I enjoy finding or creating connections with people. Discovering that we’ve lived in the same far off place, known the same person, attended the same school. It’s fun and I feel that these connections make for a more easy going, relaxed atmosphere and attitude for my customers and me. I’m not trying to make friends with these strangers but I am trying to have pleasant interactions with them and having mutual reference points of people, places or institutions can help create a more productive environment.
I started discovering these coincidental ties back in 1986. I had just moved to Atlanta from Washington, DC with my New York born wife when I met a man who had gone to Lincoln High School in Yonkers, New York; the high school where my father-in-law, Frank Tierney, had been the principal. The young man certainly remembered Frank and far more telling was that Dad remembered the man as well.
My first week at my current job found me recognizing a former customer from Atlanta, Marnie, a woman whom I had not seen in a quarter century. We were both new to Tampa, Florida and when I called her by name she was a bit perplexed.
My favorite example occurred when a young man told me he was new to Tampa. Having seen his license plates I asked him where he was from in Michigan and upon his answer of Traverse City I simply asked him, “So what year did you have Diane Kenel-Truelove as your English teacher?” I found his shock to be exquisite but I had inside information as Diane is my cousin and until very recently Traverse City had only one public high school. (Aaron’s answer of, “You know Diane Kenel-Truelove? I love Diane Kenel-Trulove! I had her in my freshman and senior year!” will likely remain forever embedded in my memory. Diane remembered Aaron as well, in fact they are Facebook friends.)
Upon discovering that someone is from a place where I have lived, gone to a school that I attended or other possible touch-points I frequently ask questions like, “Oh, so you’re from Philadelphia? Do you know Phil Christian?” or the like. I certainly don’t expect my new acquaintance to know whomever I just mentioned but every once in a while the answer is yes.
I do this in the every-day world as well. Last week I touched down in Miami after a week in Saint Kitts. Three gals sat across from my wife and me and one said to her companions, “Looks like we got three inches of snow while we were gone.”
I listened to her voice and wondered where they were headed. Her accent was Midwestern but I wasn’t sure if she was from Michigan or Ohio. As we were about to deplane I asked if they had any luggage in the overhead bins they might like help with and they assured me they didn’t. I asked where they were from and the gal who’d spoken of snow said, “Michigan.” I asked where and it turned out she lived about halfway between Detroit and Saginaw. My parents were from Saginaw, mu uncle from Detroit, but the conversation got much, much better when another woman said she was originally from Iowa.
“Oh, yeah?” I asked, “Where?”
“Cedar Rapids? Where about? You can be specific.”
“A little town called Hiawatha,” she said.
“You lived in Hiawatha?” I replied, “We’re you closer to Hiawatha Elementary School or Guthrie Park?” It turned out that she used to live five miles from my old house and that her mother lives three miles from where my wife and I once lived. In fact, she graduated from Kennedy High School, the same school that our two sons graduated from. We compared notes as we shuffled through customs and then the three forty-something-year-old amigas went their way and my wife and I went ours. We all had connections to make but we had all just connected.
I do this a lot at work; sometimes with startling results. It’s fun for me and I think it’s good for business but the Thursday before I left for Saint Kitts I had the tables turned on me in a most dramatic fashion.
A mid-fifties woman walked in with her twenty-five year old Trek 700 hybrid bike. She wanted to know if we could get the front brake not to rub.
The poor bike had not seen a lot of love and I told her that we could and that we’d need to replace her brake cable that had rusted shut. I also said, “Do you mind if I take a quick look at the bike to see what else it might need?”
“Well, no. But I don’t really want to spend a lot of money on this bike. It’s kind of old.”
“Yeah, I get it,” I replied. “Twenty-five is getting up there. I just want to make sure the bike is safe.” This is a nearly obligatory question on my part. It is amazingly sad but true that someone can bring a bicycle in for a flat tire, have the flat fixed while they wait, and then bring the bike back the next day with a bent derailleur hanger and insist, “It wasn’t like this when I brought in!” A quick, cursory check for other issues is a good standard practice and in this case I didn’t even have to roll the bike to an inspection stand to discover a major problem: The Trek’s rear wheel had a broken axle.
“Uh-oh,” I said to her, “I think you have a broken axle.”
“Really? How can you tell?”
“Well,” says I, grasping her rear wheel at the rim and applying sideways force to it, “see how your rim moves a lot left to right? You can feel that movement from down at the hub. Hang on,” I add, opening her rear quick-release mechanism, “let’s see if it’s broken or just loose.”
With the quick release open I can pull the axle apart with my two hands, a certain indicator of a major problem. “Yeah, it’s broken. You really shouldn’t ride it like this; it’s unsafe. The whole wheel could collapse.”
“How much would it cost to fix it?”
“Off the top of my head? To fix the brake and replace the wheel at least a hundred, maybe one-hundred-twenty five dollars? Give me a minute to see what I’ve got.”
“Okay. But I don’t want to spend very much.”
“Well, it’ll be at least one hundred. Is that too much? Should we just stop here?”
“No. That might not be too much,” she replied. Then, without pausing she asks, “Do you know Larry Black?”
I don’t answer right away, I hesitate, because I’ve only lived in Florida for seventeen months and I really don’t know that many people. “Well, I know a Larry Black, but he’s not from around here. My first bike-shop job was with a Larry Black up in Maryland.”
“Yeah. That’s the one I mean. He knows everybody.”
“Larry Black at College Park Bikes?”
“And out in Mount Airy. Yeah.”
If you scroll up to paragraph four you will find me rejoicing in the circumstance that, with a little observation and some insider knowledge, I was able to drop a bomb-shell question to young Aaron Burr concerning my cousin Diane, his former English teacher. The Larry Black question is out of the blue (and into the black, for you Neil Young fans). I am flabbergasted.
I have not seen Larry Black since 1986. I knew he had opened a new store in Mount Airy, Maryland because of an article in BRAIN (Bicycle Retailer and Industry News) from many years ago.
Becky Dassoulas, the Trek 700 owner, is visiting Tampa and will return to Maryland in a few days. Her inquiry about Larry Black has us comparing notes. She grew up a few miles from my parents’ home, attended Kennedy High School, (Not the same Kennedy High School that muy boys attended in Iowa, obviously!) the school where most of my junior high friends graduated from.
I tell her that I lived five miles form Kennedy, five miles from Paint Branch High, four from Springbrook and five from Sherwood, my alma mater. I ask if she knows any Zangers, a family that consisted of a dozen brothers and sisters and she thinks she does but isn’t sure. It turns out that I likely served her at the Wheaton Plaza Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour Restaurant where I worked and met my wife. We have a lot of unshared history in common!
Becky and I bond. She decides to replace her aged Trek and purchases a Giant Sedona DX which we outfit with slick, street tires. She keeps the wider OEM tires to use on the C&O Canal tow path, a trail that goes from pavement to crushed limestone as one cycles northward from DC. I ask her if she’s ever had any landscape work done by my brothers’ company, Creative Landscape by Gregory, and she says no, but asks for their phone number. Our mutual experiences, our shared geography and age coalesce to form a comfortable, trusting retail environment, all because we shared a mutual friend from a time long, long ago and a place far, far away.