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SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

Or, why I believe there are only 2000 people in the world

 
I was friends with Allie, who I knew from work. Allie introduced me at a party to her friend Mark Tong. A year later, my friend David, whom I met through an online mailing list while Allie was out of town for a few months, took me to meet a friend of his, whom he used to do urban events with. That friend was Mark Tong.

While Allie was away again for a few months the following year (not being there was one of Allie's most prominent identifying features) I was looking for a new place to live. I got an email from my friend Michael L., telling me that our mutual acquantance Christine's ex-boyfriend had a room for rent in his apartment. After I moved in, my new roommate, Christopher, was talking about a friend he had met through some other friend of his. That friend turned out to be Mark Tong.

When Allie came home from Europe, I told her about finding the new place, and gave her the address of my new apartment. She said, "My friend Mike Melliman lives in that building!" I took her to my apartment, and she walked inside, and said, "Wait a minute! I've been here! This is Melliman's apartment!" She pointed at some Mardi Gras beads which had been hanging in the bathroom since before I moved in. "Those are my Mardi Gras beads hanging in the bathroom!" It turned out that Melliman and Christopher were friends - Melliman was the roommate who had moved out, leaving the room for rent, which I had moved into. "Oh!" Allie fumed. "Melliman told me he'd let me know if there was ever a vacancy in his apartment!" "Ah-hah!", I said. "I got your room!!!"

Melliman had moved to a nearby city. He was now hanging out with the his friends from a band called Idiot Flesh. Idiot Flesh's drummer got picked to play with Les Claypool in the Flying Frog Brigade. Les Claypool formed the band Oysterhead with Stewart Copeland, who used to play in The Police.

If you don't count Melliman and I as knowing each other - we've only met once or twice, very briefly - that puts 6 degrees of separation between me and Sting. Still a little too close for comfort, if you ask me.

Although it doesn't make me nearly as nervous as when my stepsister dated the guy who played Tom Hank's brother in "Phildelphia". I don't like being that close to Forrest Gump.

***

When I was a freshman at SUNY Albany, in upstate New York, I lived in a "suite". A suite was generally two or three dorm rooms connected to a private common area. My dorm must've had 15 or 20 suites. I lived in one of 8 identical dorms which surrounded a "tower" dorm 22 stories tall on our Quad, which was one of four largely identical Quads on the uptown campus (there was a downtown residential campus also, with 6 or so large dorms.) So there were thousands upon thousands of people living in the SUNY dorms, many of them strangers placed randomly together by the Housing department, as I and the 6 other guys I shared a suite with had been.

One of the guys in my suite was an affable if somewhat dopey jock whose name I cannot recall because mostly people called him by his nickname, "Boone". We got on pretty well, funny guy to hang out with because he was so nice but so different from me. Well, one day I'm in the little common room in our suite playing my guitar, and Boone ambles in, and says, "Hey, Mike! We're related! My mom says we're cousins!" Typical Boone silliness. "Sure, Boone," I grinned, "Whatever."

I mentioned it to my mom next time I talked to her on the phone, and she said, "What's his name?" I told her, and she said, "Sure. That's grandpa Morris's side of the family. You're third cousins. Your great-grandma Celia's sister was Boone's great-grandmother." From then on, Boone and I always called each other "Cuz".

***

In high school, I went on "teen tours" for the summer rather than going to camp. It's a very Long Island Jew thing to do. I went to Israel as part of Masada Of The ZOA's "Teen Age Camp" group in summer '82, cross country with Baron Teen Tours in '83, and spent summers '84 and '85 with a group in Cornwall, England.

A few years later at a party at Albany, I ran into a girl who was on my Israel trip and a girl who had been on my first England trip hanging out together. Turned out they were high school friends. I'm actually surprised that I never made more coincidental connections with people from those trips later on in life.

