Ever since "six degrees of separation" got corrupted into "six degrees of Kevin Bacon," it's become unfashionable to talk about the "almost's" of life - i.e., "I was almost famous, but for . . ." where an alibi follows. "I would've, except . . ." In my case, when folks learn I went to Yale, they immediately assume I must have wealthy and powerful friends. It wounds my pride to tell them, "No, I was just a graduate-school drudge." One of my friends from graduate school, Willem Buiter, is nowadays chief economist for Citigroup in London, which means he certainly knows some important people. But when I recall that Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham, and Clarence Thomas were just across the street at Yale Law School for the first two years I was there and I never met them, even having an internationally-known economist as a friend doesn't seem all that special.
It's still a fun game to play. Last semester, I brought up the "six degrees of separation" idea to my Modern American History students as a way of pointing out that history isn't something remote from our present day. I could have mentioned that I'm a cousin of a former President (Jimmy Carter), but on that particular day we were discussing World War II and I chose another example. My late friend Jim Peterson was an aide to Admiral King, Chief of Naval Operations, at the time of the Argentia conference (August 1941), at which FDR and Churchill framed the Atlantic Charter. He met both of them aboard the U.S.S. Augusta. So I told them, "There's one degree from you to me, one from me to Jim, and one from Jim to two of the greatest leaders of World War II." I could have extended the example one degree further and mentioned that, through FDR, they were connected to every President of the U.S. from Grover Cleveland to FDR himself. Through Churchill, they were connected to Gandhi, Michael Collins, Chaim Weizman, Queen Victoria, and a host of others.
To paraphrase Faulkner, the past isn't dead; it isn't even past. When you feel neglected and obscure, think about all the folks you've known in the past and all those to whom, through them, you are connected. You may get a surprise. As for me, I'm playing another variant of the "almost famous" game. If I had been born six days earlier and a thousand miles further north, I might not be Steve Gordy at all; I might be Bruce Springsteen. "Everybody's got a hungry heart. . ."