Transcript

489:

No Coincidence, No Story!
Transcript

Originally aired 03.01.2013

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/489

Prologue.

Hannah Jacoby

This is Hannah.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, hi, Hannah. This is Sarah from This American Life.

Hannah Jacoby

Hi, how are you?

Sarah Koenig

I'm good, thank you. How are you?

Hannah Jacoby

Good.

Sarah Koenig

Before we go any further, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Sarah Koenig sitting in for Ira Glass. And you're about to hear this story the same way I did-- blind. All I know is that it's going to have a coincidence in it.

Sarah Koenig

I have no idea what you're about to tell me. So yeah, lay it on me.

Hannah Jacoby

So the story is, I was a freshman in high school at Bozeman High School.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, in Montana.

Hannah Jacoby

Yes, and I was in the orchestra and it was early in my freshman year. And I had made friends in high school, but didn't really have orchestra friends yet. And we were taking an orchestra trip, so that was a little nerve-wracking.

Sarah Koenig

When you're a freshman, this qualifies as a demi-crisis. A long bus ride to Seattle. Sharing a hotel room with someone you don't know.

But there's this one girl, Lindsay. She and Hannah have friends in common. So they decide to pair up-- to room together, ride the bus together, to be orchestra friends.

Hannah Jacoby

So we go to Seattle and we're like, it's awkward, because we're new friends, trying to get to know each other.

Sarah Koenig

Right.

Hannah Jacoby

And on one of our free days, they send us to the Space Needle. And I don't know if you've ever been to the Space Needle.

Sarah Koenig

I have.

Hannah Jacoby

But there's that carnival area all around it. And we were playing the little games all around there and we won Poopatroopers. Do you know what those are?

Sarah Koenig

No.

Hannah Jacoby

They're like the little plastic soldiers that have a plastic parachute. And you're supposed to drop them from somewhere and the plastic parachute expands.

Sarah Koenig

Oh. What did you call them?

Hannah Jacoby

Poopatroopers.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

I didn't quite believe Hannah about this, but she looked it up. It's true, Poopatroopers.

Hannah Jacoby

I just did a Google image search for Poopatroopers, and I'm seeing images of the little guys.

Sarah Koenig

But wait, is it a generic name or is it a brand name?

Hannah Jacoby

I think it's a brand name. I think, from what I'm seeing here, Imperial Poopatroopers, maybe?

Sarah Koenig

His Highness, Four-Star General Poopatrooper.

Hannah Jacoby

Yes, exactly.

Sarah Koenig

Back to the plot here. Hannah and her new friend Lindsay go to the top of the Seattle Space Needle to try out their prizes.

Hannah Jacoby

So we got in the little elevator and ran to the top and ran to the edge and threw the Poopatroopers over the edge, because there's nothing to stop you, really. And we were just in peals of laughter, and we thought it was so hilarious. And it sort of broke the ice in our friendship.

Sarah Koenig

Lindsay and Hannah become best friends all through high school. Cut to senior year, four years later. Another orchestra trip, this time to Reno, Nevada. Hannah and Lindsay are in their hotel room, studying.

Hannah Jacoby

And so Lindsay and I are both sitting at the desk in this hotel room in Reno, Nevada, and a Poopatrooper comes flying out of the sky and lands on the windowsill of our hotel room. And we both couldn't believe it. We opened the window and we grabbed the Poopatrooper.

And we ran into the hall to try to find other people in our orchestra. We thought someone had been playing a trick on us. But no one knew what we were talking about. No one even remembered the thing in Seattle. And so I still to this day don't know why that happened.

Sarah Koenig

Every once in a while, we get pitches like this at the radio show-- coincidence stories. And since they don't really fit into our usual every week we bring you a theme format, we've been setting them aside, wondering what to do with them. They mean so much to people.

Hannah Jacoby

I don't know. It felt like it was about our friendship. I'm not someone that believes in God, really, but it felt a little bit like an act of God or something, like just sort of cosmic and larger than us.

Sarah Koenig

Finally it hit us. If we got enough of them, we could put them on the radio as their own thing. So we put out a call to listeners-- send us your coincidence stories. And you did. Hundreds and hundreds of you did. We've read at least 1,300 coincidence stories, interviewed dozens of people. Here are just a few things we've learned.

You're most prone to coincidences when you're young-- teens or 20s. Lots of coincidences involve your grandmother. You're likely to experience a coincidence if you're in or near the Netherlands. Coincidences also happen to you in or near airplanes or on Craigslist. For many of you, coincidences were the answer to your prayers or helped you find your missing bike.

Also, there are coincidences hidden in your name, your keys, your clothes, your address. Like when Flora and Ragaciano Pena first started dating.

Flora Pena

When we met, he said that he was born in [INAUDIBLE] and I said well, I was, too. And then when we were going to get married and we needed our birth certificates, we compared them and it was the same building.

Sarah Koenig

We heard stories about a lost roll of film discovered, coincidentally, in the stomach of a decomposing hyena. About the man who got his favorite t-shirt back from a stranger's knapsack, in Slovakia. About the woman who was dating not one, but two Mark Steven Andersons, at the same time. About the student whose car broke down in rush hour on a busy highway. And the one person who just happens to stop, who comes to her rescue, it's her dad who lives four hours away.

And one of my favorites, from a woman named Jill Peterson who felt nauseated on the subway in New York City. As they pull into the Second Avenue stop, there's a garbage can perfectly positioned to help her out.

Jill Peterson

So the train doors open and I'm beelining it for this can. And as I get there, out of the corner of my eye I kind of see another person heading my direction, kind of going for the can, too.

And it's all coming up, and I'm throwing up. And as I'm throwing up in this can, this person that was coming towards me starts throwing up in the can, too. And we're both simultaneously barfing into this can in the subway station.