At Albany I was very active on the school computer system bulletin boards. There was a fairly large circle of us who became friends through it. I left Albany after sophomore year, in '87. In October 2001, I went to a small arts lecture here in Vapid City, California. At the end of the show, they passed a clipboard around the room with a mailing list signup sheet. I was sitting at the end of my row. I signed my name and passed to clipboard to the person sitting in the row in front of me, he takes it, looks at it... and slowly says my name. I look at him, and it's Eric Z. and Beth K. (now Beth Z.), who I knew 14 years earlier in Albany. They live near Vapid City now, I see them every now and again. Neat people.

* * * * *

THE BARD MATTER TRANSMITTER

A little background: For junior and senior year I went to a small college in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, Bard College. A thousand crazy artists out in the woods. I hadn't been at Bard very long, only a few weeks, before I learned of the existence of what everybody there knew as the Bard Matter Transmitter. This is the device that constantly scans the campus, listening for you to say something bad about someone, and beams them right behind you to hear it. It happens *all the time*. The Bard Matter Transmitter is powered 24 hours a day.

The first time I experienced the power of the Bard Matter Transmitter, I had been sitting with my friend Dan in a dorm, sitting around jamming guitar with this guy Jeremy. Jeremy sometimes came off a bit of a pompous ass. Nice enough guy, it eventually turned out, but a pompous ass in his mannerisms. So Dan and I got up and left, and as we walked outside, Dan said something like, "What a weird guy," about Jeremy. To which I added "Not to mention boring, asinine and pompous." And a voice came from right behind me, "Gee, you should be careful what you say around here, Mike, somebody might think you're talking about *them*." Jeremy was standing right behind me, and had caught me dead to rights.

That used to happen all the time. I remember once on line in the cafeteria, and my friend jokingly said something nasty about a girl who I didn't care much about either way, but I chuckled loudly and agreed, and turned around, and there she was. And somehow - this is a long time ago - she immediately said something nasty about some other person, to which I, not having learned my lesson, chuckled loudly and agreed. And I turned around, and the SECOND person was standing right behind me. I don't learn.

But the real reason I mention the Bard Matter Transmitter is its second operational mode, which has lower intensity but a much further range. That's after you graduate, and you learn that Bard is like a magnet. You may have only gone to school with a thousand people, but somehow between them, they know half the population of the civilized world. And if later on in life you drive 13,000 miles in 6 months and start a new life on the other side of the country, the Bard Matter Transmitter will keep track of you, and people connected with Bard will still occasionally get beamed to your location, either into the recent past or right there in the present, for you to stumble on in odd places.

I'm sort of known for it among my current friends - a few of them have noticed my odd propensity for bumping into people from my past, or people with whom I have past acquaintances in common.

BARD MATTER TRANSMITTER - INTO THE PAST! After my senior year at Bard, I lived for 6 months in a big old house out there on the edge of the woods. My and my friend Seth had the place and needed to find a third person. We ended up getting this guy Mike Denvir, who had come to Bard from Berkeley. Mike used to tell me about this friend of his from high school who I should meet, who had similar interests. Denvir lived in our place for about four months. Four years later, I was living at the at a Youth Hostel in Olympia, and I was chatting with Craig Connolly, who had been living there also for the past few months. Turns out Craig is from Berkeley... Bard came up, and he mentioned his high school friend Mike Denvir, who used to tell him there was this guy living donwstairs who Craig should meet! Craig had also been east and knew a few of my other Bard friends, through Mike.

After graduation from Bard, I moved back down to Long Island for a while. I got a job with a nonprofit down in Tribeca. It wasn't unusual to run into Bard acquaintances on the way to or from the office, or in the nearby shops. Four times I happened to be with my co-worker James when I ran into bard friends, and after he'd seen it a few times, he said to me, "Wait a minute, Mike. I went to Columbia, here in Manhattan, with 25,000 people, many of whom stayed here, and I never run into anyone I know from school. You went to a school of 1000 people in upstate New York. And I've seen you run into friends from school four times now." In 9 months of working in that remote southern neighborhood of Manhattan, I ran into Bard classmates, within 2 blocks of the office, 8 times. I used to run into Bard folks in bars in the city a lot of nights, too.

