Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Six Degrees of Separation

I finally saw Will Smith in "Sex Degrees of Separation." It's a good movie that got me to thinking about the premise: each human is connected to every other human on the planet by no more than six other people. In other words, there are six human steps between me and every other human on earth . . . even the recently-discovered tribal people of Peru (

I'm not sure that I accept the premise, or even fully comprehend its mathematics, but I do recall some odd coinciding events that seemed to tie me to random people through six degrees or less.

1) During a class exercise that purports to unite the left brain with the right in order to create more vivid and descriptive essays, I used a personal example to demonstrate the technique to the students: I drew on the board (in stick figure) my old piano teacher and the elements of his home that I could recall from memory.

When the exercise was over, a student came up to me and said, "I know him, the man you drew. He used to play piano for my church. He died yesterday."

That is how I ended up attending the funeral of my piano teacher whom I hadn't seen or contacted in over 20 years.

2) I had a friend back in high school, whom I shall refer to as Byron Boiffmaff. We were pretty good friends, but we mostly lost touch after we graduated as so often happens. After I got married, my wife, who is from the Caribbean, said that a very good friend of hers from high school was coming to Miami and would spend a few days with us. We got to talking about this friend of hers, whose name turned out to be . . . let's call her Irene Boiffmaff.

It turned out that Irene and Byron Boiffmaff were brother and sister. Thus, my wife and I, fifteen years before we had ever met each other, were already connected by the Boiffmaff siblings, who had befriended us indiviudally as children.

3) It gets worse. I don't know how much of this I can tell without revealing personal business even with made-up names, but I'll try.

Byron Boiffmaff dated the same girl throughout junior and senior high: Chelsea Wingring (not her real name). Chelsea and Byron wed after high school, but the relationship did not work out and so they got a divorce. Byron moved out of the state and later remarried.

Furthermore, we were told that Chelsea still had a flame burning for Byron, dangerously, almost psychotically, and that he was actually hiding from her and that under no circumstances were we supposed to tell her where he or his new wife was.

I was having problems with a governmental agency at the time and when I called to resolve the problem, I found myself on hold for over an hour. Back then most government agencies had phone numbers that were sequential; one could reasonably assume that if the main number was 555-1111, that 555-1112 and 555-1113 would all ring somewhere in the building. So I dialed a few different numbers, in hopes of getting a human voice.

Finally, when I dialed 555-1115, I got what I was seeking, a human voice, an operator in another department, and I began to explain my situation. But the operator interrupted me: "What did you say your name was? Are you Preston Allen from high school?"

"Yes. Who is this?" The voice did sound familiar.

"Chelsea Wingring. I used to date your friend Byron, remember?"


"How's he doing? Where is he these days? You know we got a divorce, don't you? But we still love each other very much. Do you know where he is these days? I haven't heard from him in so long."

Of course, I did not tell her where Byron was, nor that her ex-sister-in-law was right down the hall in our guest room that week.

4) My car broke down on the expressway years ago, back before I had a cellphone. I flagged down a Florida state trooper, who called AAA for me. While he was making the call, another state trooper pulled up, an attractive female trooper, who looked familiar. She rolled her window down and chit-chatted with him for a minute or so before driving off.

When she left, he turned to me and joked, "She is one fine mama, ain't she?"

I nodded, said yeah, and then added, "She's always been cute."

"You know her?" he asked suspiciously.

"She was my babysitter back when I lived in Boston," I said to his bewildered face.

"You sure?" he said. He seemed not only suspicious, but somewhat angry.

I said, "Yes. It's been so long, but I'll never forget her face. Her name is _______ __________, at least that is what it was while she was in Boston. Her last name may be different now. I haven't seen her in 25 years. She may have gotten married."

The trooper smiled. "She did get married. I'm her husband. We've been married ten years."

5) One of my best/favorite students was the son of a girl I had kissed back in junior high, the first girl I had ever kissed.

He resembled her, except that he was male and very tall--so I did not notice. They were also both athletic--she had run track and he was built like a basketball player. They had the same last name (she was a single mother), and it was an unusual name, one that stuck out--and yet I did not notice or make the connection.

He called my office one day and left a message asking me to write a letter of recommendation for him. When I called back, his mother answered the phone.

"Hello is John there?"

