This is a story about a strange encounter that I had when Patrick and I had just moved into an apartment at Ballston, a few blocks from the bear store. I never did adjust to the new commute to work; I would think "it’s only six blocks" and then dawdle at home, instead of thinking "I have to walk six blocks instead of getting dropped off at the mall by the bus."
It got worse a couple of years later, when I didn’t adjust to the extra time needed when I was pregnant, and couldn’t walk quickly because of the ligament pain in my sides. But this morning I told myself "it’s only six blocks," and stayed home long enough to boil a couple of eggs instead of grabbing my usual packet of instant oatmeal.
I had just discovered soft-boiled eggs. My mother’s cooking method is to put something on the stove, wander away, and come back when the smoke alarm goes off, so I didn’t have an egg that had boiled less than fifteen minutes until I was in my twenties. This morning I soft-boiled two eggs, ate one, and considered the other for a moment before wrapping it in a paper towel, stowing it in my backpack, and trotting down the road.
There was a homeless man under the awning at the mall entrance. "Hey miss," he said, "can I have a dollar for some breakfast?"
"I can take you inside for something," I said. "What would you like?”
He stepped out from the wall he’d been leaning against and we walked into the mall.
"I think MacDonald’s," he said. "They have breakfast that’s pretty good. Pancakes and biscuits. Syrup and gravy. They have breakfast for a dollar. It's pretty good. Do you think they have a soft-boiled egg?"
"I’m pretty sure they don’t," I said, unstrapping my backpack.
"That's too bad," he said, "they have eggs but you think they don't have them soft-boiled?"
"I think their eggs come out of a jug already mixed up," I said, "but here’s a soft-boiled egg. And it's still hot."
Afterward, I went over the morning in my head and tried to figure out how I was carrying exactly the food that guy asked for. I wasn't on the phone or talking aloud about the egg. . . and you can't smell an uncracked egg through a backpack. I'm at a loss.
According to the prologue of This American Life’s coincidence edition, we take notice of the coincidences that happen to us but think that other people’s coincidences are unremarkable. But on the morning of the soft-boiled egg, it wasn't my coincidence; I was the agent of somebody else’s coincidence, and it stuck with me. How many people are carrying around a soft-boiled egg at any given point in time? What’s the likelihood that a hungry guy would have a hankering for a soft-boiled egg and find one couriered to him, just like that?
An egg isn’t a big deal to somebody like me. I can buy any breakfast I want, cook it myself in my own kitchen, and eat it in climate-controlled comfort. But to somebody who doesn’t have the dignity of choosing his meals, who has nowhere to prepare his favorite dishes, who relies on cash from strangers and the dollar menu at MacDonalds—
A coincidence as small as an egg suddenly becomes large. That morning, he and I both felt like a soft-boiled egg for breakfast, and we were both lucky enough to get one.