And we kind of look at each other and think, whoa, I don't know. How are you feeling? And she's like, oh, I'm feeling a little bit better now. And I'm like, me, too.

Sarah Koenig

What's the only way to survive throwing up in front of a subway car full of strangers? Have a nice girl your age do it with you. And numbers-- so many coincidences with numbers. One woman told us how she was at Thanksgiving with her extended family and then suddenly realized that six of them had the exact same number of letters in their names-- 23 letters.

Catherine Van De Putte

[? ?] Michael Arthur van de Putte, Mary Elizabeth van de Putte, William Arthur an de Putte.

Sarah Koenig

There was the guy at the mall doing surveys who had to ask people their phone number. It's obvious the guy he's surveying starts to make up a number. He says 933, 456.

Man

When he read out that last number, he said 8? And I kind of stepped back for a second. But I was cool, and I said no, sir, I'm sorry. That's not your phone number.

And he said, well, why isn't that my phone number? And I said, because that's my phone number. The phone number that you just made up is actually my phone number.

Sarah Koenig

These stories reminded me of an old Chinese saying I once heard. Actually, I learned it a couple weeks ago. And I have no idea how old it is, but it goes like this.

Yuen Yuen Di

[SPEAKING MANDARIN].

Sarah Koenig

That's my friend Yuen Yuen Di.

Yuen Yuen Di

[SPEAKING MANDARIN].

Sarah Koenig

And what does it mean?

Yuen Yuen Di

If there's no coincidence, there won't be stories.

Sarah Koenig

No coincidence, no story.

Yuen Yuen Di

To imply that, of course, lives are all, I don't know, developed in the ways that we can predict.

Sarah Koenig

So is it like, if you heard a story with a coincidence, afterwards you might be like, no coincidence, no story, like that?

Yuen Yuen Di

That's right, yes. Just expression you use that you quote.

Sarah Koenig

Is it like a corny thing to say?

Yuen Yuen Di

Mostly I think no, it won't be a corny thing to say.

Sarah Koenig

Do you ever use it?

Yuen Yuen Di

When I'm corny, yes.

Sarah Koenig

At the risk of being corny, I'm going to say it. Today's show-- no coincidence, no story. While the big man's away-- Ira's on vacation-- we're going to sneak these coincidence stories onto the air. All the stories you'll hear today, they are verified true stories that my colleagues hid from me until the actual interviews so it wouldn't spoil the surprise, which is why there is so much unprofessional giggling this hour.

And full disclosure-- I came into this topic a coincidence skeptic. Or rather, believing that a coincidence is just a coincidence, nothing more. I judged. I confronted weakness. I countered wide-eyed faith with statistical probability. And by the end-- well, stay with us.

Act One. Grandmas.

Sarah Koenig

Act One, Grandmas.

Blake Oliver is living in Nicaragua right now. We talked on Skype. About four months ago, he was on the phone to his friend Camille, who goes by Cami. He mentioned to her that the screensaver on his iPhone had been the same picture for a long time, that he wanted to change it.

Blake Oliver

So I asked her to just send me a picture of something. And it was really funny. She ended up sending me this picture of her as little kid as a joke. And I was like, oh, yeah, that's kind of funny. It's not what I was expecting, but that's funny. And then I glanced back at the picture, and I saw my grandma walking through behind her.

Sarah Koenig

What?

Blake Oliver

Yeah. How crazy is that, right?

Sarah Koenig

Very crazy. The picture was taken about 18 years ago.

Sarah Koenig

But you recognized her right away?

Blake Oliver

Oh, absolutely. There's no question that was Grandma Joyce. It was without question Grandma Joyce.

Sarah Koenig

Coincidences like this one usually have a dense nest of details to bolster their craziness. Here goes. Blake is from Michigan. That's where he met Camille. But Camille's family isn't from Michigan at all.

Blake Oliver

They're originally from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sarah Koenig

That's where she grew up?

Blake Oliver

Yeah, that's where she grew up.

Sarah Koenig

Was this photo from Utah?

Blake Oliver

No. And that's the funny thing, is my grandma lives in Melbourne, Florida. And I'm thinking, oh, she must have been in Utah and walked past it. And Cami's like, no, that picture was taken in Parksville, Vancouver Island, in Canada.

Sarah Koenig

What?

Blake Oliver

Yeah, right?

Sarah Koenig

Blake figured out that at the same time that Cami and her family were on vacation in Vancouver, Grandma Joyce had gone there to visit some of her husband's relatives.

Blake Oliver

Like, what are the chances to think that not only did I meet Cami, but she sends me this picture of her in the background, of my grandma?

Sarah Koenig

I don't know what the chances are. Minuscule!

Blake Oliver

It's insane. Right?

Sarah Koenig

Yes.

Blake Oliver

It's crazy. I don't know if you've seen the picture, but not only just in the picture, but perfectly behind her.

Sarah Koenig

At that moment, a fellow producer emailed me the photo. And there it was, cute four-year-old Cami in the foreground, facing the camera, and not far behind her, a blonde woman walking past wearing blue shorts and a matching top.

Blake Oliver

Yeah, and she has no idea she's in the picture even.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah, right.

Blake Oliver

No clue.

Sarah Koenig

She doesn't seem aware. But I have to say, it's not a very crisp photo. I'm sort of surprised you would recognize her right away.

Blake Oliver

Well, yeah, there's not a lot of-- it's my grandma. I don't know.

Sarah Koenig

20 years ago, for my first reporting job, I interviewed a woman who'd just turned 100 years old. I asked her, admittedly, a rookie question. What's the most amazing thing that's happened in your life?