"No. Who may I say is calling him?"

"Prof. Allen. His English teacher."

"Hmmm. Is your first name Preston?"

"Yes." I looked down at his last name--and then it hit me. "Is your first name Sarah?" (not her real name)

"Yes," she said.

Just like that.

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Editorial Reviews of All or Nothing

New York Times--". . . a cartographer of autodegradation . . . Like Dostoyevsky, Allen colorfully evokes the gambling milieu — the chained (mis)fortunes of the players, their vanities and grotesqueries, their quasi-philosophical ruminations on chance. Like Burroughs, he is a dispassionate chronicler of the addict’s daily ritual, neither glorifying nor vilifying the matter at hand."

Florida Book Review--". . . Allen examines the flaming abyss compulsive gambling burns in its victims’ guts, self-esteem and bank accounts, the desperate, myopic immediacy it incites, the self-destructive need it feeds on, the families and relationships it destroys. For with gamblers, it really is all or nothing. Usually nothing. Take it from a reviewer who’s been there. Allen is right on the money here."

Foreword Magazine--"Not shame, not assault, not even murder is enough reason to stop. Allen’s second novel, All or Nothing, is funny, relentless, haunting, and highly readable. P’s inner dialogues illuminate the grubby tragedy of addiction, and his actions speak for the train wreck that is gambling."

Library Journal--"Told without preaching or moralizing, the facts of P's life express volumes on the destructive power of gambling. This is strongly recommended and deserves a wide audience; an excellent choice for book discussion groups."—Lisa Rohrbaugh, East Palestine Memorial P.L., OH

LEXIS-NEXIS--"By day, P drives a school bus in Miami. But his vocation? He's a gambler who craves every opportunity to steal a few hours to play the numbers, the lottery, at the Indian casinos. Allen has a narrative voice as compelling as feeding the slots is to P." Betsy Willeford is a Miami-based freelance book reviewer. November 4, 2007

Publisher’s Weekly--"Allen’s dark and insightful novel depicts narrator P’s sobering descent into his gambling addiction . . . The well-written novel takes the reader on a chaotic ride as P chases, finds and loses fast, easy money. Allen (Churchboys and Other Sinners) reveals how addiction annihilates its victims and shows that winning isn’t always so different from losing."

Kirkus Review--"We gamble to gamble. We play to play. We don't play to win." Right there, P, desperado narrator of this crash-'n'-burn novella, sums up the madness. A black man in Miami, P has graduated from youthful nonchalance (a '79 Buick Electra 225) to married-with-a-kid pseudo-stability, driving a school bus in the shadow of the Biltmore. He lives large enough to afford two wide-screen TVs, but the wife wants more. Or so he rationalizes, as he hits the open-all-night Indian casinos, "controlling" his jones with a daily ATM maximum of $1,000. Low enough to rob the family piggy bank for slot-machine fodder, he sinks yet further, praying that his allergic 11-year-old eat forbidden strawberries—which will send him into a coma, from which he'll emerge with the winning formula for Cash 3 (the kid's supposedly psychic when he's sick). All street smarts and inside skinny, the book gives readers a contact high that zooms to full rush when P scores $160,000 on one lucky machine ("God is the God of Ping-ping," he exults, as the coins flood out). The loot's enough to make the small-timer turn pro, as he heads, flush, to Vegas to cash in. But in Sin City, karmic payback awaits. Swanky hookers, underworld "professors" deeply schooled in sure-fire systems to beat the house, manic trips to the CashMyCheck store for funds to fuel the ferocious need—Allen's brilliant at conveying the hothouse atmosphere of hell-bent gaming. Fun time in the Inferno.

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Preston L. Allen is the recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature and the Sonja H. Stone Prize in Fiction for his short story collection Churchboys and Other Sinners (Carolina Wren Press 2003). His works have appeared in numerous publications including The Seattle Review, The Crab Orchard Review, Asili, Drum Voices, and Gulfstream Magazine; and he has been anthologized in Here We Are: An Anthology of South Florida Writers, Brown Sugar: A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction, Miami Noir, and the forthcoming Las Vegas Noir. His fourth novel, All Or Nothing, chronicles the life of a small-time gambler who finally hits it big. Preston Allen teaches English and Creative Writing in Miami, Florida.