This is trippy.
I’m sitting in a coffee shop near the Penn State campus. It’s not the coffee shop I intended on visiting. But the other one was packed, so I came here. It’s called Webster’s.
It’s in the basement of a record/book store. Sorta dumpy. Intentionally so. When I walked in, they were playing the entirety of Huey Lewis’ Sports album. Strange stuff.
All the tables were taken. There was a big round one with four chairs but occupied by only a single person. I asked if she’d mind if I join her. “Please do,” she said. Her name was Laura Hudock. She introduced herself.
We chatted briefly, then attended to our laptops. We chatted a bit more, back to the laptops, then a bit more. She’s a PhD student, told me she’s “in her mid 30s.” More laptop work, more chatter.
“So where are you from?” I asked.
“A town near Danbury, Connecticut,” she said.
“What town?” I said.
“It’s called Ridgefield.”
A few minutes of pause. Then I said something that, as weird as this might sound, changed everything about this day, this week. Maybe this month. “I know Ridgefield,” I said. “I used to write for Sports Illustrated, and I once wrote a story about a bask—”
Her face went ashen. She covered her mouth with her hands.
“You wrote the Sports Illustrated story?” she said.
“I dated Tyler Ugolyn.”
I’m pretty sure tears came to Laura’s eyes. I certainly felt them in the corners of mine. In this random cafe on this random street at this random time of day in this random town, I was sitting across from someone who knew Tyler, the subject of the most meaningful story of my life. In case you’re not feeling like link clicking, Tyler was a 23-year-old recent college graduate who worked in the World Trade Center on 9.11. He had played some basketball at Columbia, and when the magazine wanted features on victims, I pitched his story. It changed my life. Truly.
Laura had been packing up her stuff when we uncovered the connection. She sat back down. “I can’t believe you’re Jeff Pearlman,” she said. “I can’t believe you’re Jeff Pearlman.” We talked and talked and talked. About her brief courtship with Tyler. About the time he kissed her in the hallway. About the time she almost sat on Tyler’s dad’s convertible top. About a handsome, smart, warm boy with a limitless future.
I’ve stayed in close touch with the Ugolyns through the years. I consider them more than friends. Sort of soulmates. Victor, Tyler’s father, often talks about his son and signs. Small coincidences that he views as beyond coincidences. I always listen, and often find inspiration.
But do I know, for sure, that events happen for reasons?
No, I don’t.
After meeting Laura Hudock, though, I’m a little more open to the possibility.