And she thought for a while. And then she said, the most interesting thing that happened to me was that on my first day at [? Patrog ?] School, the principal said to me, what's your name? I said Esther Tuttle. And he said, I have friend in Shelter Island by that name. I was 12, she said, and that to me was remarkable.

This woman had seen the advent of cars, and movies, and computers, and space travel, and this was her answer. At the time, I thought it was lame, that maybe Esther was losing it a little. But since I started hearing all these coincidence stories the last couple of weeks, I've reconsidered.

Coincidences feel so rare, they stick with you even when the coincidence is barely a coincidence at all. An academic study of people's reactions to coincidence stories from the early 1980s found that we have an egocentric bias toward our own coincidences, that people find stories that happened to them far more surprising than the same stories happening to other people. Case in point.

Juliana Bontrager

My name is Juliana Bontrager and I'm 16 years old.

Sarah Koenig

Juliana, she's got a problem with her grandmother.

Juliana Bontrager

My grandma has been obsessed with coincidences. And she finds them in her life all the time. And she always want to tell everyone about them. And we get kind of annoyed with her sometimes, because she thinks they're so incredible, and how they happen to her all the time. It's every time we see her-- oh my gosh, you would not believe what happened to me.

And [INAUDIBLE] I was at the hospital. She lives with her cousin. So she takes her cousin to the doctor's office quite a bit for appointments and stuff. And she'll be sitting in the waiting room, and then they'll drive to go get lunch after that. And they'll see the people they were waiting in the waiting room with at the restaurant.

And I always thought that was funny, because it's like, yeah, that's a coincidence. But maybe they're just trying to get lunch, too. Like, it's not that big of a deal.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah.

Juliana Bontrager

So then a while ago, I was doing a project in my English class. We were reading The Scarlet Letter book. And once we finished the book, our end-project was we had to come up with what our sin was, or what sin we struggled with the most. And I chose envy. So we had to create our own letter out of paper. And then we had to safety-pin it to our shirt and wear it around the school the entire day.

So as I was coloring in my letter and cutting it out, my mom was listening to the show Monk in the background. As we were watching it, I was literally cutting out my last line on the letter "E" for envy. And it said on the show, I've studied the seven sins, and the most prominent one is envy-- as I was cutting out my letter.

And so I immediately called my grandma and was telling her about it. And she was like, oh, uh-huh, that's a good one, yeah. And then I didn't really hear back from her after that. And I thought, well, maybe she's just envious of my great coincidence.

And I was sitting there like, are you kidding? Mine was so much better! You just happened to run into a person twice in one day. I do that all the time. What are the odds of, as I'm cutting out this letter "E", they would talk about that on the show? And I was so confused about it.

Sarah Koenig

OK, so Juliana's coincidence is a common one. We've all had those moments when you're reading a certain word and then someone says it on the radio or on TV. But remember, Juliana's 16, so maybe this is the first time it's happening to her. Still, I'm on her side here. I think it is more remarkable than her grandmother's example of the people in the waiting room being at the restaurant.

Sarah Koenig

Do you have a phone where you can dial up your grandma right now?

Juliana Bontrager

I can try.

Sarah Koenig

Try it.

Juliana Bontrager

OK, one second.

Sarah Koenig

So Juliana conferenced her grandmother in so we could settle this.

Elaine Olson

I'm here. Elaine Olson.

Sarah Koenig

Elaine Olson, nice to meet you.

Elaine Olson

Nice to meet you, dear.

Sarah Koenig

I laid out my argument for Elaine about the purity, and therefore superiority, of Juliana's example. But Elaine argued right back. There were several hours between the two sightings. Plus, the restaurant was about four miles from the hospital.

Elaine Olson

And in that four-mile radius, you might say, I could have gone to any number of restaurants. The fact that I ran into her at that restaurant, I think, is a coincidence. She could have gone any place, too.

Sarah Koenig

That's true. I mean, that's true. I'm not saying it's not a coincidence. I'm just saying it's not maybe as pure. Like, you can break down the probabilities of a certain kind of person in a certain kind of neighborhood.

Elaine Olson

I don't think so.

Sarah Koenig

You don't think so?

Elaine Olson

I don't think so.

Sarah Koenig

Do you think you're somehow prone to coincidences? Like, coincidences find you more than they find other people?

Elaine Olson

I don't know. That's why, in my own family, I've asked them does this happen to you, and don't get much of a response.

Juliana Bontrager

You are very impossible to argue with. So when you ask for coincidences, we have nothing to give to you, because you are so set in your ways.

Elaine Olson

I'm 81, OK, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

So what would Juliana have to experience in terms of a coincidence that would impress you, do you think? Like, what would it need to be?

Elaine Olson

Well, you know, it's hard to tell. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had my cousin up at another doctor's. And I'm sitting in the reception area. The gentleman across--

Sarah Koenig

This time it was about an Asian man in the waiting room whom she later saw buying a melon at Trader Joe's, which Elaine admitted wasn't as good as the other one.

Act Two. In God We Trust.

Sarah Koenig

Act Two, In God We Trust.

It's probably no surprise that we got a huge number of coincidence pitches about love-- romantic love. A few years ago, after Stephen Lee proposed to his girlfriend Helen, they brought their families together for the first time to celebrate the engagement.

Stephen Lee

My mom and my stepdad came to New York to meet with Helen's parents. And basically over the course of dinner and coffee afterwards, we discovered that, basically, my father had dated my wife's mother back in Korea back in the 1960s. And he had proposed to her.

Sarah Koenig

I'm going to slow this down a sec just to let it sink in. Helen's mother had almost married Stephen's father-- his late father, actually. He died when Stephen was 17. And how this all came out was that after they had dinner, they went back to Stephen's apartment. And they were looking at Stephen's family photographs.

