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Sunday, November 16, 2014

"On Coincidence" (on my love of coincidence)

on coincidence
My editorial assistant wrote me a note the other day on one of the pages of the My Year volume he was proofreading: “You always say this (I had written, regarding the coincidence of running into two friends at an Albee play I attended in Princeton, New Jersey, “I’ve long ago expected the coincidences of my life—even those I conjure up!”), but I’m curious to know what these coincidences mean to you. Why do you think they happen? What’s the point? Is there a higher power at work?”

     Given the fact that I have mentioned numerous such coincidences in almost all the volumes of My Year I have published, and that I do feel these coincidences have had an important role in my life, I suddenly felt these questions had to be answered—if for no other reason, to explain the phenomenon and what it does actually mean to me.

Broadway and 72nd Street.     The most improbable of these coincidences occurred (as I recount, more simply, in My Year 2005) when as a young college student at the age of 20 I had run away to New York without telling my parents. I had spent the first night in the city in the apartment of relatives of Wisconsin friends with whom I had caught a ride. This same couple helped arrange a temporary apartment for me in Greenwich Village on Horatio Street where I stayed only for about a week before the occupant returned from his tour (he was a puppeteer), moving, soon after, to the Sloane House YMCA on West 34th Street (once the largest residential YMCA in the nation, now a condominium), and later to Jackson Heights to share an apartment with a man who I met at the YMCA. After obtaining a job as assistant to Protocol at Columbia University, a few weeks later, I rented an apartment on 112th Street near Amsterdam Avenue, with a view of the Cathedral of St. John the Devine. In other words, during this short period I moved all over the city, and still had not shared the information with my parents that I was living in New York. By this time, moreover, I was visiting the gay bars every evening, and having sex with boys and men I met at the bars nearly every night. After several weeks I met an individual who took me to his apartment for sex—the very same apartment on West 72nd Street where I had spent that first night in the city--quite a remarkable coincidence in itself! Apparently he had rented the place from the relatives, who’d moved elsewhere, of my car-sharing friends. 
     But it was while I was visiting that apartment with that boy that represented a near miraculous coincidence occurred. The telephone rang, and he answered it, handing it over quickly and rather confusedly to me. It was my mother. Apparently they had tracked down my Wisconsin friends, who, presumably suggested they contact their relatives, since it was there where they had last seen me. Let us even ignore the illogicalness of that suggestion—why would they expect their relative to have kept tabs on my peregrinations? And why might the telephone number they obviously provided to my parents still be the same number as it had been for their now absent relatives?  The possibility that I might be back in that same space after having, in a city in 1968 of seven million, eight thousand ninety four, eight hundred and sixty-two people just met the one person who lived in that apartment where I was again visiting for just a few hours was less likely, surely, than winning almost any lottery. It is certainly difficult to explain something like that.
     Perhaps the real issue is that I see this as a coincidence. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines coincidence as: “1. the fact or condition of coinciding. 2. an accidental and remarkable occurrence of events, ideas, etc. at the same time, in a way that sometimes suggests a casual relationship.” One can truly define my experience described above and many of the other incidents I describe, accordingly, as coincidences. It may be, however, that I am according this “accidental” occurrence with too much significance, that I am imbuing it with more of the qualities of a casual or real relationship than it deserves. Perhaps I am simply cursed or blessed—depending upon your reaction to chance-like incidents—than are other people, or perhaps I simply notice them more often than others do. Certainly that’s what my friend Paul Vangelisti argued when, after having experienced an evening of such coincidental and rather odd events occurring to me and hearing of others I experienced.
    Let me admit from the very beginning that I do not believe in a higher power or agency who or which lies behind these events. I would describe myself as an atheist who, although committed to the logic of science, does not particularly demand an order in the universe, although scientists have probably proven there is one. If there is a knowable or even unknowable order to all earthly events, let me just argue that I am often more interested in the chaos that most others seem to fear. I guess I might summarize my emotions by saying I am more intrigued by what appears to be chaos than by what most people describe as order. 
