cover_story (2007-06)

Fantasy Glass, Knoxville Mall, m4f: I was the guy with the thing for penguins. You were the amazingly attractive girl working at the store. My mom loved the snowman, thanks! I wanted to talk more, but you looked busy, and I knew I was just in town for the holidays. Would love to get to know you if you’re interested? Let me know….

It was just before Christmas, and Matt (real name withheld upon request), a 28-year-old cable-company dispatcher from Gainesville, Fla., was in Knoxville visiting his parents. He went to the mall to do some last minute Christmas shopping, but returned home with something he hadn't anticipated: the sinking feeling that he'd just shirked fate.

While perusing the wares of Fantasy Glass, he'd found himself conversing with a magnetic young woman who worked in the shop. They bantered about the glass figurines surrounding them, including a cluster of penguins, and selected a crystalline snowman for Matt's mother. But as the dialogue moved from the display cases to real life, sashaying easily from subject to subject, Matt got a knotted feeling in his gut. Maybe their meeting wasn't a product of chance. Maybe, just maybe, it had been preordained.

But Matt had family dinner plans to attend to and was running short on time, so he left. Without getting a name or a phone number, and without knowing whether he'd ever see the woman he'd just met, albeit in passing, ever again.

Enter Craigslist, an online classifieds forum launched in 1995 as a San Francisco job site that has since grown to service 450 cities worldwide. (Knoxville was added to the roster in September 2005.) Each month, www.craigslist.org receives more than five billion hits from more than 15 million people, making it the seventh busiest English-language site on the web. It's community-moderated, meaning its users self-police the site for spam and abuse, and unlike most classifieds services, ads are free.

So Matt didn't have anything to lose when, a couple of days after Christmas, he posted a Missed Connections query on Craigslist's Knoxville site. "I figured it couldn't hurt," Matt explains. "It's rare to find people you have a true connection with, and I feel that whenever you do, you should explore it as much as possible."

He figured it might even be successful; Missed Connections is surprisingly popular, with new local listings cropping up on a daily basis. Some of the posters have tangible specifics about the person they're seeking, such as a full name, but most are similar in nature to Matt's. They recall the details of a fleeting but impression-making encounter, and take a chance that the person they're looking for might just be out there reading.

--Broadway commuter, m4m: You were leaving a dog-grooming shop in your pickup. I was headed into downtown on Broadway--we made eye contact a few times....

--Grotto, w4m: Saw you inside first, on the stairs, then you hinted that you might come back and walked toward Pres Pub. I had to leave, so I don't know if you returned....

--Cherokee Boulevard, w4m: You were driving a silver Mercedes sports car talking on the phone. Saturday in January. I smiled at you. I was wearing black running tights, green top, blonde hair. Who are you?

Matt says he believes that everyone has a match, but that you can't just sit around and wait for fate to deliver him or her to your doorstep. Fate helps those who help themselves. "There are a lot of factors that could potentially prevent two people who are meant to be from ever finding one another," Matt says. "When looking for the 'one' person you're going to spend the rest of your life with, you shouldn't leave any stone unturned."

Internet technology, and sites like Craigslist, make that search just a little bit easier. But statistically speaking, it's still a long shot. Yet posters like Matt are not dissuaded; one after the next, they press ahead with their probably ill-fated inquiries, spurred forward by passions rooted in the imagination rather than reality, motivated by an unwavering belief in the "fatedness" of love. Never mind the obstacles--time, distance, chance--that inhabit the space between the desirer and the person desired. True love trumps circumstance, right?

Maybe.

The notion that our "other half" is out there somewhere, waiting for us behind a store counter or, alternately, hunched over a keyboard, composing a Missed Connections ad that describes us perfectly, is much older than the technology some of us are now employing to pursue it.

At the very least, it dates back to Greek times; one of the famously drunken after-dinner speakers in Plato's dialogue The Symposium , Aristophanes, interrogates the idea thoroughly, proposing a rather comical alternative creation myth that explains, as he puts it, "the power of love."

In Aristophanes' version of how of things went down, primeval man was a circular creature, with two sets of faces, legs, arms, and an unwieldy personality. After a squabble with the gods, Zeus elected to split man's body into two parts, one male and one female, effectively diminishing man's strength and dooming him to spend the remainder of his days roaming the earth, searching for his other half. (Thoughtfully, provisions are made to account for the sexual inclinations of lesbians, adulterers and gay pedophiles.)

As for "the power of love," Aristophanes explains, "And such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him. And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself... the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other's sight, as I may say, even for a moment: These are the people who pass their whole lives together, and yet they could not explain what they desire of one another."  