Stephen Lee

So my future mother-in-law's flipping through the album and she sees my dad. And so she asks, oh, what was his name? And my mom tells the name. And my future mother-in-law kind of just nods and just moves on, keeps on flipping through the book, doesn't even say anything.

Sarah Koenig

Imagine what she must have been feeling with seeing that photo suddenly, just flooded. Crazy.

Stephen Lee

I think she'd be really good at poker.

Sarah Koenig

Right.

So Helen's mother says nothing, goes home. But later that night she tells her daughter, this was the one. This was the man who might have been.

She explained that the reason they hadn't married was because her father, Helen's grandfather, had chosen a different husband for her-- the man who became Helen's father. All of them ended up living in the US, but they quickly lost touch. And Stephen didn't find out about any of this until a couple of days later.

Stephen Lee

That's when Helen calls me up and says, I have something to tell you. And she tells me, and I was floored by it. And together we called my mom. And she put a good face on it, but she was pretty shocked.

Sarah Koenig

Did she know that there had been this other woman that your father had been in love with?

Stephen Lee

That's the thing. My dad told her years and years ago, there was this other woman that I was in love with at one point, long before I met you. My mom was like, look, you have a past, I have a past, we all have a past, who cares? Of course, never thinking that she was going to share grandchildren with that woman. I mean, she later admitted to me that if she had known this from the very beginning, she would have not supported Helen and me.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Stephen Lee

It would have just been like, look, being with the daughter of the other woman your dad loved, I mean, can't you find someone else?

Sarah Koenig

How did you take this coincidence? Did it come to mean anything to you or to Helen?

Stephen Lee

Yeah, there's something about it-- the fact that I didn't have the time with my dad that I wished I had, and then suddenly to kind of have him be an active part of my life again. To think that I can talk to my mother-in-law and hear what he was like in his 20s, something that my mom doesn't even know.

And, actually, Helen's father is a strong believer in the idea that somehow my dad is behind all this, that somehow he kind of helped make all this happen.

Sarah Koenig

At the time this next love story takes place, a guy named Paul Grachan was working in a Chicago suburb called Arlington Heights. He'd just started dating a woman named Esther. They'd been out maybe eight times.

Paul Grachan

And I thought maybe it was time to get exclusive, or become boyfriend/girlfriend, or whatever it was. And I was about to go out to lunch, and I was thinking about asking her on a Friday date that I had set up. And I went out to lunch.

I stopped at the store prior to hitting the deli that I normally hit. And I got some change, went to the deli, ordered my sandwich. It was six bucks, or something like that.

I pulled out a five from my wallet, and I pulled out the couple bucks change that I'd gotten from the store, handed the clerk one of the ones. And then I looked at it and I pulled it back. Written on the dollar in pencil was "Esther."

And I thought oh, that's weird. I'm thinking about asking her to go steady and I get this dollar that says Esther on it. That's bizarre. So I stuck it in my pocket, chuckled.

I went to the store. I got one of those floating frames and a little piece of gold lame, and I stuck the dollar in the frame. So it was floating in the middle on this piece of gold, as if you're going to go in a church in Italy and they had a fragment from the robe of some saint or something like that. And I called it the "Immaculate Dollar of Arlington Heights."

So on the Friday, I asked her out. And she was all excited, and we were all giddy. And then I said, hey, I have one more thing for you. And I gave her this frame with this dollar in it.

Esther Grachan

I start unwrapping it. And he's like, it's a dollar with your name on it. And he's all beside himself. And I just looked at him like I'm freaked out.

Paul Grachan

She kind of furrowed her brow a little bit and looked concerned. And I said, is there some sort of problem?

Esther Grachan

I was speechless for the first time ever. But I said, remind me to tell you something later.

Paul Grachan

So, OK, I let it go. And we had a relationship, got engaged. We got married. A couple years later, we were unpacking at a new apartment that we had. And I found the frame with the dollar in it, and I stuck it up on the dresser.

And she came in the room. I said, hey, you never told me about this dollar. What's the deal with that? She said, well--

Esther Grachan

When I was 19, I was a cashier working in a copy shop in downtown Chicago. And I was dating someone, and I just wasn't happy with him. And I just thought, how do people know who's the right person that they're meant to be with? How do they know who that is?

I said, you know what, I'm not going to worry about that. I'm just going to put my name on this dollar bill. And the guy that gets this dollar bill is going to be the guy that asks me to marry him. And I'm like, well, you can't just write your name on one. Actually, I think it was more like maybe 10 or 12.

And so this dollar bill that you gave me, I believe, is the same dollar bill that I wrote my name on. And I knew that we were going to be married the day that you gave me this dollar bill.

Paul Grachan

It was pretty crazy.

Esther Grachan

And then he made me tell him the story again. He asked me, like, five or six times. And I said, the details don't change. It's the same story. I think he was a little bit beside himself that that actually happened and that I didn't tell him.

I don't know how I found the will to not say anything to him. But I just remember, do I? Don't I? Do I? Don't I? What do I do?

I don't want to freak this guy out and be like, what? This girl's already talking about marriage? Wait, what? Forget it.

Paul Grachan

I don't read too much into almost anything. So I just kind of move forward. And then after she told me, I think I went through all the normal stages of whatever.

And I just thought, what does this mean for us? Are we going to invent a time machine? Or are our kids going to bring world peace? Like, what's the point? Because there's some sort of bigger thing that we're not seeing here.

Now it just sits in that very same frame up on our dresser. And I look at it every day that I wake up. Sometimes I remind her that we have it when she's upset at me or angry.

Esther Grachan

It's never been a question in my mind-- like, you know what, I'm going to kick this guy to the curb. But I do believe it's because of this dollar that I feel tied to him.

