THIS PAST SUMMER, on an unusually boring morning while trying to avoid work, I began writing down the names of everyone I knew. I stopped when I got to 300, mostly because it was time to eat lunch with Bill Eddy and Jerry Vornholt, two of the people on my list. We ate lunch at Frank’s Place; I also know Frank, plus all his family, whose names I hadn’t written down. While at Frank’s, I saw my neighbor, Larry; a man from my childhood named Keith; another man named Wilfred (who sold his house to my son two years ago); and their friend Kenny, who delivered our mail when I was a kid. I added their names to my list when I got home.
After lunch, I stopped by The Republican newspaper to say hi to Betty, Michelle, Kirsten, Beth, and Oakley, none of whom were on my list. Walking the mile from The Republican to our house north of town, I passed houses that had been lived in by people I had once known but were now deceased, so I added 56 more names to my list, which made me realize I knew more people under the earth than on it.
When I got home, I asked Google how many people the average person met during their lifetime and got the answer 80,000, which means I’d be spending the rest of my life writing down names, so I gave up. This is the usual course of most of my endeavors—a rapid burst of activity, followed by a meal, then growing discouragement, my eventual surrender, and a nap.
Google didn’t mention what percentage of our known associates we like. Of the 80,000 people I’ve met, I can only think of a few I haven’t liked. But since we live in the same town, I won’t mention their names, even though it would make this essay more interesting to my fellow citizens. Some of the people I know don’t like other people I know, and sometimes I invite them over to my house at the same time hoping to get them to become friends. But it always ends up the same, with all of them hating me.
We tend to think the people we’ve known the longest are the ones we like the most, but that isn’t always true. I’ve known my friend Charlie less than six years, but if I wrote down a list of my top 10 favorite people, he’d be on it. I’ve known other people all my life, but if I see them at the grocery store inspecting the cantaloupes, I go hide in the dairy section. The problem with people you’ve known a long time is their knowing the worst things about you and reminding you of them every chance they get. When we were 12 years old, I caused Bill Eddy to crash his bicycle into the back of a parked car and he mentions it several times a year. Some people, if you cause them to shatter a leg, crack three vertebrae, and have a brain bleed, are unable to let it go.
If the average person meets 80,000 people during their lifetime, it goes without saying that some folks meet more people than others. President Biden knows a whole lot more people than my friend Greg, who lives deep in the wilderness in Alaska and goes weeks at a time without seeing anyone. Greg’s the only person I’ve ever known who, when he fell off his roof while shingling it, had to drag himself into his cabin before a grizzly bear ate him. Greg is one of the most interesting people I know, not only because of where he lives, but also because he only wears black jumpsuits to spare himself the trouble of deciding what to wear. If Greg knows a couple hundred people, I’d be surprised.
A man in my Quaker meeting named Frank knew Harry Truman, who knew, among others, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Joseph Stalin, Richard Nixon, and Queen Elizabeth II. I don’t like to brag, but that means I almost knew them, too. Plus, my friend Charlie was related to Mary Todd Lincoln, which means Abraham and I were practically best friends.
Of all the people I’ve met, the ones I like the least are the name-droppers, the ones who’ve brushed up against fame and won’t shut up about it.