So you think this ad is about you?

Everyone has them now and then – those brief and magical encounters that make you wonder what might have happened if only you’d had more time. Some just shrug and figure, “Whatever. ” Others, more obdurate, seek a second chance – an ad in the back of the local weekly. The sections go by different names: “Crossed Signals,” “Missed Connections,” “You Caught My Eye.” Call them what you will; each ad is a tender, improbable thread of yearning stretching from one person toward another. Literally. It’s one person placing an ad directed at one other person. “Starbucks on Dupont Circle 10/19, 1:30 PM, you were wearing a red tank top and blue jeans, I had a flower tattoo on my shoulder. We exchanged furtive glances over our cups.” To some it’s just silly, but to many it’s dramatic and engaging. The odds seem tiny that the intended sweetie will come across the ad and recognize his or her desired self, but lots of people place the ads anyway. And even more people read them. What’s it all about?

Stan was inspired to write a Missed Connections ad after a moving Halloween encounter. He was at a crowded party dressed in a rented lobster costume and found himself speaking with a particularly fetching mermaid. They covered a lot of ground in a short time – not just your standard likes, dislikes, hopes, and dreams, but quirky, personal stuff like that they both loved Proust to distraction and favored corduroy over latex, fetish-wise, but when he thought to get her number she was suddenly nowhere in sight. You know how it ends. He scuttled frantically through the crowd, scanning far and wide, to no avail. Never even got her name. “I don’t ordinarily place personal ads,” Stan insisted, but, well, this was different, “I just couldn’t stop thinking about her.” You’d think a smitten lobster’s chances of finding his beloved mermaid would be pretty good – it’s hard to mistake an ad like that – but she never surfaced.

Maybe the mermaid didn’t read the personals. Plenty of other folks do, including some of the people behind the scenes at the papers that run the ads. Dave Milton of the SF Bay Guardian confesses to reading Missed Connections ads avidly and regularly. “I do read them, but it makes me feel bad about myself. Secretly, I’m wishing I’ll find one that’s about me. It would make me feel good to see that, but I wish I didn’t need that kind of affirmation.” What if he really did find an ad describing him? Would he respond? “I’d be thrilled to pieces. I would definitely answer the ad. But the best part would be the time between seeing the description of me in the paper and making the date. I mean, you’re bound to be disappointed by the actual person.” Milton, though blessed with a better understanding of himself than most people, is not alone. Scores of people admit, some readily, some reluctantly, to scanning the Missed Connections for anything that could possibly be about them.

Erich Strom, a New York actor and writer, compares the appeal of Missed Connections ads to the lottery. “There’s a thrill in looking because you never know when there could be one about you. We all like to think we’re attractive to other people, and if you find one it’s like the ultimate confirmation that you are. And you have to check regularly. It’s not like anyone says to themselves, ‘I better check this week ‘cause I noticed someone was staring at me a few nights ago.’” Unlike Milton, Strom doesn’t think there’s anything to feel guilty about, although he doesn’t read the ads regularly and says he’d never answer one. “I don’t like people I don’t know. I’m like one of those house cats that takes six months to warm up to you. The ads are great though. They’re more exciting than the regular personal ads. More real, less self-conscious. You get these intense narratives: how people met, what happened, how they lost each other. If Missed Connections had existed in Shakespeare’s time he definitely would have used them in a play.” Start imagining what the Bard would have done with Missed Connections and suddenly lobsters and mermaids seem almost understated.

Stan and his beloved may never meet again, but sometimes the message does get through. Herb found himself on the receiving end of a Missed Connections ad, though he didn’t come across it on his own. Friends brought to his attention an ad that, all agreed, was undeniably directed at him. “7/16, 6 p.m., Chevron at Market and Castro. You, brown Volvo, the cutest boy in SF. I was in front of you, but you didn’t see me. I looked back, and back, and back. Will you let me wash your windows?” This is the Missed Connection at its logical extreme, more of a cathexis than a connection – an encounter that hardly qualifies as an encounter at all, one party dizzied with lust and desire, the other party almost certainly oblivious to what went down. “I’m flattered, but I don’t think I’ll call back,” Herb told me nervously, “I mean, I didn’t even see who this person was.” It’s enough to make a boy throw up his squeegee in despair. While people by the hundreds pin their hopes on a few inches of widely distributed newsprint, and others by the thousands cruise those same inches for reflections of their own sweet selves, Herb blows off his uncrossed signal like it were no big deal. If people don’t respond even when they do find the ads they’re meant to find, how’s a would-be window washer to take it?