I mean, obviously I love him. But I think that if it ever did cross my mind, I'd be like, but wait, this is my soul mate. I can't just walk out on him. We don't even wear wedding bands. I'm like, why? It's just, I know I'm stuck with you. We got this dollar bill.

I guess he could also put it back out into the register and then be like, look, I'm cashing this in. I think it's gotta go to somebody else. He could do that.

Sarah Koenig

Paul and Esther Grachan, they've been married for 14 years.

[MUSIC - "SOMEPLACE I'M SUPPOSED TO BE" BY BRY WEBB WITH RICH BURNETT]

Act Three. Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.

Sarah Koenig

Act Three, Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

This story comes from Ryan Rozar in Los Angeles.

Ryan Rozar

It happened when I was in college. I was actually pledging a fraternity. And I ran into some of the seniors on campus, and they were laughing about something.

And so one of them tells me this story that had happened to them that day, supposedly, where he gets in the shower, and about 5, 10 minutes into his shower, he hears a "ting." And he looks down, and sitting on the floor of the shower between his feet is a nickel, and has no idea where this nickel came from or why it's there.

Obviously, everyone was making jokes that he had change falling out of his butt. And people were like, were you eating dollar bills? But anyway, we have our laughs. And I go home and I don't think much about it.

The next day I get in the shower. And like 5, 10 minutes into my shower, I hear "ting." And I looked down, and right between my feet is a quarter.

So my first thought was, how did they do it? I totally assumed that this must not have really happened to him. That was a set-up, and somehow they set this up to happen to me. But I could not figure out how. It had to be a prank, basically.

Sarah Koenig

That's so smart of you to figure out the whole con.

Ryan Rozar

I mean, that's what I assumed. But then I go and I talk to him, and I tell him what happened to me. And I'm kind of watching his face for the laugh or the glint in his eye of mischief, or whatever. And he just looks sincerely mystified by the fact that this happened to me right after it happened to him.

Then, like, a week later, I get in the shower. And 5, 10 minutes in, I hear "ting," "ting." And I look down, and there's about $0.35 between my feet. So there's that moment of "no way" before I look down and there's more change.

So at this point, obviously, my mind's going to some weird places, because you don't want to be the butt change fairy guy. There's no way this story gets good for me.

And then no explanation comes, but it doesn't happen for a while-- for, like, I want to say probably a month. Until one day I'm about to get in the shower, and I reach behind me to scratch my back and I feel something cold and metal on my back. And I turn around to turn my back to the mirror, and there is a whole pocketful of change stuck to my back.

Sarah Koenig

What do you mean stuck to it? In what way?

Ryan Rozar

Well, this is what I figured out. There was no adhesive or anything. It was just impressed into my back. So I figured out what was going on, is that I had a bad habit of falling asleep with my pants on, because it was college-- I'd nap a lot. And so I would also asleep with my shirt off, because my apartment was really hot.

So what was happening was change was falling out of my pockets onto my bed, and I was laying on it. And all that sweat and pressure was just sticking the coins to my back. Like, they're just literally impressed into my back. And it was taking about five minutes of water running on it to dislodge them, at which point they're dropping at my feet.

Sarah Koenig

Clearly, I love this story. But I did not see the coincidence in it. Ryan said there was absolutely a coincidence. It happened to that one kid, the senior, and then it happened to him the very next day.

I disagree. I think this is probably a common quirk of college-boy life. Lounging around, shirtless and groggy on unclean sofas and beds, probably half the boys at his college had change stuck to them. I told Ryan so.

Sarah Koenig

I don't think there's any coincidence involved at all.

Ryan Rozar

I do, because, I'll tell you, I've known lots of guys who've lived in pretty squalor conditions, and other than me and that other guy, I've never heard someone having the change falling from them in the middle of a shower.

Sarah Koenig

It's just because they're not admitting it. I swear to God. Start asking.

[KNOCK ON DOOR]

Sarah Koenig

Hello. Hi.

Student 1

Hey, how's it going?

Sarah Koenig

OK. Can I come in for a second?

Student 1

Yeah, sure.

Sarah Koenig

I knew Ryan wouldn't actually start asking, so I started asking, because while Ryan's life is sure to contain many special and unique experiences, I am positive that this is not one of them. So off I went to prove him wrong, because finding others would be so easy. I happen to live in a college town-- State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State. So I dropped by a frat house.

Sarah Koenig

Has this ever happened to you?

Student 2

No. Absolutely not.

Student 1

Never in my life.

Sarah Koenig

Never?

Student 1

Never in my life, no.

Sarah Koenig

Never? Never?

Student 2

Never.

Sarah Koenig

But wait. So have you never heard of that happening to anybody?

Student 2

Not even close. Never heard of it.

Sarah Koenig

What about you?

Student 1

Never, ever.

Sarah Koenig

Never?

Student 1

I mean, I think it'd be a nice ice-breaker with women.

Sarah Koenig

Why?

Student 1

Because in a conversation, you could be like, oh, this weird thing happened to me. Yeah, I always got change stuck to my back or my butt for weeks.

Sarah Koenig

Anyway, lots and lots of nos. I asked whole classes.

Sarah Koenig

Has this happened to anyone?

Class

No.

Sarah Koenig

And then we thought, Pennsylvania, it's too cold. Ryan went to college in Southern California. We've gotta go south. So we sent reporters to the University of Virginia.

Male

Have you heard of this happening?

Female Student 1

No.

Male Student 1

I've never heard that before.

Male Student 2

No, none of has had this happen.

Male Student 3

No, no.

Male Student 4

No.

Male Student 2

No, this is the first.

Sarah Koenig

To frats at University of North Carolina.

Male Student

Never heard of that problem, no.

Sarah Koenig

All the way to Miami. We asked at two different universities there.

Sarah Koenig

You never had it fall off in the shower?