And thus, he says, explains the yearning to merge those two halves completely, to fuse the two back into one, whether through marriage or intercourse. "And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love."

That was only the beginning. Since then, deconstructing "the power of love" has become a favorite pastime of poets, musicians and artists across the ages, many of whom reached the same conclusion: When it comes to love, we're not always in the driver's seat.

Author Tom Robbins puts it succinctly: "Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won't adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet."

For a rock band, the Rolling Stones had a refreshingly lucid take on fate-driven love as well: You can't always get what you want/ but if you try sometimes, you just might find/ you get what you need.

And, lest we forget the spokesman for all things star-crossed, there's always William Shakespeare. His comedies and tragedies spilleth over with literary arguments that true love reports to a higher court. Dr. Robert Stillman, professor of English at the University of Tennessee, has a few notes on the subject.

"Shakespeare can be amused by the idea--he is clearly, in [ A Midsummer Night's Dream ]--but he's also sufficiently unembarrassed by his own romanticism to insist that it not be dismissed," Stillman says. "He's also sufficiently mature to have us remember the origin of that idea--the 'fatedness' of love in the search for our other halves--in stories about dismemberment, fragmentation, suffering and loss.

"There's something sad about all that in Shakespeare--and in life. Some pathos in the pathetic. And something pathetic in the pathos," he says.  

Stillman draws numerous examples of such themes at work in Shakespeare's plays. Aristophanes himself would've been proud of the late festive comedy Twelfth Night , in which a set of twins, Viola and Sebastian, are rejoined at the conclusion--"two halves making a whole," Stillman says, "which is at once analogue and explanation for those romantic pairings that complete the drama."

Narratives about the gap between fantasy and reality are another Shakespearian favorite, representing another element that's often at work in Craigslist ads. A poster writes, "I saw you picking through the avocados at the Bi-Lo last Saturday. I was wearing a UT ball cap; you were the breathtakingly beautiful redhead. We made eye contact, then went our separate ways. Email me?"

Ah, possibility. "Shakespeare would've loved those ads from Craigslist," Stillman postulates. "They do make you wonder, don't they, about whether that breathtakingly beautiful redhead ever responds, and if she does, how the two ever manage the gap between their fantasies about the other and the ordinary reality of that person-in-the-flesh, who might have gorgeous red hair but precious little between her ears."

At its essence, that's the premise of A Midsummer Night's Dream , in which, thanks to a dose of magic-induced confusion, ordinary pairs of painfully generic characters become convinced of the extraordinariness of their lovers. Meanwhile, the fairy queen Titania awakes one morning to the shocking realization that she's been in love with an ass. "Oh what fools these mortals be," Stillman muses. "We're just set up that way--to hunger for illusion, and good thing, too, since happy Shakespeare-style marriages depend on sustaining that illusion."

He points out that while there are new, happy marriages galore in Shakespeare's writing, the bard provides very few examples of happy marriages sustained. "The Macbeths may be, in fact, the only happily wedded couple in the entire canon," Stillman says. "Enough said."

But the award for Most Tragic Romance goes, of course, to Romeo and Juliet , a narrative so timeless it's now considered almost cliché. "Romeo and Juliet are the classic example of 'fated' lovers," Stillman says. We all know the story: two teens fall in love, despite the fact that their relationship is screwed from the get-go, and are eventually driven to suicide.

"Shakespeare loves stories about love and obstacles," Stillman says, pointing to the play's famous balcony scene as proof. "The balcony doesn't frustrate their passion for one another," he says. "It intensifies their passion--drives them all the more passionately to love each other, like those other obstacles that come between: the feud between the families, the interventions of law, religion, ordinary mortalities, and friends."

It's not so different from the strangers making googly eyes at one another over the avocado display, whose passions are only heightened by the fact that there are all these variables--the fact that they don't even know one another's names, for one--wedged between them. "Such obstacles only feed the passion further!" Stillman says, just before noting the flipside of the situation: If said obstacles are removed, passions are at risk of fizzling out. It's a lose-lose situation--a point that, if nothing else, Romeo and Juliet drove home for posterity.  

"If obstacles increase passion, and passion seeks its satisfaction in greater and greater intensity of passion, then what greater obstacle can passionate love pursue than death?," Stillman asks. "Somehow I don't think too many folks on Craigslist have any such idea in mind, but the thought might give them pause before cybering back too quickly."

