Essay — From the December 2016 issue

Separated at Birth

An inquiry over time into the luckiest generation

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One December evening in 1987, on assignment for a glossy travel magazine to write about island resorts in the wintertime, I took cover from a sleet storm in a Nantucket tavern. Lit by fake candles, the place smelled of lemons and wet wool; bar towels sizzled on the radiators. After a period of watching water droplets connect and reconnect on the varnished surface of the bar, I noticed that the guy on my left was wearing a brown leather jacket as weathered as my own, and I remarked to him that he looked about my age.

“Born in ’49,” he said.

“No kidding,” I said. “I’m a ’49er, too.”

“Which day?”

“November twentieth.”

“Holy shit,” he said, clapping me on the back. “I was born the same day.”

This called for a toast, and we raised our glasses.

“Whereabouts?” he asked.

“New York.”

“Well, there the coincidence ends,” he said. “I was born in Brooklyn.”

“Actually,” I confessed, “that’s just my shortcut answer. I was born in Brooklyn, too.”

The drinkers around us, clearly off-season regulars, pressed in to hear more. With the wind rattling the windowpanes, we established that out of the three dozen or so hospitals operating in Brooklyn in 1949, this hippie carpenter and I had been born an hour apart at the same one: Brooklyn Jewish, which no longer even existed, having gone bankrupt in 1979. Improbably enough, we had shared the same neonatal nursery, bawling and fussing within earshot of each other, enjoyed our far-flung adventures, then reconvened nearly four decades later on this island thirty miles out in the Atlantic, both drinking the house red.

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Illustrations by Darrel Rees. Source photograph of nursery © Mirrorpix/Newscom; postcard of the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn, bottom left, courtesy the Brooklyn Historical Society

The bartender stood drinks all around. For everyone in the place, it was as if a spotlight had pierced the gloom, illuminating us as birth mates, our origins joined in a kind of double horoscope of time and place. Everyone grasped at once that it wasn’t the fluke itself that was so amazing; it was that we had discovered the fluke, instead of merely continuing to rub elbows in the dark. And the similarities kept on coming. Within a few minutes, the carpenter and I discovered that we had married and divorced within a few months of each other, had our first children within five days of each other, and both had one son named Jeremy.

Hey, coincidences happen. I let it slide. I left the bar and the island, published my travel piece, and allowed the incident to fade from my mind. Grass grew, leaves fell, it sleeted anew. It wasn’t until a decade and a half later, middle-aged and sobered up, that I found myself thinking about that night in Nantucket, wondering exactly how many degrees of separation there were between that hippie carpenter and me. It gave me an idea. Why not track down the other kids from my nursery? Who were they, and what had this interestingly randomized group been up to for the past, oh, half century?

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’s books include Larry’s Kidney (William Morrow) and Hiding Places (Simon & Schuster).

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