Male Student 1

No, I can't say that it has.

Male Student 2

No.

Male Student 3

No.

Male Student 4

No, it's never happened.

Male Student 5

That's never happened to me.

Male Student 6

Never.

Male Student 7

I've never heard that happen to anybody, until now, I guess.

Sarah Koenig

Maybe it's a California thing? So we went to UCLA to match the climatological conditions at Ryan's school.

Woman

Has it ever happened to you?

Male Student 1

No. That doesn't happen.

Woman

Hasn't happened?

Male Student 1

That's not a thing. That is not a thing.

Sarah Koenig

So does that mean Ryan was right? It really was a coincidence? Maybe. I asked at one more class in Pennsylvania.

Sarah Koenig

Has this ever happened to any of you?

Casey Phillips

Oh, it has. Oh, my God.

Sarah Koenig

Ladies and gentlemen, Penn State senior Casey Phillips.

Casey Phillips

It's actually an on-going joke in our apartment, because there's just change in our shower all the time.

Sarah Koenig

And it's just from you, or others in your apartment, too?

Casey Phillips

Just me. Actually, there's change in my shower right now. My roommate texted me today, why is there change in the shower? Because I forgot to take it out, because that happens to me all the time.

Like you said, I take naps all time. Like, I pretty much just sleep in naps in two-hour spurts. And I just sleep in my jeans. And I have change in my jeans and it comes out and it gets in my bed. I figured it out the same way he did. That story was eerily similar.

Sarah Koenig

I am so pleased to meet you.

Casey Phillips

Me, too.

Sarah Koenig

Coming up, don't lift that manhole cover. That's 23 letters, by the way. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Four.

Jeff Dunn

My name's Jeff Dunn.

Sarah Koenig

Jeff Dunn, OK.

Jeff grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. When he was 16, he was hanging out with two of his friends at someone's house. The parents weren't home. They were goofing around, smoking pot. They were in the living room that had a huge window on one wall.

Jeff Dunn

And so we're kind of sitting along this glass wall. And there's a dirt road outside of his house. And up this dirt road barrels this van.

And the thing that happens next is what you think is going to happen when you see a white van like that at night. These two guys get out. They're all kind of bundled up. And they pretty quickly just run to the back of the van, open it up, and pull out this big, black bag.

So they get out. They take the bag out. And they quickly run up this small hill that's behind his house. And it's all wooded. There's no houses back there.

So they run up this hill with this bag. And less than two minutes later, they come running back down. And they get in the van and they take off.

Sarah Koenig

So Jeff and his friends do precisely what you don't want them to do. If this were an after-school special, this is the point where you're yelling at the TV saying, don't do it! Stay inside! But they decide they have to find out what the strange men in the van have deposited at the top of the hill, so they run up there.

Jeff Dunn

We get to the top, and we kind of look around. And then we see that on one side of it, there's this manhole cover, like a circular manhole cover like you'd see anywhere. And coming from one of the edges of the manhole cover-- it's in place-- is long, brown human hair.

Sarah Koenig

Long, brown human hair. They are teenagers. They are stoned. They are freaked out. They have to tell an adult about what they've seen. A police car happens to drive by. They flag it down and the officer tells them to get in the back.

Jeff Dunn

It became clear that she was really concerned, because she then said, yeah, there's been a girl missing on the west side of town for the last couple days.

Sarah Koenig

Oh my God.

Jeff Dunn

So again, our hearts just sort of dropped.

Sarah Koenig

And you hadn't known? That hadn't been on the news or something like that?

Jeff Dunn

We had no idea.

Sarah Koenig

You had no idea, OK.

Jeff Dunn

So we just kind of got scared at that point.

Sarah Koenig

Can I stop you for a second? Is this story going to get funny, or is this a horrifying story? Wait, actually, don't tell me.

Jeff Dunn

I can't tell you.

Sarah Koenig

OK, don't tell me

Jeff Dunn

So she calls another officer, and the other officer comes. There's a couple cars. And they both get out, and they tell us to get out. And they say, OK, wait at the bottom of the hill.

So we're waiting. They go walking up to the top. And it's dark, so we can't really see them that well, but we can see them well enough.

And we don't really want to watch what's going on, because we see them bend over, pull the cover off. And I'm trying not to look, but of course I'm looking. And she pulls up a human figure out of the hole.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, my God.

Jeff Dunn

And then she says, it's a mannequin. I don't know what my friends were thinking. But I was sitting there thinking, how does this story end up OK? And it doesn't in any universe, unless you say it's a mannequin.

Sarah Koenig

Jeff goes to school on Monday, tells his story in physics class. And the kid next to him says, that was us. We did it. We went around stealing holiday decorations. And we had to get rid of them, so we stuffed them under the manhole cover. The mannequin, by the way, had been the Virgin Mary in someone's nativity scene.

Jeff Dunn

I think the real coincidence is that it's our close friends that caused this to happen to us.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, they were good friends of yours?

Jeff Dunn

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Right.

No, Jeff. Turns out, that is not the real coincidence of the story. My fellow producer Brian Reed was listening to all these interviews as they were happening. And he interrupted to tell us we both missed the point.

Sarah Koenig

Brian's just pointed out that you and I are both missing the big coincidence.

Jeff Dunn

I don't even know the coincidence of my own story. Yeah, I submitted it to the coincidences thing.

Sarah Koenig

So the main coincidence is there's a girl missing at the same time.

Jeff Dunn

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

I have five words for you, Jeff.

Yuen Yuen Di

[SPEAKING MANDARIN]

Sarah Koenig

No coincidence, no story.

Here's a definition of coincidence that seems right to me. A coincidence is a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection. It's that middle part, "meaningfully related," that people seem to get stuck on, because when events line up just so, you can't help it. You can't help but wonder if there's a message in that.