Here's a trip. Not long before I left New York, I visited Bard for graduation day. I was hanging out on the steps of a dorm with my friends, and a girl named Caitlin McGraw pulled up in her car. She had all her belongings in the trunk of her car, and she was giving them all away before moving on to whatever life next had in store for her. I grabbed a nice thermal undershirt from her trunk. A few weeks later, I packed my bags and headed west on an unplanned, seat-of-my-pants journey cross country. Almost as an afterthought, I grabbed my old gray Bard sweatshirt. Because I knew that when you wear your Bard sweatshirt, things happen.

Two months and a few thousand miles later, I'm in the woods, living at the walk-in campground at Yosemite National Park, in California. Now, at the walk-in campground, the sites hold six people, and they keep them full - so if you show up by yourself and there's a site with 5 people camped on it, they'll put you there, so you wind up camping with a succession of strangers.

So I was camped with this couple from Colorado. Nice kids. They'd been there for about 2 weeks, and one night I emerged from my tent wearing the Bard sweatshirt. And the girl looked at me and said, "You went to Bard? My best friend from high school went to Bard!"

And I asked, "Who?"

And she said, "Caitlin McGraw. Do you know her?"

"Sure," I said, lifting up the Bard sweatshirt to reveal the thermal undershirt underneath. "She gave me this undershirt."

BARD MATTER TRANSMITTER - INTO THE PRESENT! I walked into a club recently here in Vapid City, and a guy stopped me and asked, "What do you think of Orgiastic Bubble Plastic?", which was the name of the band I was in at Bard from '88-'91. He turned out to be Jeremy, a guy who lived in my dorm for a year at Bard and who had been in the band "The Fuckers" with a few of my friends. Turns out he lives around the corner from me now. There's a cafe between our apartments, I go there a lot. Last year I saw an incredibly familiar-looking girl sitting in there. Finally I pegged it, I used to see her around campus at Bard. Turns out she lives in Paris now - but her brother lives around the corner from me here in Vapid City, and she was in town visiting him.

And so on and so forth. At a bar in Arcada, CA, I was wearing my Bard sweatshirt, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Did you know Barnaby and Eve?" Sure, of course I knew Barnaby and Eve. In the kitchen of a youth hostel in the pacific northwest, a long-haired guy stared at me for an inordinately long time. Suddenly I recognized Seth Leonard, a friend from Bard. In a diner in Portland, Oregon I suddenly locked eyes with my old Bard friend Susannah Dunlap, who then lived in San Francisco but was up in Portland for a wedding. Walking into the lobby of a youth hostel in San Francisco, I bumped into my dear old Bard friend and bandmate Jon, who had moved to Boston and lost contact with everyone I knew several years before. He had been trying to get into a different hostel elsewhere in the city, and the person in line ahead of him got the last bed, and they referred him to the hostel I happened to be working in at that very time. I also ran into Nick, a good friend and dorm-mate who had played guitar in several bands with Jon before disappearing back to Georgia after graduation, in that same lobby of that same hostel.

Here's a great one. When I was working in the hostel I used to go to a neighborhood bar, Spec's, a wonderful place full of poets and drunks. I befriended a regular named James who went there every night. After I had known James for four or five years, he showed up at Spec's late one night, saying he had just come from seeing a band. "The drummer is a childhood friend of mine from Arizona - Bradford Reed."

"Wait a minute, " I said, "I know Bradford Reed." He used to sit playing his homemade musical contraptions in Tewksbury Field at Bard. He was a dorm-mate of one of my best friends.

* * * * *

BUT WAIT! THERE'S SO MUCH MORE!

But this sort of thing happens to me all the time. It doesn't only happen with Bard people. One of my west coast friends, Michael L., turned out, after several years of knowing him, to be the cousin of Amy, a girl I had been in a small alternative schooling program with in High School on Long Island fifteen years before.