    But then I find chaos a very transient thing. I have, apparently, a very connective mind. Or at least a very narrative one (and, in staying this, I am not suggesting that “narrative” is chronologically-based or that my thinking is necessarily structured in that manner). I have often argued that if you were to send me random poems by 20 different poets I could immediately link them through their language, images, and their meanings to create a fairly coherent story—although I suppose such a story might appear to be coherent only in my mind! Let us just say, I have a mind that tends to link things up. The very act of writing an annual memoir centered around abstract words that I have titled the volume makes this quite apparent. And that is why I describe my annual volumes of essays as fictions based on what I believe to be fact. 
     Behind this rather mad endeavor, however, lies a gut feeling that events do, in fact, connect, that reality can only be perceived through how we inter-link the vast range of our experiences, public and private, that each moment, hour, day, year and through a life-time we encounter. My mind inherently seems to make great sense of these seemingly random events. I see connections often where my acquaintances, the media, and the general public (if my acquaintances and the media effectively express the responses of the “general public”) see none. It is almost as if I were a born Jamesian, determined to “only connect,” which James (and others like E. M. Forster) argued for throughout his writing. Accordingly, even if I like what I describe as chaos, it doesn’t ever remain as chaos very long after I encounter it. And that is probably why I am so attracted to it, to chance, improbability, fragmentation, interruption, dissociation, and radical realignment of meaning(s). These gems of improbability all too quickly get swallowed up through my perception into coherency.
     Strangely, I do not at all think of myself as having a necessarily logical mind and would hardly describe my life as what most people might express as orderly. While I do achieve a great deal every day—if you define reading, writing, observing, publishing, and communicating as kinds of achievement (many don’t)—I do not consciously organize these activities outside of marking down dates when I have tickets to the opera or plays or noting the show times of nearby movies. I write because I love to write, when I have time to. And on many days there is simply not enough time to write, read, or even watch a television movie, let alone meet a friend over lunch in order to catch up with their lives. I am fortunate that these same activities mostly define my “profession,” although I am equally unfortunate that my profession results in little if any money to be used for my food, lodging, and clothing. I am lucky to have a companion who offers me those things basically in exchange for my often imperfect love.
     Yet, I must have a logical mind since, when I write, I usually create from the first sentence to the last in one fell swoop, only adding in a few interlinking phrases and a great deal of word changes and editorial corrections at a later point. But I don’t see it as logic. It is once again, simply a matter of connection, of putting one thing in relationship to another, followed by another, etc. In short, no matter what I am doing I tend to make meaning through my acts. I think most people do; perhaps they are just not as aware of it as I am. 
     That tendency to see connections, sometimes when there are really none, is what I have described throughout my writing as coincidence. And by describing so many events in that manner, many of which are surely just everyday happenings, I do seem to prioritize them or, at least, infer that they represent something of great importance to me. I’d like to immediately deny this, since as I said, I do not believe in a God or even a god-like universe. But yes, these moments I describe as coincidence do somehow give me pleasure. 
     Indeed perhaps it is because I do not believe in God or that I am not a scientist or even a particularly logical-thinking being that I find coincidence so interesting. As Lisa Belkin reported in a fascinating essay on this subject in The New York Times Magazine of August 11, 2002, “The Odds of That,” “…Unexpected connections [that appear as coincidence] are both riveting and rattling. Much of religious faith is based on the idea that almost nothing is coincidence; science is an exercise in eliminating the taint of coincidence; police work is often a feint and parry between those trying to prove coincidence and those trying to prove complicity. Without coincidence, there would be few movies worth watching (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”), and literary plots would come grinding to a disappointing halt. (What if Oedipus had not happened to marry his mother?....)
     But sometimes, as the article quotes John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University—coincidentally the university at which I used to teach—coincidence is just something that happens, without any particular significance. “Believing in fate, or even conspiracy, can sometimes be more comforting,” he argues, “than facing the fact that sometimes things just happen.” And often the coincidental facts which seem most stunning to us, like my mother calling me to discover where I was, “aren’t even there.”

