Tuesday, October 5, 2010

All The People In The World

I have this theory.

I have a lot of theories, actually. Most of them are the sorts of things that you would expect from someone who spends too much time alone in his head, though you might be surprised at how little I drink.

It’s all me.

This particular theory states that there are really only about 700 people on the planet. They all know each other and they all know you.

There are still a few holes in the theory, I will admit – having to explain away crowds at sporting events and concerts as optical illusions, for example, and I still have no answer for why it is so impossible to park anywhere near where I want to park. It’s a work in progress, is all I’m saying.

But there is some strong circumstantial evidence supporting this theory. Let me tell you about one particular day I went through when I was living in Pittsburgh.

It was the beginning of the semester, and all of the graduate students were getting ready to teach our first discussion sections. I wandered over to talk with one of the new students that year, and it turned out that she had gone to the same small college as my cousin, who was the cartoonist for the school newspaper. Of course she was familiar with his work.

And then it was time to head off to classes. I had two sections that day, I think. In the first I saw a couple of familiar faces – students who had been in my class the semester before. Okay, that’s not really mysterious. You take more than one history class at a big state university, the odds of ending up with the same TA are small but nonzero. Strange right after the previous discussion, but nothing completely uncalled for.

In my next section there was a student wearing a jacket from my old high school, just outside Philadelphia, some 300 miles away. Huh, I thought. So after class I asked him when he had graduated and he replied just that year, about six years after I had. At that point the guy who had been sitting next to him in section came up and asked me if I knew Matt. Of course I know Matt, I replied, I’ve known Matt since 7th grade. [Matt would eventually be a groomsman at my wedding.] Why do you ask? “Because my mother just married his uncle,” he said.

Okay. Now it’s getting weird.

Afterward I went to the bookstore to pick up my textbooks. If you’ve ever been to a university bookstore on the first day of classes, you know the kind of line I ended up standing in. It was about a hundred miles long and moved at the pace of campaign finance reform. You’ve got to find ways to pass the time. So I ended up chatting with the guy in front of me – sports, weather, classes, the usual stuff that college guys talk about when they’re just passing time and not really interested in seeing each other again once the task at hand is complete. Eventually we reached the front of the line and he pulled out his credit card to pay for his stuff and I saw his name. “Hey,” I said. “We graduated in the same high school class.” “Oh?” he replied. “Were we friends?”

Well, clearly not close ones.

And with all that jangling around in my head, I got on the bus and went back to my apartment, where there was a letter from Sharon. Sharon and I had known each other in high school – she was, in fact, my first official girlfriend – and after she had essentially dropped out of school and gone to the Ivy League we had remained friends. Eventually the school district decided that the successful completion of her freshman year at Cornell was a good enough substitute for her last year of high school to warrant giving her a high school diploma, so she came back and marched with our class. By the time I got her letter she had been living in Japan for a while. I hadn’t seen her since graduation, really, but we’d kept in touch. I had just written back to her not that long before, in fact, and was surprised to get a response so quickly.

It was pre-Internet, folks. Things moved slower then.

She was surprised to have written so soon as well, but she had a story to tell me.  Apparently she had been sitting in a coffeehouse in Kyoto when she noticed another Westerner, all by himself, so she wandered over to chat with him. It turned out that his name was Mort and he had gone to the same university in Philadelphia that I had, so of course she asked him if he knew me.

Penn had a bit shy of 9,000 undergraduates when I was there. There were anywhere between 8 and 12 major student-run drama groups, depending on how you counted them, and a few other one-offs good for a show or two a year on top of them. Out of those totals there were only about a dozen or so of us who did the lighting for all of these shows, moving from production to production and feeding on cast parties like locusts. I was one. Mort was another.

Mort says to say hi, she told me.

It was quite a day.

700 people.


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