My high school friend Gene writes for a magazine in New York City. About 10 years ago he was assigned a feature article on the Burning Man festival, and so he made plans to come out west to attend the festival with me. He was assigned a photographer, also from New York, to come along. The photographer mentioned it to a friend of his who lived here, who recommended his current roommate, a bus driver, to drive the RV, which is what ended up happening. And that bus driver was? My friend Mac, who I had already known for several years through the bus company we both worked for here in town.

Mac's girlfriend lived in New York, Gene ran into her at parties every now and again for quite a while after that.

Little known fact, in high school on Long Island in the mid '80s, I knew a kid named Jesse Friendman, who later became the subject of a well-known and controversial documentary film. Nearly twenty years later, here in Vapid City, my friend Suzanne had a friend Diana who regularly hosted dinners at her house. At one of them, the film was mentioned. It turned out Jesse's older brother Seth lived here in town, and Diana was friends with him.

THE EVER-SHRINKING CIRCLE: Here in Vapid City, the circle gets even smaller. Besides the whole Allie-Michael L-Christopher-Mark Tong-Michael Melman all knowing each other thing mentioned in the first paragraph, there have been a million more coincidences just among my disparate circles of acquaintances here. Christine, the intermediary who got me my current apartment, was friends with a guy named Bob. Years later, Diana, who threw the dinners, also turned out to be friends with Bob. Michael L. Lives three doors down from Bob.

Two guys, Gustavo and Drew, lived across the hall from me. I bumped into Gustavo at a bar across town and we got to talking and it turned out he was the ex-boyfriend of the wife of a guy who I knew through other friends. Drew turned out to be old friends with a friend I met through some co-workers at the bus company I was working at.

Michael L. once had a roommate named Casey. A while after Casey moved out, I was visiting some friends who I knew through completely different circles. Who should I bump at their house but Casey, who was living with them now.

A girl named Barbara, the friend of a girl I used to volunteer at a nonprofit with, showed up at a party thrown by Axil, a friend I had met through my work. It turned out Axil was an old college friend of Barbara's older sister. At another party of Axil's I met his ex-girlfriend, and after a little conversation we discovered that she had gone to college in Arizona with a friend of mine here in the city who I met through an online mailing list.

My friend Becca put out a casting call for extras for a small movie she was producing here. On line at the snack table during the shoot, I wound up standing behind Vegas, a guy who I had randomly wound up talking to at a bar a few months earlier. Turns out Vegas and Becca were friends.

I'm telling you, for a town of 750,000 people, Vapid City is SMALL.

THE INCREDIBLE REAPPEARING MAN: Back in '99 I was friends with Rob, one of the drivers at the bus company. He had a friend Dave. Rob eventually moved to Oregon and we lost touch. A few years later, my friend Louisa met a new boyfriend through the online personals. When I met him, we recognized each other: it was Dave.

Eventually, my roommate Jim and I had a room open up in our apartment, and Dave, who I was now in touch with through Louisa, wound up moving in. During that time, my friend Nicole, who I knew from working at the bus company, had a friend Hattie who needed someone to take car of her cat while she traveled for a few months. We ended up taking the cat in.

Fast forward a few years. Dave had moved out, and he and Louisa had long since broken up. Hattie had given the cat to her friend Debbie, and now Debbie was traveling for a few months, and so we once again took the cat in for a little while.

A year or so afterwards, Debbie met a man through the online personals. The first time he came over, she told him the cat's name, and he said, "That's funny, my old roommates Mike and Jim took care of a cat with that name." And she said, "That's funny, two guys named Mike and Jim took care of my cat for a few months." Yep. The man she met online was Dave.

* * * * And, man, this essay is to be continued, because there is so much more.

It makes me wonder - these are just the ones I know about, because they came up in conversation somehow, or because I was in the right place at the right time. What connections are there that simply never came up in conversation? Who did I miss by 5 minutes?

100%truth


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