#734: A Small Thing

January 4th, 2017

“Have you ever had your life entirely changed by a small thing?” he asked, whipping around to face me.

We were standing in the dark, he pacing angrily in a little plaza off Dearborn, me leaning against a bike rack while I waited for my dinner companions. He was in that period of late 20s where the body’s still built like a whippet, but the brown hair is starting to get a bit of slate around the temples.

His jeans were skinny, his shirt was pressed, his hair was short on the side and floppy atop. Horn-rimmed glasses and weedy bearing. He reeked of University of Chicago, either current or hopeful. I liked him immensely.

“Are you familiar with the [string of letters I was not familiar with]?” he asked.


“Are you familiar with the GRE?”


He moved like a modern dancer, in whips and whirls like someone trying to shake off a tough-willed spider.

“I was taking the GRE [grad school admissions exam] when, on a break, I stepped out for to eat a granola bar I had in my bag.”

He whipped a messenger bag from back to front around him with a motion so quick I thought of hula hoops.

“This bag. And my phone was in there. And they cancelled my scores.”

This story, like many on this site constructed from memory of a random encounter on a darkening city street, gets words wrong. Maybe he said “cellphone” instead of “phone,” maybe he said “life completely changed by a tiny thing.”

And maybe he said erased, eliminated, wiped out or completely disqualified when he was referring to his results on the examination that would determine whether he got to go to graduate school.

He went outside to eat a granola bar, forgetting his phone was in his bag. From the test proctor’s point of view, a test-taker was out of view for a short period of time in the middle of a test with access to a cellphone and internet service. Either fearing a cheat or hamstrung by rules that gave them no wiggle, they threw his score out. It’ll be another year before he can take the test again, he said.

We chatted a bit, I told him about an academic cockup of my own in years past, hoping the story would make him happy.

“And you’re still here,” he said, looking down the road and giving a short nod.

“I’m happy and I’m healthy and I’m still here, yeah.”

He might travel until he runs out of money. He might keep doing freelance work — we commiserated about that.

Then he asked about me. Not out of politeness. Not out of “Oh god this guy thinks I’m a jerk so ask some stupid questions already,” but because in what was the worst moment of his professional and academic life, he actually cared about a stranger on a city street.

He asked where a hotel was where he was supposed to meet some friends. I wasn’t sure, but pointed him to Michigan Avenue. We shook hands as he left.

“I’m going to drink away my sorrows,” he said, chuckling darkly.

And that’s the story of when I met a good man I know will be fine.

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You are currently reading #734: A Small Thing by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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