This is a post about a phone call that took place 20 years ago this month. If the call had never been made, or I hadn’t been there to answer it, I wouldn’t be writing this post right now. I wouldn’t be married to my wife. We wouldn’t have our two daughters. I wouldn’t be living where I’m living, and I wouldn’t have met a lot of people who later became good friends. God knows where I’d be, or if I’d even be at all.
It’s not just a post about that phone call, though. It’s also about the seemingly random and minor events that can send your life on a trajectory you might never have conceived of or imagined.
I say “random” because I’ve always subscribed to the theory that life is mostly a series of random events and accidents. Things randomly happen which cause other things to happen, creating a domino effect that keeps rolling and rolling into the rest of forever.
For example, let’s say a pretty red leaf falls on the ground and you bend over to pick it up. When you do, you strain your back. You go to the doctor, who subscribes a mild pain medication. You drive to the pharmacy to get the medication. In the pharmacy the woman in front of you pays for her order but forgets her cell phone as she leaves the cashier. You chase after her as she walks to her car. You give her the cell phone, she thanks you, and you strike up a conversation. Three years later you’re married with a new baby.
All because a pretty red leaf fell to the ground.
Some will call it fate, or destiny, driven by an unseen, cosmic force that guides your life from the cradle to the grave. According to this school of thought, everything is written into the script way ahead of time and we’re mostly powerless to change it.
Me? I call it a random event that turned into a happy ending.
But I could be wrong.
There are times, I admit, when things happen in life that have an inexplicable, fate-like quality to them. I look at my life now and wonder how in the world I got here. I have a beautiful family that didn’t come along until I was well past the age when most people start a family. We live in London in a nice townhouse right beside the Thames. I’m semi-retired even though I’m not yet retirement age. I stay at home and work on my writing and editing and look after the kids and tend to the chores and cook the meals. We have the financial wherewithal to travel around Europe, experiencing things that would have once seemed impossible to me. We’re far from rich, but we’re comfortable. Our lives are far from perfect, but they’re pretty damn good.
I’ve been blessed, and don’t think for a moment I don’t give thanks often.
Cut back 20 years, to the summer of 1999.
I was 40 years old at the time, single, living in a rundown, one-bedroom apartment in a rundown apartment building in downtown Charlotte. I had a job as a reporter for a local newspaper. The paper treated me well and let me do the occasional interesting article, but most of the time the job bored me out of my skull. I had little money to speak of. Maybe a thousand bucks or so in the bank. I had debt out the wazoo – credit card debt, the worst kind. I had few possessions of value. A Nissan Sentra. A small TV. A stereo system. A secondhand Trek bicycle.
I remember staring out the window one day that summer, during one of those periodic episodes of self-reflection, and wondering how I got to this place in life: middle-aged, bored, uninspired, anonymous, living in a cheap apartment in my hometown while most of my friends had moved on to greater things, whether it was raising families or making money or seeing the world or living lives rich with artistic or spiritual fulfillment.
I’d lived most of my life within a 20-mile radius of where I grew up (except for a few years in college and a couple of short stints at nowhere jobs in nowhere places). I’d always dreamed of seeing the world, but I’d mostly seen Mecklenburg County. I was a serial underachiever, never living up to the potential I saw in myself or the ambitions I’d mapped out.
Staring out the window that day in 1999, I entertained brief thoughts of what it might be like to just disappear from view. Leave it all behind. Vanish into thin air. I wasn’t really depressed. More just tired, bored, empty. The thought of vanishing had an oddly calming and liberating effect on me, and I immediately snapped back into a better frame of mind. I’m not sure what I did next. Probably cracked a beer, put on an album and made some spaghetti.
A couple of weeks later, in August 1999, I got a call from an old friend. Let’s call her Jay. Her call came right out of the blue. Totally unexpected. I hadn’t heard from her in years. I had no idea what had become of her. She told me she was living in Wallingford, Connecticut. She’d been there a couple of years as part of one of those nurse travel programs. I’d never even heard of Wallingford, Connecticut.
“Why don’t you come up and visit?” Jay said over the phone.
I thought it over for about a half-second and said yep, that sounds like a real swell idea.
