, she will be able to follow an infinite trail of digital breadcrumbs. Instead of wasting time sitting by the phone, she will waste time scrolling through friends’ (and friends of friends’) Facebook albums. The ability to build strong, authentic networks and to filter out weak ties will be an essential skill. It all reminds me of that old country song. “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” As a survivor of the Dark Ages, I hope my children will learn to leave room for a little mystery in their hyper-connected lives, and to appreciate the romance of a truly missed connection.
Thirty years to the day after my imagined Craigslist post, a woman posted about a similar chance encounter in the same NYC neighborhood; if her umbrella man happens to see it, I hope he chooses not to reply. Sometimes, a smile is just a smile.
man with umbrella – w4m – 25 (Upper East Side)
Date: 2011-11-22, 6:41PM EST
So I was standing outside the store I work at giving samples of something. You were already smiling and walked by with an umbrella. We made eye contact and then you still looked back at me and I was looking at you. We both smiled! You were a thinner guy, short hair in his 20s and you were carrying a bag. This was around 3 pm today on Lexington and 60 st. Your smile made my day!
All photos and captions by Ed Yourdon on Flickr.