Thursday, October 16, 2008

Chance meetings

My recent trip to NYC was made more enjoyable by a number of chance meetings.

When I go somewhere like New York, where I know a fair number of people from previous eras of my life, I never know whom to contact in advance. There's not nearly time enough to see all the people I'd like to, and in many cases I'm not currently in touch. Plus I'm usually going there with some sort of agenda (plans, tickets, events, etc.), making it that much harder to make the rounds.

The unfortunate result is that I usually end up skulking into and out of town without seeing anyone I'm not actually meeting there. I think about the others, go into paralysis by analysis, and for lack of ability to see everyone, I end up not seeing anyone.

This time was different. When I got there, I Facebook-posted that I'd just flown over the old and new Meadowlands. This more or less announced, "I'm in NYC," leading to a pleasant lunch with a friend I've known since we were in Miss Wilson's third grade class at South School in Glencoe, Illinois.

We later spent a summer together in La Rochelle, France on a high school trip, which we reminisced about over an appropriately continental déjeuner in a French cafe adjacent to Lincoln Center near her current job as a producer for ABC News. Not exactly a chance meeting but still pretty impromptu, occasioned by my choice of Facebook post.

Incidentally, having sat out the Friendster and MySpace revolutions, I only joined Facebook to play Scrabble across the nation, but after they killed the Scrabulous application, I found myself catching up with a lot of long-lost people. It's a nice, unobtrusive way to stay slightly in touch. As I learned last week, it can also be a useful tool to announce a trip somewhere and invite any interested locals to find a time to get together. I'm going to post something before my next visit and round out my calendar.

Next, chance meetings at the Conan O'Brien show. Thanks to the generosity of a Late Night comedy writer friend, I was lucky enough to stop by for a visit.

Guests of the show check in at the NBC Visitors Center in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. When I did so the other day, the guy behind me in line was someone else I know from South School days. He's been working in the music business since college and manages Death Cab For Cutie, who were playing that night on the show. He introduced me to the A&R rep who'd signed the band to Atlantic Records, who in another coincidence went to college with my brother.

In the hallway that serves as the Conan backstage area, I had a brief conversation with the screenwriter J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, Felicity and Alias. This wasn't a chance meeting in that I don't know the guy and he was booked on the show, but it was satisfying in that I got a little closure.

A year or two ago, when Abrams was a guest on the Howard Stern radio show, he was partway through telling the interesting story of how he got into show business when Stern abruptly interrupted him and changed the subject. Stern is a generally solid interviewer but with one major shortcoming: he's so afraid of boring his audience that he'll regularly cut off even a fascinating anecdote from an interviewee to jump to a new topic. This leaves the audience with a frustrated sense of incompletion, ironically annoying the listeners for fear of annoying them.

In J.J.'s case, he was more than holding up his end of the interview with some great stories, but Stern would rarely let him finish a thought before he'd interrupt. It was lively but disjointed, and in particular left one tale unfinished.

So with J.J. Abrams hanging around Conan's hallway waiting for his interview segment, I said a quick hello and asked him to finish the story he'd started on the air, which he happily did. I found him funny and engaging, much as he would be on the Conan show minutes later. He's also a fellow Stern listener, and as we discussed the Stern show across the street from its Sirius studio, guests were assembling a block away at Le Cirque for Howard's wedding.

The final chance meeting of the weekend took place at the New Yorker Festival Headquarters in Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th Street. After enjoying "The Campaign Trail," a panel discussion in which New Yorker writers Hendrik Hertzberg, Ryan Lizza and George Packer broke down the presidential race, I sat down on a couch to get my bearings.

The woman next to me said, "Ben Bass?" It was yet another childhood friend, a talented artist when we were in high school, now a professional illustrator and Parsons School of Design art professor living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She was there to see a joint appearance by fellow artists Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. We were chummy in high school but fell out of touch since; thanks to the chance meeting, we got together a few days later to catch up.

Good times all around.

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