In that way, coincidences are kind of like shortcuts to very big questions about fate, about God, even to people who don't believe in either one. The notion that somewhere out there, someone or something is paying attention to your life, that there might be a plan conjured through coincidences, that notion seems to be most appealing when you're young.

We got one story about a young couple visiting Marrakesh in Morocco. They're at a restaurant, talking like you do about old flames. The boyfriend wanted to know about one guy in particular.

Erik Johnson

I asked Kate, Kate, what did this guy look like? And Kate just stopped dead in her tracks and lifted one hand to her mouth, and with the other hand pointed across the restaurant. And she said, oh my God, he looked like that. And she crossed the restaurant and tapped him on the back of the shoulder, and it was him.

Sarah Koenig

The daughter of a jazz guitarist named Andy Riley wrote to us about the time she was 19, in a room listening to an Ella Fitzgerald album.

Leila Wright

I was listening to the song "That Old Black Magic." And at the end of the song, Ella throws in a line, "that old black magic that Billy Daniels got me in." And I've heard her sing that line on that album dozens of times before and wondered, who's Billy Daniels?

But on this particular day, for some reason, I felt inspired to go out to the living room and ask my dad who Billy Daniels was. And he explained that in the '40s, Billy Daniels had sung "Old Black Magic" in a way that made it his song. And he was referred to as Mr. Black Magic, I guess, back in the '40s. And it was a big deal at the time.

And I asked my dad, had you met him? Did you ever know Billy Daniels? And he said that Billy Daniels is probably dead now.

And just literally at that moment, the phone rang. So I answer the phone, and this playful, gravelly voice asked for Andy Riley. And I said, who's calling? And he said, Billy Daniels.

Etta Thordarson

So last September, I was living in Roswell, New Mexico. And I had woken up in jail for the last time.

Sarah Koenig

This is Etta Thordarson. When this happened, just six months ago, she was 20 years old, on drugs, hanging out with street kids. Her mom offered to buy her a bus ticket to Washington state to go to rehab. Etta said yes. She took her dog and got on the bus.

In Los Angeles, there was a stopover at the depot. And this guy comes up to her while she's waiting in line to get food. She's got $2, just enough for some French fries. The guy starts asking her questions about her dog.

Etta Thordarson

And he starts asking me other random questions like, what are you doing? Where are you going? And then he asked me, are you from Alaska? And I was like, uh, yeah, I am, actually. And then he asked me, is your mom named Meg? And I was like, yeah, she is.

And he's like, oh, well, I'm Chris. I'm your father. I met you 10 years ago. And I was like oh, holy [BLEEP].

Sarah Koenig

Etta had only seen her father that one time, briefly, when she was 11.

Etta Thordarson

And then he pulls out a big wad of money and he pays for my food. And then he hands me $40 and is like, don't say I never gave you nothing, and walked away.

Sarah Koenig

I'm shocked by this story. And that was it? You didn't see him again? He didn't--

Etta Thordarson

No. You could tell he felt bad.

Sarah Koenig

Did you expect something more to happen? Did you think, oh, well, here's how this is gonna go?

Etta Thordarson

Yeah, I really thought we were going to sit down and eat together and I was going to lay out my whole life story for him. And he was going to explain his life and where he's been. I was kind of looking forward to that, but then it didn't happen.

Mostly I just wanted to study his face for longer, just because, I mean, I've seen him twice, and I still can't really remember what he looks like.

Sarah Koenig

Do you regret not pursuing him in some way?

Etta Thordarson

Yeah, absolutely. In the moment, I was just so sick. I just really couldn't comprehend. It wasn't until I got on the bus that I was kind of just like, why didn't I run after him?

I've just spent my whole life wondering about this man. And the chance to talk to him was put right in front of my face. And I didn't really understand that at the time and I let it go.

Sarah Koenig

Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff also hadn't seen his father in many years, since he was seven or eight years old. He lived in California, but was visiting a national park in Mexico with his mother when he was 18. They hiked to the top of a pyramid there. The whole place was sort of off the beaten track.

Emiliano Garcia

We were walking along, and some people passed in front of us. And my mom said, oh my God, Raoul? And then she turned to me and said, that's your father. That's your dad. And it was.

Sarah Koenig

Also, coincidentally, it was Father's Day.

Emiliano Garcia

So I ended up embarrassingly breaking down and crying on that pyramid. It was a really emotional moment for me. My father, definitely his absence meant a lot to me.

Then we said, yeah, we're going to stay in contact. And after they said bye, they left. And he came running back up the hill about 20 minutes later. And you could hear him panting. And he said, Emiliano, I just want to say I'm sorry that I didn't stay in touch, and that I love you. And he turned and went back down the hill.

Sarah Koenig

Emiliano's story goes the way Etta wishes hers had gone. After a rocky few years, he and his father did get to know each other and each other's families. Emiliano had a son who now had a grandfather.

Emiliano's father had left him when he was a baby. But when his father died a couple of years ago, Emiliano was there at the hospital. They'd had a real relationship. And that never would have happened, Emiliano said, if he hadn't seen him that day at the pyramid.

Emiliano Garcia

Walking down that pyramid, I was talking out loud to myself. And this is one strong memory I have, is I was saying, don't forget, don't forget, and just sort of getting angry with my future self, which I knew would rationalize this event. Because I had the very distinct sense that I had felt that this was definitely a miracle.

Something had intervened and brought us together. You don't just run into your father on top of a pyramid. So I think I was a believer for about a week. And then--

Act Five. What Are The Chances?