For instance, although the numbers 9/11 (9 plus 1 plus 1) equal 1l, an
American Airlines Flight 11 was the first to hit the twin towers, and
were 92 people on board (9 plus 2), and September 11 is the 254th day
of the year (2 plus 5 plus 4), and there are 11 letters in “Afghanistan,” 
“New York City” and “the Pentagon” (and while we’re counting, in
George W. Bush), and the World Trade towers themselves took the
form of the number 11, this seeming numerical message is not actually
a pattern that exists but merely a pattern we have found.

“Of course the next plane to hit the towers was United Airlines Flight 175, and the one that hit the Pentagon was American Airlines Flight 77….and the Pentagon is shaped, well, like a pentagon,” the article continues. The coincidences may be simply stunning, but they mean absolutely nothing!
     I know this very well when I proudly note the numerous coincidental events of my life, which happen, so it seems, very, very often to me. All right, let me chalk it up to my inherent necessity of linking things up. I don’t demand or even suggest that these coincidences have any other meaning, that they hint of a greater force at work in the universe. And perhaps they have no meaning to anyone except me. So why do I mention them then? Pablo is right to query this eccentricity. What is the point? Or to express it from my point of view, why do these coincidences seem worthy of noting? Why do I find pleasure in them?
      I admit that there is a sort of quality about such coincidences—in the idea, for example, that by attending a party in Brooklyn (a New York borough in which I’d never previously set foot) at the wrong address I would fall into a gay orgy involving a former acquaintance from years before (also recounted in My Year 2005)—that is somehow reassuring, bringing one a bit of luck like a rabbit’s foot. I might even grant that I see such events as talismans, proof that my life is still on the right track—or perhaps the wrong track, but a track, nonetheless, familiar to me. Even if life seems to be made up of a series of random events, it is reassuring, after all, that so many people and events in my life eventually link up. Even if I wasn’t particularly fond of the person in the past, the fact that I suddenly encounter him again seems to suggest that there might be a purpose to my having met him in the first place, since, after all, we have coincided once more. The fact that I know it means nothing of the kind doesn’t take away that pleasure. I still feel, at some level, that such things were “meant to be,” even though I don’t know by whom or what, since God and fate are out the question. Perhaps it is only because I mean them to be; I mean them to be meaningful, which leaves me with a kind of tautology. 
     But then I do believe that what some describe as “fate” has far more to do with human will, or desire, or just empathy—an unconscious ability to predict or foretell the behavior or actions of others—than with some larger metaphysical force. We all have heard of twins who have the uncanny ability to read one another’s minds or who, even having been raised apart, end up working at similar jobs with husbands or wives with similar names or dispositions.

     Belkin indeed tells the story of the coincidental deaths of two elderly Finnish twins who both died on the same day, March 5, just two hours apart in accidents as they were traveling by bicycle on the same highway. Some in their small town of Raahe were convinced that the second brother died of suicide, having heard of his brother’s death; but, later it was revealed that the second brother was cheerfully getting his haircut before driving on to be killed so similarly to his brother. The nephew described it as just “their destiny,” sharing the opinion that his uncles shared a psychic bond, one becoming ill always shortly after the other had fallen ill, one developing a pain in his leg at the same moment the other was injured in the leg by an automobile.
       I’m not a twin, but I have been described by at least one employee as being somewhat psychic. Time and again I seemed, she argued, to read her mind, suggesting, for example that she take the rest of the day off at the very moment when she was about to announce that she didn’t feel well, or my asking her to do something just before she was about to suggest she undertake the same task. I’m not arguing that between us there was a magical meeting of the minds or a “hocus-pocus” quality about my abilities to sense what she was thinking. Perhaps she simply expressed herself through subtle facial expressions or gestures or…well any number of things. If I feel a deep empathy with an individual I can very often make out, at moments, what they may be thinking about. Haven’t we all, particularly with long-time friends, had a name cross our mind at the very moment that the telephone rang with that very same person at the other end of the line? In fact it just this instant happened to me, except on e-mail instead of the phone.  Of course today you can text somebody to tell them you about to telephone them! So perhaps it’s not even such an odd-seeming coincidence any longer. In short, it’s just another way of making what I have been described as links between people and events, a linking up of knowledge (which includes our emotional sensibilities) and experience. Although I am sure I shall never win the lottery, strange coincidences happen quite naturally to me, and I seek them out.
    Finally, I enjoy coincidence the way some people—such as the Surrealists for example—love déjà vu. Strangely, I’ve never experienced déjà vu, although I’m pretty certain I comprehend what the experience is like. Perhaps the sense of something happening all over again, as if time has momentarily rushed back to repeat itself, is what I experience in all my coincidences. It is my way of momentarily misconnecting a synapse to another synapse so that time seems almost stand still.

