By Angela Hill
Bay Area News Group Staff Writer
A couple of Saturday mornings ago, two young women played detective as they sat at a table in a House of Bagels in Sunnyvale, trying to mend torn pieces of a love letter they'd found on the ground outside the shop.
Another customer, Jake -- older, divorced and looking for companionship -- overheard the lively conversation, joined in and shared a pleasant moment with the women. He sensed an attraction to the cutie named Jeni, but he did not act. Did not ask for her number, or offer his.
Instead Jake, a hopeful romantic, asked the universe -- with the help of the Internet -- to contact her, leaving a post a few days later on the "missed connections" page on Craigslist.
"Detectives at House of Bagels Saturday -- m4w (Sunnyvale)," he titled the notice. "I left, and you and friend walked out a few minutes later. I drove by you as you were crossing the street and yelled out my car window that I thought you were very beautiful."
So far, Jake hasn't heard back from Jeni. But there's still a chance. There's always a chance. And that's the beauty of posting such a missive, such a modern version of a love letter in a bottle, adrift on a virtual ocean of optimism -- anything can happen.
"A shot in the dark sometimes comes back in serendipity fashion," said Jake, 54, an IT professional in San Jose, explaining his reason for posting the message. Because of the anonymous nature of these missed-connections sites, most participants interviewed asked to remain unnamed themselves, wishing to reveal their identities only to the objects of their quests.
"After the experience (of meeting Jeni)," Jake added, "and after having this encounter pop up in my head every dull moment or so, I went and popped it into Craigslist missed connections -- more to write it out as a cathartic way of sharing it with the universe, but also you never know ... I am a romantic at heart."
The hope that such a random encounter might mean more has spurred hearts and dreams for centuries in various forms, from handwritten poetry and verse to personal ads in newspapers, notes tacked to telephone poles or bulletin boards in laundromats, and now more than a decade of online messages on Craigslist and other sites. Thousands of men and women post missives daily all around the globe in a never-ending stream of winsome wishful thinking.
Many posts are poetic -- intentionally so or no. But all allow a peek through tiny windows of human nature, and observers of the human condition have been enthralled by such posts for years. Stage plays, videos, comedy sketches and even works of art have been inspired by the communications. New York artist Sophie Blackall creates whimsical illustrations about random posts, and has developed them into a blog (http://missedconnectionsny.blogspot.com) and a book called, "Missed Connections: Love Lost and Found" (Workman Publishing, $13.95).
And while it would be nice to think all are pleasantly romantic, some posts are quite frank, merely trolling for physical hookups. Still others could be considered creepy, and sites offer warnings about meeting up with strangers. One woman even posted a note about the Iraq veteran injured in the recent Occupy Oakland protests. "I live locally and would love to Occupy Anywhere with you," she wrote. "Uh, and I'm super hot."
For the most part, however, the notices seem sweet and sincere: "We enjoyed a laugh on flight 493 from Albuquerque" or "You caught my eye across the BART platform -- you were wearing blue."
A woman calling herself "Girl with Guns" recently posted this: "Cancun, Wed. 10/26 approx. 10:30 p.m. -- w4m (Mission District)."
"I ... saw/heard a guy who was great! He was sitting to my right, two tables away ... He yelled a little 'olé' of sorts at one of the songs playing on the jukebox. While he shouted 'olés,' I fired imaginary pistols and blew fake smoke off their barrels. ... I'm shy and hate speaking up. But I would like to meet this man. I think if anything we could dance together in public and perhaps wear silly masks and sing. Yours truly, Girl with Guns."
Taking a risk
The woman, 25, of San Francisco, said later in an interview that this was the first time she'd done a missed-connections post.
"Maybe it has something to do with wanting to be a risk-taker but being too shy to take the risk," she said. "It's kind of fun knowing that maybe, just maybe, I had as much of an impact on a stranger as he had on me.
"You know when you feel that pull?" she asked. "Like out of nowhere someone or something catches your eye and then when it's over you feel a little empty? I think it has a lot to do with that feeling. Doing something, however silly, feels better than doing nothing."
Safe, or sorry?
That's how psychologists see missed-connections messages.
"In that brief, transient encounter, people face a difficult psychological experience," said Heike Winterheld, assistant professor of psychology at Cal State East Bay. "You see someone attractive and are motivated to say hello. But that urge stands in stark contrast to the need for self-protection," she said. "The very behavior that could serve to initiate a relationship increases vulnerability to rejection and pain. So in that brief decision-making moment, you might not act."
But then, Winterheld said, the missed opportunity becomes a thorn in one's side, and regret may take hold.
"Regret is a strong motivator to do something, anything, to rectify the situation," she said. "And posting such a message is fairly safe. If the person doesn't respond, 'Well she probably didn't see the post.' That way it's not an outright 'no,' and the person can maintain a certain psychological control."
Elliot Sykes, a freelance web developer in London, started MissedConnections.com in 2008, feeling there was a need for a site that kept postings up for indefinite periods of time to increase a seeker's chances of finding that someone. His site now accepts posts from San Francisco, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and London.
"Some missed connections don't get posted until months or years have passed after they happened," he said. "So I thought some people needed more help finding happiness, maximizing the chances of reconnecting.
"I like to think that at least one connection has been made through the site, and some happiness has come from it, so the work has been worth it," Sykes said. "I guess we're all just optimists who love a lottery where the prize is greater than money."
Occasionally, the missed ones do turn into completed connections.
Elena, 23, of San Francisco, recently posted this, her first ever: "Foam Mattress Man -- w4m (San Francisco)."
"You helped me pick out a mattress last week. I made awkward small talk about the intricacies of foam. I came back today and you helped me pick out foam scraps. I can't think of any more excuses to come by the foam store but I'd like to see you again."
After a couple of "explicit" responses, she said, she did get a reply from the man she was interested in.
"Turns out he is single and we might go on a date," she said. "I think missed connections gives us the chance to continue dwelling on, and maybe to follow up with, a moment you feel like you were too awkward to handle in the right way when it happened. To put it more romantically, it gives fate a second chance."