Anecdote after anecdote gives us little cause for anything better than mute, bitter tears. Numberless and nameless legion speak woefully of ads placed to no result, or nervously of ads read and interpreted but never answered. If it’s so hard to find people, and if people don’t answer the ads anyway, why do we bother?

The official answer is simple, paradoxical, and unsatisfying. Jack Saffron, social psychologist at Stanford University, gives two likely reasons. First, he explains, “most people are horrible at conceiving of low probabilities.” We all tend, apparently, to overestimate the likelihood of unlikely things happening. Second, the numbers actually aren’t that small – statistically, Missed Connections ads really do hook people up. The problem is that any one person’s chances of netting that lost loved one are still dismally low. Why is that? Saffron sums up the statisticians’ classic “birthday paradox.” If you were to put a bunch of people in a room, you’d think the odds would be vanishingly small that any two of them would have the same birthday, right? As it turns out, if you’ve got at least 20 or 25 people, you’re almost guaranteed to find a pair with the same birthday. Sadly, however, this doesn’t increase any one person’s chances of finding a match – those odds remain a slim 365 to not very many. In other words, someone placing an ad isn’t wrong in thinking, “Hey this thing must work some of the time.” She just doesn’t count on how little chance she’s got of having it work for her. Of course all this is only part of the reason why the statistically enormous number of people with no head for statistics simply figures they’ll try it, “What the hell.” We’re talking about love and sex here, not facts and figures. There’s more going on here than just irrational misestimation.

Adrian Chan arguably knows as much about connections, missed and otherwise, as there is to know. He’s placed and responded to more than his share of personal ads (including Missed Connections), and is part owner of SF Bay Matchmaker, a web-based dating and chat service. According to Chan, Missed Connections ads aren’t about people calculating odds or desperately casting about for something, anything. The ads are about hope. “It’s the opposite of a blind date, you know what the person looks like, maybe you’ve talked to them a little, but basically you have no idea what they’re about. You felt something. You’re just hoping they felt it too, and that something will come of it.” Most people are romantics at heart, Chan figures, and if they’re really stuck on this person they’ve met, there’s more to lose by not placing an ad, so why shouldn’t they place one. “Also, I think it’s cool that we use a public medium – the newspaper – for our own private purposes. There’s a warm, friendly, small-town feel to it.” His analysis reminded of an anecdote Saffron had told me about his grandmother. She fell down outside her house one day and was unable to get up. A passing youth lent her a hand, but moved on before she had the chance to thank him. She placed an ad in the local paper, circulation 10,000, and got a call later that week from the young man who’d helped her out.

Strom had mentioned community too. “Part of what makes the ads exciting is that they’re usually in local papers. You’re all out there in the neighborhood, watching and being watched. I mean it’s a manageable number of people we’re talking about. You probably see a lot of these people every day.” He’s right. There’s actually something at stake. It’s not just a lark. There’s a substantial emotional risk involved in airing something as personal as a Missed Connection in a community forum. That so many people take that risk tells us something. It may be that the connections are never really missed at all. Whether or not we actually find who we’re looking for, or find someone looking for us, it’s the possibility of finding and being found that’s important. In the act of searching, whether placing ads or reading them, we’re already connected. The ads remind us that we are fragile and specific bodies. And whether or not they come to aught, the ads are a reassuring testament to the hope that endures in the quiet chambers of our hearts, lonely or no, as we reach out, blindly, searchingly, to one another.

Originally published in SOMA, July 1997