Notes on Cliff

Hello Mr. Magazine - - GROW TO UNDERSTAND - By Josh Sil­ver­man

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 di­alup 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. Josh Sil­ver­man (@joschwa) spends his days at Sch­wade­sign.com, and his evenings craft­ing some­thing with bour­bon in it.

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