A young woman and a child, a toddler young enough for a stroller but old enough to walk alongside it, entered the elevator my friend and I were already on. The doors shut, and the child looked at me, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Hi, Mark.” Precisely enunciated. Distinctly direct.
Now, Mark happens to be my name. I had never seen the woman, or boy, before. My friend looked at me and I suppose he saw a shocked look come over my face. When we got off the elevator—not at our floor, but the next available, because I was spooked—he asked, “Do you know them?”
“No. That was random. Did that kid say my name?”
“Yeah. Definitely. As if he was about to tell you something important.”
Every once in a while, I wonder about that encounter. In subsequent years, I have confirmed with my friend that this really happened, both the unmemorable banalities and the one memorable bit. When one describes an event as random, really what one is saying is that something incredibly specific took place with absolutely no context around it and none to be found. “It was like it happened at random.”
This was almost 25 years ago. Was the child prescient and have I since become an important person in his life? No 20-something person that I have gotten to know recently has told me that I look familiar or asked if we have already met.
How random can random be? Is there a scale to measure random? Is there an ultimate random? If there is, I may have caught a glimpse of it one glorious day.
I have only a few specific memories of the event: Who was with me; the fact that it was a woman with a boy with a stroller, but both of their faces have receded into blank, amorphous, generic people-faces. Were they on my right or on my left? If I work on it, I can remember myself facing them in either direction. I have said hello to strangers on elevators many times since, (well, nodded) and all those people have similarly melted into faceless, generic folks.
I realize that if I am ever required to give evidence in a trial, I will be close to useless, as I do not notice specifics like what someone is wearing or what color anything is—which is one more way in which I really am a terrible boyfriend, so I am lucky that my girlfriend accepts me as I am—but I retain quite precisely the things people say. (Which also does not help me in the relationship department.) I am now working on remembering details, to be a better boyfriend and a better writer.
I remember the surreal precision of that anonymous little boy speaking my name, clearly and randomly. That is what remains: the creeped-out and surprised feeling remains ever accessible to me.
It is one of those moments that I feel like I flubbed on my first go at it, and I have lived the quarter-century since as if waiting for something similar to happen again, to get it right this time around; I will not leave the elevator in surprise next time.
Of course, the chance of a next time, the possibility that something like this will ever happen again in my life is almost nil; this was my one true-life encounter with infinite probability, with something similar to the infinite monkey theorem—you know, the thought that given enough time (infinite time), a chimp or group of chimps pounding on a keyboard will accidentally or coincidentally type out all of “Hamlet.” One will encounter many children who are learning words for things and names of people and how to talk and one of them may blurt a name out and coincidentally it will be yours. It happened to me and I am writing about it two decades later.
I will not leave the elevator in surprise next time. No, I will confirm my name and tell the child who accidentally said it about how rare it is to encounter this moment twice in one’s life—the true random moment—and how moved I am by the opportunity to experience it again. I will tell the child to celebrate the fantastic accidents that make life special, the surreal life, the “fabulous realities,” as one of my teachers used to call them.
And then the mother and child will quickly leave the elevator, one or two floors before their intended destination, a bit spooked.
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(This is an edited version of a column that appeared on September 8, 2014: “‘That Was Random.'”)
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