For a moment, I was afraid that the space-time continuum would warp inside out. Maybe it would be a good idea to wear my tin foil hat and radiation-resistant underwear. And take my sword. (Everyone has those, right?)
Let me explain.
In 1976 I went to Washington, D.C. with the Eagles for a concert to support former California Governor Jerry Brown’s presidential run. I’d been hired to write the Hotel California tour book. They also thanked me on the album, which to this day holds some small sway with my friends nearing retirement, and certain unavailable young women.
I was also eager to go east for an entirely different reason. I’d recently seen a story on TV about a kid named Joseph Rensin who’d been given an experimental treatment for a rare form of childhood angina.
I’d had no idea that another Rensin family existed in the U.S.
But now I knew.
At my D.C. hotel I ripped through the white pages (no Google or WWW then) and found a Howard Rensin in Silver Spring.
I called. He wasn’t home. I left a message: “David Rensin called.”
The next day I spoke with Howard, who told me that he and his wife, Kathy, had been more than a little mystified when they got the message because the David Rensin they knew was only four years old, and supposed to be asleep when I phoned. No doubt he could sing the Sesame Street song and random dial with impunity, but leaving clever self-referential messages was a skill still some years in his future.
Another David Rensin.
(Not us, but you get the point.)
Before you complain that I think I’m special, stop. I’m not. After all, there are two David Rensins, but only one, say, Zorianna Kit. That is special.
Now, I get it that most of you don’t find this remarkable. Lots of people have the same names. Even the less-usual names like Vito Corleone, Rush Limbaugh, or Heinrich Himmler aren’t all that rare. And it's not like David Rensin or I are famous enough to have children named after us -- yet. But to me this was very out of the ordinary. Rensin, originally spelled Renzin in Russia, is uncommon. For years I thought my family was it, except for the Rensins in South America, and they never answered the phone.
A doppleganger would take some getting used to. Still, it seemed way cool, and a story to dine out on that would be the best I had until five years later when I took off most of my clothes in front of 989 college girls in a Champaign, Illinois nightclub. I was on assignment for Playboy with a troupe of male strippers from the Midwest. I also learned how to sign my name on a woman's breast with a Sharpie, and entertain at parties. Journalism is tough but someone's got to do it.
As the years passed, my contact with Howard was light. His son Sam took me to lunch when he came to Los Angeles, and Howard and Kathy took me to dinner when I went to D.C. My second cousin Eddie Rensin plunged deeper. He might have already known about the other Rensins, but in any case he and Howard pooled their interest in genealogy to create a family tree and search for the missing link between our families. Seems Howard’s ancestors had come to America well before mine. His grandfather, Hersh, born in Vitebsk, in Belarus, moved to Odessa, in the Ukraine, where he started a family before emigrating to Canada just after the turn of the century. He ended up in Syracuse. N.Y.
My family, also from Vitebsk, arrived during WW II, via Israel, after my grandfather Boris (aka Benny), left Berlin with his wife and my father in 1933. Hitler had appropriated his Mercedes. “Today my car, tomorrow my life,” he supposedly said, and promptly left the country to become a farmer and businessman in Haifa. Boris’s brother Louis also came to New York, and Louis’s son Hy (Eddie’s father), became the head of the music department at the Bronx High School of Science. Their youngest brother, Zakhar, arrived much, much later and died in 2000, in New York. He was 106.
Got that? There will be a pop quiz. You can go here to brush up.
Remember the four year old David Rensin? He’s now 37, and the CEO of Reality Mobile, a company that makes software for the real versions of the high-tech gizmos you see on 24, as well as software for non-classified commercial applications. The Washington Post recently called him a "technology mogul." Dave is also the guy who, he says, “held the patents that in part made it possible for everyone to get email on our handhelds.” Invention is rarely a one-person enterprise, but I think he also plays it down a bit because while men lean into conversations with him, their wives often scowl and mumble “Thanks for making me a Crackberry widow.”
He sold the company and made enough money that public opinion doesn’t seem to bother him.
I had briefly corresponded with Dave – he left David behind in high school, same place I left Dave; go figure – years ago when he lived in Northern California and I wanted to send email from my Palm Vx. He helped me get the right equipment and gave me a family discount even though we hadn’t yet confirmed a genetic affiliation. Nice guy.
We recently reconnected through Facebook.