Sarah Koenig

And then, that very pause, that brings us to Act Five, What Are The Chances? In order to let a good coincidence live a long and healthy life, to get told and retold and take its rightful place in the narrative of your life, sometimes you have to stop yourself from thinking it all the way through, why it happened, really, because the fact is, any statistician will probably rain on your parade, will tell you these things happen a lot more often than you think.

But a good coincidence is like a good magic trick. When you see one, a struggle ensues instantaneously between the thrill of the apparent miracle and the urge to debunk it. This final story is by Kerry Weeks. He's a prop guy for the movies, but he told this at a storytelling competition.

Kerry Weeks

So here's my story. Nine years old, first time going to summer camp. And my grandfather gives me, before I go, his old pocket knife. It's practically an antique.

And so the first thing all of us boys do when we get to camp is we pull out our knives and we start throwing them at things, trying to get them to stick the way Daniel Boone did. And because this is the 1970s, there's nothing unusual about a bunch of young children throwing sharp knives around.

And I got mine to stick in the floorboard. It was like, "wong." And it was great, but when I pulled it out the tip broke off. But anyway, camp goes on. And a few days later, I notice my knife is missing. And I look everywhere for it. I look high, I look low. It's gone.

But then one day, I'm waking through camp, and I see this group of boys throwing knives at a tree. And something tells me I should check this out. And sure enough, there's this boy there throwing my knife.

Now, there's no mistaking this knife, because the handle was red and green, but the colors met in the middle and kind of swirled together in a trippy, psychedelic way. And I've never seen a knife like that before or since.

So I walk up to this boy. He's a little older, but I walk up to him and I say, hey, that's my knife. And he says, no, it's mine. And I say, no, that's my knife. My grandfather gave it to me. And he says, no, he didn't. He says, my grandfather gave it to me.

And I'm confused all of a sudden. Maybe I should have thought this through a bit more. I thought he would just hand it over.

And the other boys, they move in close. And I'm thinking, could it be possible that his grandfather gave him the exact same knife that my grandfather gave me? I mean, is this a thing and I just didn't know it?

But I look at the knife he's holding in his hand, and I look at the blade. And I see that the tip of the blade is squared off as though it were broken. And I say, that's my knife, because I broke the tip off when I stuck it in the floor. And says what, that? No! It came that way so you can use it like a screwdriver.

And I look at the other boys. And I'm not getting any help from them. And so I wander off just thinking to myself, screwdriver-- I never thought of that.

Well, as you can imagine, this really bugged me. And I don't mean just while I was at camp, but, like, for the rest of my life. And I kept thinking, why did I fold so easily? Why didn't I go to the counselors?

And the only thing I can think of is this-- I'm the son of a physicist. And I used to ask my dad these questions all the time. Like, dad, how far away is the sun? Dad, how fast is the speed of light? Dad, what's the closest star? And he would give me these answers and these numbers that were just so [BLEEP] huge, I couldn't get my mind around them.

So my point is this. I, better than most other children, had an idea of just how vast the universe is, and therefore how infinite the possibilities are. So the thing is, at the time I thought, well, maybe the kid's telling the truth.

So the only reason why I bring this up is because this is what I was thinking of when, some 32 years later, I become the landlord of a small apartment building. And one of the first things I did as a landlord was I threw this guy out because he was a small-time drug dealer.

And so, on the day he's moving out, I get a call from his neighbor across the hall, a guy I call Budweiser Bob. And Budweiser Bob says, hey, that druggie is stealing your refrigerator.

And so I hop down there. And sure enough, in the driveway is a pickup truck. And in the back of the pickup truck is a refrigerator. So I charge up the stairs and I demand to know just what the hell's going on.

And Nick, the druggie, calmly tells me, he says, dude, when I moved in here, that refrigerator was so gross I bought my own refrigerator and swapped it out. And I put that one in storage and now I'm just putting it back. And I look in the kitchen, and sure enough, there's another refrigerator. It's a little old, a little dirty, but it's working.

And I'm trying to think this through. I mean, would someone really go to all that trouble of just swapping out a refrigerator and then putting it in storage and bringing it back? Or would a guy go to the trouble of stealing a used refrigerator just to screw his landlord and replacing it with an even more used refrigerator? And, well, the answer to both these questions is yes.

But I look up and there's Nick, and he's expecting me to say something. And there's his buddies who are helping him move, and they're expecting me to say something. So I walk up to Nick, and I look him in the eye. And I say to him, you sweep up real good before you leave. Because there's just too many possibilities in this universe.

Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

Sarah Koenig

Kerry Weeks lives in New York. His story was recorded live at a Moth StorySLAM in New York City. The Moth Radio Hour is now airing weekly on public radio stations.

At the beginning of the show, I said I was a skeptic. But after talking to so many people about coincidences, including a Stanford mathematician who spent decades studying them, I end up here, agreeing with this one woman I interviewed about her coincidence. She knew her story could probably be explained away with statistics and probability.

But she said, there's just a poetry to things like this when they happen. There's some kind of beauty in it. There's meaning in the noticing of it at all.

[MUSIC - "CHILDREN OF COINCIDENCE" BY DORY PREVIN]

Credits.

Sarah Koenig

Our program was produced today by Brian Reed and me, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production help from Phia Bennin and from Elna Baker, who read so many of your pitches.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our original music about the immaculate dollar was written and performed by Bry Webb and Rich Burnett. Produced by Bry and Jeff McMurrich. His website brywebb.com

Our website is ThisAmericanLife.org, where with this week we have extra coincidence stories from you that all involve your photographs. That's at ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

WBEZ management for our show by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia, who's on vacation with Ira this week. They were so excited for their cruise. But it seems like by day three, the fun is starting to fade.

Juliana Bontrager

You are more impossible to argue with. So when you ask, you are so set in your ways.

Elaine Olson

I'm 81. OK, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

I'm Sarah Koenig. Ira Glass will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.