Finally, I have realized, in retrospect, that coincidences seem to me a bit like the possibility of seeing around a corner, the ability to experience something that isn’t ahead in linearity, but might be spotted out of the corner of one’s eye, a reality that many simply cannot see because they’re too busy looking ahead, while I am clumsily looking down, across, away, and apart from the direction in which I am traveling—a voyage which, accordingly, often results in an occasional stumble for not paying attention to the road ahead. And, in that sense, I often connect with something askew, accidental, a bit dissociated from everyday life. My coincidences occur in a world of slight dissociation, in a kind of odd waking/dreaming reality in which things come together in ways in which they normally might not. It’s rather akin to the feeling in writing when you suddenly know that you’ve created a reality—something different and apart of from your ordinary experiences—that is absolutely right, that you have touched upon something “other” than yourself in a way that you appear to be living outside of your own body, in someone else’s imagination. Perhaps it is nothing more than the rubbing up against someone else’s life in a way you never might have before expected, a kind of psychological frottage. Suddenly—bang!—another human being who you never even noticed is standing there, demanding you accept his or her reality as strongly as your own. And, amazingly, you have no choice but to embrace it.  
    “Submitted for your consideration”—as writer-producer Rod Serling used to portentously begin many of his The Twilight Zone television shows—is the following scenario, a true story which I also related in My Year 2005. In that piece, not so coincidentally titled “Coincidence,” I describe how I arrived at Kennedy International Airport outside of New York to be whisked away on a bus that got lost in Jackson Heights in the Queens on its way into the city, nearly causing a mutiny among its passengers. Finally arriving in Manhattan two hours later, I caught a taxi. The narrative continues:

               I quickly took a taxi to my hotel, the Summit, now

               Loew’s Midtown. I must have appeared a bit haggard

               after my adventures on the bus, for the man at the

               desk asked if I might like an executive suite at the

               same price as a regular room. I assured him that that

               would be fine.

                  I showered, redressed, and went downstairs to seek out

               a good restaurant. Since I knew the West Side better, I

               waited for taxi. The doorman asked if I wouldn’t mind

               riding in a limousine for the same price as a taxi ride

               across town. No, I didn’t mind. The limo, which

               could easily have seated five or six individuals, was a

               gleaming black machine which the driver had evidently

               just purchased and for which he was eager to develop a


                   Along the way, I decided to stop by J and B’s, a rather

               seedy venue across from what used to be called “Needle

               Park” on Broadway. My limo pulled up to the door

               of this dilapidated drinking establishment and I grandly

               exited. It must have looked surreal. The driver handed

               me his card, which read “Doug’s limousine.” Would I

               have any further need of it while I was in town? he queried.

                  Today at J and B’s they demand “cash only,” obviously

               distrusting even their own customers. I like the place, however,

               because it’s one of the few city locations where, as long

               as you buy a drink, you can stay for hours writing

               at a table. At the time I was working on my fiction,

               Letters from Hanusse, a book that took me over twenty-five

               years to complete.

                   I was concentrating on a scene which was to appear early

               in the book. The narrator, living in New York (a native

               Hanussean who spends much of the fiction in Paris) was

               expressing his fears of the city:


                          I have always feared the unimaginable. That the

                          building in which I lay myself down each evening

                          might one night just crumble into pieces upon my

                          sleeping head. It’s possible, the building is old,

                          badly in need of repairs. It’s not an

                          earthquake I imagine, it’s simply my building and

                          its inevitable collapse.

                   I looked up for further inspiration, and across the way from

           my table noticed two young women deep in conversation. While

           pausing with pen in air, I overheard one of these women say,

           “This may seem strange, but you know what I most fear?”

           “What?” the other asked. “That someday—and this

           will sound silly—my building will just fall down, that it will


               Had I spoken aloud what I’d just written? I wondered in alarm.

           No, I realized, I wasn’t even whispering, which I sometimes do

           when I write. Could they have read my writing from their position

           at the neighboring table?

                No, we were several feet apart; I couldn’t even read the title of

           a book that sat before one of the young women. Had they read my

           mind? I didn’t stay to find out, and I later cut that passage from

           the final manuscript.

When one’s creations come crashing into the real world, you have to simply give them over to life itself so that the two worlds will not collide. Indeed, since that occasion, I have read of apartment buildings actually throughout the city.           
     I usually never tell Howard about my writing until after the fact, and have very seldom discussed my ideas with him since I generally come about my ideas through the process of writing itself. But this morning, as I began this piece, I mentioned that I was about to write an essay about my encounters with coincidence. Howard seemed disinterested, leaving the room soon after. A few minutes later, however, he came back with The New York Times Magazine essay I quote above. He, who hasn’t taught a course in over ten years, reported I sometimes used this essay in my teaching. Not a very big coincidence, I grant you, but a most fortuitous one!

Los Angeles, February 3, 2014

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