Come on. That can’t be a complete surprise to anyone now that the adults have taken over the playground.
Even so, Dave and I might have left our relationship at a comfortable distance except that by playfully commenting on each other’s Facebook status or photos, we – and apparently our confused friends – had begun to experience the kind of schizoid disorientation you can only get when poleaxed by the glaring million-tiny-sequins swirl of a “Dancing with the Stars” contestant’s costume.
Dave suggested we get together for lunch when he came to Los Angeles on business. “I’m at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza,” he emailed. “I’ll be in the lobby at 12:30.”
Finally. The twain would meet.
About that earlier mention of a sword: I should tell you now that I’m a big sci-fi fan and what came immediately to mind were the Highlander movies, a yarn about a bunch of immortals who, if they cut off the head of another immortal, unleash lightning bolts from everywhere and, in the throes of an agonizing ecstasy, absorb the other’s energy. The victor might even rise a few feet into the air and writhe a bit. They can tell when another immortal is near by the sudden nausea and odd buzzing sound in their heads. No wonder the show’s log line is “There can be only one.” It’s like the ringing in your ears after a Led Zepplin show, only 100 times worse, and if you can’t cut off your own head just to stop the noise, you might as well cut off the other guy’s.
As I drove to our lunch, I wondered what would it feel like to sit across from someone also named David Rensin, when we were the only two David Rensins in the world. I bet on weird if only because I knew we’d each scrutinize the guy in the opposite chair, searching for any trace of ourselves. Would we uncover the metaphysical? Would we hold our forks or spread our napkins the same way? Could we be friends when we got past the charm of us both looking up when our name was called out in a crowd? Would those nagging questions like, What’s in a name? and, Would a rose by any other name still smell as sweet? be answered?
On the upside, at least David Rensin and I could now talk to others about David Rensin, by name, without being accused of channeling Bob Dole’s habit of referring to himself in the third person. On the downside, when I tried this the night before with my wife, my tongue had suddenly swelled in my mouth. Then I realized it was probably an unenumerated side-effect of the Cymbaltaflomaxrestatsisorenciacaduetzetiasymbacortomyicin I’d been taking for the headaches I get from watching too much prime-time television, where the majority of ads are about medications and their side-effects.
I arrived at the hotel a bit early and dawdled in a corner of the bar, scanning the lobby for Dave. I also fiddled with my name tag. That’s right. I wore a name tag: “Hi. My name is David Rensin.” Better safe than sorry.
Then I saw Dave about thirty feet away, looking for me. I sucked it up and strode out to meet him, hoping my ears wouldn't ring and I wouldn't want to hurl. So far, so good. We gave each other the once over. Dave is taller and younger. He had a three day growth. I wore a tie. I’ve been losing weight and I hoped he noticed.
I’m not going to say who’s better looking in case we see each other again.
He glanced at my name tag and nodded appreciatively. "Nice touch," he said.
Enough small talk. The moment had come. We reached out slowly, tentatively, touched, gripped. Shook. No sudden skin rash. No stomach upset. No rude awakening from a very strange dream.
“The restaurant here is pretty good,” Dave said.
“Great. Listen. One thing: I insist on splitting the bill?”
“Two cards. Same name. What fun.”
Dave agreed. A good sign.
When seated, Dave put his iPhone on the table. “See you,” I said, also placing mine face down on the tablecloth. A few seconds of silence followed as we each absorbed the momentousness of the moment.
Me: “Should I jailbreak my iPhone?” And we were off. When Dave talks his eyes dart, but not in the pretentious fashion I’m used to when people check out the room to see if there’s anyone more important they should speak to. Instead, I think it was the core computer nerd in him: everything in Dave’s world is at high velocity, we want it finished yesterday. This probably means that the urban legend about computer programmers getting more speeding tickets than the rest of us is not apocryphal at all.
I ordered a Thai chopped salad. Dave got a burger and fries, no onions. I entered the calories in an iPhone app. Dave saved his fries for last. I focused on a pretty woman a few tables away.