Out of 75,000 Missed Connections postings per month worldwide, of course, there are bound to be a few success stories. Some of them make their way back to the Craigslist office by way of an email or news story. This week, for instance, talk-show host Montel Williams is running a segment on a couple who met through a Craigslist Missed Connections ad and are now engaged. "Oftentimes the media finds out about the successes before we do," notes Craigslist spokesperson Susan MacTavish Best.

Upon request, she forwards Metro Pulse a handful of emails from Craigslist users who found who they were looking for through Missed Connections There's a couple from Madison, Wis., who lost contact after meeting at a taco joint. One of them posted an ad on Craigslist, and the other responded the next day. "And we're as happy as can be together," the email reads. "No, I didn't think this kind of thing happened, either. But now I know it does."

Another woman tracked down a man who randomly told her she was beautiful outside a grocery store in Studio City, Calif., through Craigslist, and they've now been together for a year and a half. A man in Toronto reunited with his high-school girlfriend; a Santa Barbara, Calif., resident found her long-lost love; and a Charlottesville, N.C., woman still likes to tell the story of her Missed Connections romance, even though it didn't last.

MacTavish Best notes that Missed Connections success stories don't necessarily have to result in a long-term relationship. "Often, you know, they may go out for a coffee with the person and then, that's it, no sparks fly, but yes there is success with it," she says, adding, "And a great deal of amazement!"

So what lies beneath that impulse to put a listing up, knowing that the likelihood that anything will come of it is slim? Why not just write it off as a chance encounter, apropos to nothing, and eliminate the risk of disappointment?

"Hope springs eternal," MacTavish Best explains, "and people really do believe in long shots--a little hope is far better than no hope in most people's minds. Posting a Missed Connections ad provides hope where there was none. The concept of getting a second chance, when you let the initial one slip by, is a powerful one, even if the second chance is a low percentage one."

That's along the lines of what 19-year-old Chelsea Johnson was thinking when she posted a Missed Connections last month, following a brief encounter at a downtown art gallery during First Friday: You were at Three Flights Up around 9 p.m. You were wearing a white t-shirt and a dark corduroy blazer. I had short faded pink-ish hair and tall striped socks on, and was walking around with another girl with short dark hair. Our glances met once on the lower level and I smiled for you.

I should have said something.

She remembers thinking the guy was attractive, and being freshly single, typed up the ad on a late-night whim. Why not investigate the possible? "I've been in a meeting-new-people mood as of late, and I figured if the boy in question happened upon my post, I might at least get a new MySpace friend out of it, if not a lifetime of blissful love and happiness," says Johnson, a Tomato Head employee and Maryville College student.

"And let's face it, anyone who's ever looked at the Missed Connections board hopes they'll find something describing them, and hopes further that it will be from someone who is not creepy." She pauses to point out a stalker-ish post from a man who calls himself The Drifter. His prose is heavy with desperation, and a picture shows him shirtless, tattooed and seemingly in need of a shower.

"I figure by posting, I maybe increase my karmic chances of someday finding a cutesy little message about a boy looking for a girl with short mis-dyed hair he saw in the cereal aisle the other day," Johnson says.

Not unlike Matt, whom we interviewed at the beginning of this story, Johnson prefers to think that there's somebody out there she's supposed to be with--if only out of necessity. "It's hard not to believe in 'the one,' because if you don't, you have to reasonably allow the thought that no matter how great of a relationship you're in, there could be and mostly like is--out of six billion people? surely--someone better out there. It forces you to live in a constant mindset of settling, and that's always a downer."

Also not unlike Matt, Johnson has yet to receive a response to her post. With each passing day, her query drifts lower on the board; it has only a week or so left before it's erased completely.

The phenomenon is strangely reflective of the mechanics of desire itself. Over the past month, Johnson's memory of the missed connection she was seeking has faded--"A few weeks later, I can't even slightly remember what he looks like," she admits. Matt's moving on as well. When asked whether he thinks he'll receive a response, he says, "probably not likely," then adds, on a more optimistic note, "That's fine with me, though. It stinks that I missed the opportunity to meet an interesting person, but every day brings more opportunities."

Still, Johnson sticks by her belief that every encounter we experience with other people--no matter how significant or inconsequential it may seem--is meant to be. "I definitely believe that people come into our lives for a reason, and that everyone you've ever known has somehow altered the path of your life," she says.

So, in the theater of human experience, is there any way to tell whether someone is supposed to be a cameo or a cast member? If there was some way of knowing whether to slip the redhead in the produce aisle your phone number or just keep walking, it'd probably save the world a lot of heartache.

Simultaneously, though, it'd deprive us of one of life's greatest gifts: the possibility of the unknown. And as Shakespeare himself wrote, "The course of true love never did run smooth."