Bumping Into Old Friends

In the spring of 1997 I tagged along with my son on an inexpensive week-long package tour of France, sponsored through his school.  While our group stood on the sidewalk along Rue Boudreau outside Théâtre de l’Athénée in Paris, two passersby approaching from opposite directions suddenly stopped and looked one another up and down for a moment.  Finally, the man quietly said, “Barb?”  The woman responded, “Bob?  What are you doing here?”  “Sightseeing.  Same as you, I suppose.”  “Yes, but I never expected you'd be one of the sights.”

They were two Americans, old friends from the same neighborhood of a small town somewhere in the East, I think, who happened to run into each other on a busy street thousands of miles and an ocean away from home.  What are the odds of that happening?  Pretty good, evidently.  There are people who can calculate the probability of such chance meetings.  They’re called actuaries, and insurance companies rely on them to determine the likelihood that something bad will happen to one of their policyholders, requiring them to shell out some cash.  One of the interesting findings a group of them made while toiling over their calculators several years ago, was how incredibly interconnected we are.

Here’s an interesting exercise.  Okay, I’m kidding, it’s tedious and dull, but the results might surprise you.  Write down the name of every friend and family member you can think of.  That can take a while, so you might want to wait for a long holiday weekend.  Now, I’m going to choose one name at random from a great big fat phone book containing the name of every person in America, and make the same request of the first adult who picks up the phone:  Please write down the name of every friend and family member you can think of.  There’s a 50/50 chance that someone on this random person's list knows someone on yours.  What are the odds that someone on your list and someone on this person's list have a friend in common?  That will happen about 100% of the time.

I should warn you that those calculations were made even before there was an Internet or a World Wide Web, before we could Google anybody on the planet, and long before Facebook gave new currency to the term “mutual friend.”  We now have more friends than ever before, friends we’ve never met, friends we may never lay eyes on, a few of whom may not actually exist.  Yes, some of us have virtual friends, and there’s a virtually unlimited supply of them out there, so be careful.  I have accepted very few friend requests on Facebook, doing it only when it seemed downright rude not to, but also only after issuing a warning to the person being accepted as my friend, that they will never find me there.  I log on to Facebook so seldom that I have to get my password reset every time I go there.  And yet, Facebook has rustled up hundreds of potential candidates to be my new friend, showing me their pictures on a sidebar and listing their qualifications, usually the fact that we have a mutual friend.

Sometimes we may have a geographical connection:  We went to the same school around the same time, or we’re from the same home town.  Getting back to that trip to France for a minute, there was a revealing discussion of geography just before our international flight took off from Houston.  Some of us struck up a conversation with one of the stewards who mentioned that he was from Missouri.  “Where in Missouri?” we wanted to know.  “A little town.  My mum still lives there.  A tiny place you’ve never heard of, believe me.  I should get back there and visit her one of these days.”  Someone asked for the name of the town once more, firmly this time.  “Asbury,” he said.

Asbury is indeed a tiny place near the Missouri-Kansas border, a town with just over 200 residents in the latest census.  I can assure you that not one of us in our tour group from Kansas had ever been there.  We had all been there.  Many shoppers from southeast Kansas head straight through Asbury to get to Joplin every week or two.  The gasoline tax is lower in Missouri, and Asbury can be the last chance to fill up cheaply on the way back home.  My water pump seized up and shredded my fan belt on the way to Joplin several years ago.  My Buick limped into Asbury, where I found what seemed to be an old blacksmith shop that had been converted into an automotive garage.  They sent a runner into Joplin for parts and got me back on the road for $35.  Not only do I know Asbury, I have fond memories of it.

One year after that trip to France I flew to Las Vegas for a convention.  The flight home was crowded, so some of us sat facing each other at the bulkhead, a situation that almost demands conversation.  I watched and listened to a young man who spoke animatedly about growing up in the town where I now live, and about his current business in Lawrence, selling engraved tchotchkes.  He wasn’t with us for the whole trip.  He disembarked at KCI to drive home to Lawrence, while the four of us in my party flew on to Tulsa.  But every minute we sat chatting, the more familiar he seemed to me, the more vividly his Texas or southern Oklahoma twang and that rooster-tail in the back of his hair reminded me of something I had heard and seen before.  I tried to remember the exact words I could imagine that voice saying in the past, to give me some clue about the occasion that had brought us together once before.  Finally, with startling clarity, it all came back to me.  Twenty years earlier, he was the seventeen-year-old driver who rear-ended my car in front of Harry’s Café at Fourth and Broadway.

To put this all in a nutshell, yes, it can seem like a big planet, but as a Disney song reminds us, it’s also a much smaller one than we sometimes suppose.  And the world may be teeming with people, but you’ve already bumped into more of them than you might think.          


© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com