[This content originally appeared in the first edition of Hello Mr.]
He told me his name was Cliff Quibble.
It was 1986, the summer before I turned 15.
Growing up in the suburbs of New York, I was accustomed to taking the train into the city myself. But on this particular Saturday, it wasn’t the museums or SoHo streets I was exploring. I was seeking connection.
Like any curious teenager at the dawn of dial-up Internet and PCs at home, I found the chat room – basically an ongoing stream of text you had to scan constantly for any reference to your name – an easy place to explore. And an enticing one, given that it seemed limited only by who was in the room, and not by distance. I could connect with anyone anywhere, making me feel less isolated in the sleepy burbs. And there were hundreds of rooms.
I pictured in my head an 8-bit green-screen rectangle of a room, with a door on each wall and tables in each corner (somehow it was easier to enter this new territory if I made a visual of it). I found a few people in one corner that seemed interesting. Someone I saw more than once went by Cliff. After a few chats he asked me if I wanted to go “pvt” – he set up a private chat room for just the two of us.
We chatted about nothing and everything. The weather, the city, Ronald Reagan, my family, his. He was cordial and laughed at my jokes, hahahahah-style. After a few weeks of rushing home from school to hop in our pvt, he asked me if I wanted to meet him in person. I didn’t hesitate because he seemed kind, and said he just wanted to get to know me better, no pressure, and that we could go to a museum together if I liked. That generosity and companionship was exactly what I was looking for. He gave me his last name and phone number, and I still remember how small and important it looked on the dot matrix printout. I hid it in a book, and then tucked it in my back pocket on the Saturday I went to meet him.
I suggested we meet in Grand Central because it was a hop off the train for me, and a very anonymous/public location in case things didn’t work out. We described in detail what we’d be wearing so we could spot each other in such a crowded place (him: plaid shirt and jeans; me: shorts, polo shirt, loafers), and picked a time. He said he was in his late 30s, about 5'7", glasses, sandy brown, thinning hair. I didn’t even realize (or consider) that he was twice my age, and his appearance seemed irrelevant. I was focused on connecting with someone – almost anyone – that shared my experience.
I gave myself a buffer of time to blend in to the staircase overlooking the appointed location, Ticket Window 23. I felt my heart start to pound from nervousness when I thought I saw someone by his description, but older. I felt paralyzed, unable to stand up or inch closer to the ticket window. There were throngs of people in the terminal that morning and it was a few minutes past the time we said we’d meet when I began to lose faith, wondering – almost hoping he’d bailed. Then, as the crowd dissipated, it revealed Cliff gazing directly at me. Tunnel vision quieted the echoing hall, and I realized that the glasses were thicker and the hair was thinner, the face more deeply lined, and I felt before we’d even spoken that I’d been deceived. I quickly stood up, turned around, and walked up the staircase. I never went back to the chat room or saw him again.
I have thought of him, though. Wondered if he was still alive. Pondered my youthful bravery to even get as close as I did. Cliff’s mismatched description with what I saw was the first time I felt crestfallen. Over the years, challenged by similar moments, I’ve grown more accepting and tolerant, and less judgmental. Connections can be made anywhere, with anyone, and there’s something to learn from all of them.