I’m a good listener, as befits someone who often interviews hundreds of people for a book. Dave, a younger man, is a good talker, as befits someone who has had to raise venture capital. Thus complimentary, the conversation was wide-ranging, rambling, and energetic as we tried to cram in years of questions and find not only commonality – which you always hope for – but differences. We talked about cell networks, mobile email (“If you really want to be accurate,” he told me, “I’m the guy who held the patents that in part made it possible for you to be followed into the crapper by your email and annoyed to no end.”) Dave’s current job, some of my books, the cute things our kids did, how to get along with our wives (just say "Yes dear," or for extra credit, "Yes, dear. You're absolutely right."), the wonder of home ownership, Facebook (and why both of us were on it), whether God exists, the “buried” Christian gospels (the “Nag Hamadi”), our concern about space-time fluctuations, how I’d originally discovered Dave, and a recent DNA test done by his father and my cousin Eddie that proved a connection.
“So it looks like we’re related,” we both said. No, not at the same time.
Here’s what else we discovered.
Dave’s wife is named Lia. In 1969 I briefly dated a Lia. Same rare spelling.
My wife is Suzie. He’s dated more than one Sue.
My son is named Emmett. Dave’s youngest daughter is named Emma.
We’re both Aquarians. I know that means something.
Of course, we’ve been confused for the other. Dave he told me a story about how, when he was just a fresh-out-of college programmer, his boss had one day stopped by his cubicle. “Why do you work here?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” he responded, not sure whether or not he should start worrying about his job.
“I just saw that interview you did with Patrick Stewart in TV Guide.”
“Not me,” said Dave. That’s the other David Rensin.
I don’t think she believed him.
But wait, there’s more. “I once had a Special Forces customer who asked me if I got laid more because I wrote for Playboy,” Dave said. “I told him that the only one working at Playboy who was getting laid more was Hef. And the acquisitions editor from IDG for my first book told me that my book proposal seemed pretty odd given my previous writing experience.”
I don’t mind if Dave occasionally takes the credit, as long as he doesn’t care if I use his name to take my family on a tour of our secret Intelligence installations.
People think I’m him, too. I’d once boldly sent an email to the BusinessWeek tech columnist Stephen Wildstrom back when I was trying to decide what PDA to get. He replied, asking if I was the David Rensin. “I am,” I wrote, “but I think you mean the other David Rensin.” Wildstrom didn’t respond. “In fact, he seemed miffed that I wasn’t you,” I told Dave.
“Another thing: I keep getting questions from my friends about why I’m so active in Republican politics – for a lifelong liberal.”
We decided this was not a topic to explore on a first date.
We also have this in common: Dave and I have each single-mindedly pursued our career goals, forcing us to be constantly on the go. Having been fired from his first job, his is “to never have a boss.” Mine is to never have an office job. (Same thing!) We’ve succeeded. The last boss to let me go ran a record store on Hollywood Boulevard in 1972. Having read my early stories in Rolling Stone, he also asked me the question: “Why do you work here?”
We both love peace and quiet and family time. He needs more, to be with his three kids. My kid, now at the University of Chicago, is finding his own way. “Time flies,” I said. “The nest empties. Enjoy the single-digit years while you can.”
Another great coincidence: Dave and I are also both published writers. Prior to helping lay waste to the notion of a family vacation untethered from the office, Dave had collaborated on a couple of computer books about SQL Server Secrets and Active Server Pages. “Perhaps,” I casually suggested, “we should write a book together – as long as we can agree on whose name goes first on the cover.”
Believe me, I've been waiting years to use that joke.
Two-and-a-half hours later, we paid with separate credit cards. My Amex card is Platinum. His is Black. I wasn’t jealous, but because our server seemed to know instinctively whose was who’s, I confess I was just the tiniest bit let down.
In the lobby we agreed the lunch had been much fun, and that we should stay in touch. I suggested that Dave come for dinner on another trip to Los Angeles. He thought that would be nice. I promised to send him my latest book, and he promised to keep me apprised of the latest cool PDA technology.
I didn’t get any thunderous insights except that we thought the coincidental names were something we could continue to have fun with. In this economy, that’s plenty good. And free.
This time we shook hands without hesitation, and walked off in opposite directions. But when I reached the door, I stopped and turned to watch Dave retreat across the lobby. That’s when I heard a tiny buzz. The back of his neck was vulnerable and exposed above his sweatshirt. His eyes were averted. This was my chance. I felt inside my black trench coat for my sword – but I’d left it at home.
Perhaps in the end there can be only one, but for the time being two is okay.
* Dave Rensin contributed to this story, via email between our handhelds. Where we were at the time is anyone's guess.