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Transient connections

New York Journal | Nothing is random in a city full of seemingly chance encounters

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

NEW YORK-Last Sunday I got on the subway to go to church and walked toward an empty seat. I saw that the woman next to it had spilled a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee at her feet, so I walked the other way and sat down, glanced at the girl sitting next to me, and saw something rare enough here to start a conversation. She was reading a Bible.

In New York you can walk to the life soundtrack you choose, with your headphones plugging your ears and shutting out the beggars and strangers you literally bump into each day. Then, while you're simultaneously tweeting and walking somewhere, there are moments like this-where you have to decide if you're going to make friends with a stranger.

A recent New York magazine piece explores the transient connections New Yorkers make every day, asking "Is Urban Loneliness a Myth?" and arguing that New York is not a lonely place. It doesn't have to be, especially not for someone believing in a providential hand that guides the random meetings of a million strangers.

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The article argues that we're hardwired to crave human connection and that we can satisfy this even through chance connections with strangers, who sometimes become friends. One of the researchers, John Cacioppo, describes people in Grand Central Station: "You'd see these people walking in all these different ways and at different paces, and all of a sudden, they'd be synchronized. . . . All these transient connections were forming."

New York does to friendships what it does to everything-speeds them to a frantic pace. In my small college I built relationships more slowly: You have conversations with someone when you pass them in the hall until you know them well enough to meet intentionally. In New York, you speed the process because you're never sure to meet someone again. You make a swift assessment, find all the things you have in common, build a fast rapport, then get their number or, of course, friend them on Facebook. This is how you turn transient connections into lasting ones.

I had to learn how to do this. The good thing is that you make new friends all the time, in strange ways. I met one friend because he was a college friend's brother's ex-roommate. I met another after a bride arranged for us to travel to her wedding from New York together. A couple introduced me to their old friend, who happened to be the new roommate of someone I already knew.

On Friday I was writing in a coffee shop when the boy sitting, also alone, at the table next to me had the waitress bring me tea and a croissant. For the next hour we talked about writing, Russian film, and Vincent Van Gogh. He's most likely a transient connection and not the love of my life-but the person sitting alone at the table next to you could be the love of your life. This is part of New York's allure but also part of its intimidation. You're always wondering if your own shyness or apathy-your unwillingness to unplug your ears and learn your barista's name and the names of the other regulars-is thwarting fate.

But for the Christian, nothing is random. God can guide those transient connections. Sometimes that's clear.

The girl on the subway put away her Bible and we sat for a few minutes lost in the individual hums we'd created to shut out the world. Then I realized if the woman a few feet away hadn't spilled her coffee cup, I would have sat next to her instead of this girl, and that spilled coffee cup might not have been coincidental. I took out my headphones and asked if she was on her way to church. Less than 15 minutes later when I left the subway, we had one another's full names so we could find each other on Facebook and keep in touch.

When New Yorkers find themselves suddenly synchronized, it's not by chance.

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