So, I did it. I took a few days off, piled into my Sentra and hauled the 13 hours or so up to Wallingford in a single drive.
Jay was living in a two-bedroom apartment set up in the back yard of some guy’s house. It was one of those pretty old white New England homes, not far from town. Jay had recently split from her boyfriend and was living alone. We kicked around New England for a few days – Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine. We had a good time. It was a nice break from the grind, much needed.
I said goodbye and headed back home to the rundown apartment and unfulfilling job in Charlotte.
A few days later I had an epiphany. I got on the phone and called Jay in Connecticut.
“I’m thinking about moving up there,” I told her. “I can help out with the rent.”
Sure, she said. She’d love to have me.
My plan was to find a job in the New York metro area. Like many writers and journalists, I’d always dreamed of living and working in the Big Apple. Wallingford wasn’t exactly a short hop to Manhattan. You had to drive about 20 minutes to the New Haven train station and then take the Metro North to Grand Central Terminal, which was about a 90-minute commute. Even so, it was doable. It sure wasn’t doable from Charlotte.
So, I moved to Wallingford on September 30, 1999. I still remember the date. Probably always will.
After I arrived I spent a lot of time in the New Haven library researching job opportunities and printing out resumes and cover letters. I sent dozens of resumes around. About a month later I found a job writing industry reports for a company down in Stamford. The economy was roaring and people were hiring.
A couple of months after that I heard back from a financial newspaper I’d applied to. The paper was based in Los Angeles but had a bureau in midtown Manhattan, right near Grand Central. They wanted to interview me for a reporter job. Since they were based in L.A., we did the interview by phone. A couple weeks later they offered me the job. Goodbye, Stamford.
I’ll never forget my first day commuting into New York City. It was a long train ride. I spent most of it listening to Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” on my old Sony Walkman and staring out the window, filled with joy and excitement. I was like a kid on his way to ToyLand. I could barely contain myself. Finally! New York! I was actually going to be a reporter in the Big GD Apple! A dream come true! It took me 41 years, but here I was.
The rest happened quickly. I spent about nine months at the New York bureau, commuting first from Connecticut and then from New Jersey, where I lived with another old friend. The newspaper offered me a promotion to an editor position that required me to move to Los Angeles. I took the promotion and headed west in November of 2000. I phoned Jay to say goodbye. It was the last time we’ve spoken.
I drove west in the Nissan and arrived in L.A. a few days later. A few days after that I walked into the L.A. office and met my new work mates. Some became great friends. One, Susan, became my wife. I spent a few years in L.A., enjoyed life there, riding my bike on the beach and bopping around California. But I knew I wanted to head back to New York.
In 2003 Susan and I moved east, to Norwalk, Connecticut. A year later we got married (I was 45 years old). In 2005 we got an apartment in midtown Manhattan. We lived charmed lives in NYC, soaking up the city life, eating well, yukking it up with friends, enjoying the sights and sounds, generally having a great old time.
When it came time to settle down and start a family, we looked around the NYC area but couldn’t find anything affordable. So we worked out an arrangement where we could both telecommute from home in Charlotte (yes, back to Charlotte, where homes were affordable). We bought a house in 2008 (my first house; I was 49 years old). A year later our first daughter was born (I was 50). A couple years after that our second daughter was born (I was 53). We moved out of our first house, rented it out to someone else, and moved into another one closer to downtown Charlotte.
In 2017 Susan’s company offered her an opportunity to work in London. We moved out of the second house, rented that one out as well, and hopped across the pond.
And here we be.
Like I said, I don’t believe in fate or destiny. I believe in the randomness of life.
But rarely has a week gone by in the last 20 years when I didn’t think about that phone call from Jay back in the summer of 1999. What if she hadn’t called? What if I hadn’t been there to answer it? What if she’d had to leave a message on my answering machine? What if she decided she didn’t want to leave a message? What if my answering machine had glitched, as it was prone to do? How might things have been different?
The events that transpired following that call probably never would have happened. No trip to Connecticut. No job offer from New York. No transfer to California. No meeting my wife. No daughters. No London.
It all happened because I was there to answer a phone call 20 years ago. I guess I believe it was all a random accident.
But I could be wrong.