This is the story of
how I tracked down a girl I saw in the Sunday Newspaper by pretending to be a University. And how I actually managed to talk to her.
In 1992 I was a college dropout.
Still sounds strange to write, but I bailed on college at 19 years old to start a BMX bike company. Later on it would become a good story, one that I would tell in a documentary film, but back then I was just a guy selling bikes out of his trunk.
I was back living at home, back in my same high school bedroom, although it was now full of bikes and bike stickers, and a goldfish tank that may or may not have contained a dead fish (hey it was alive when I left for college). I drove a green Volkswagen Scirocco and though I had some initial success with Homestead (the bike company), yada yada yada and I was forced to take a job at the local pizza joint.
I hated that job.
I wasn’t selling enough bikes and I wasn’t in college with my friends. I was just killing time. One random Sunday I think in late January I was reading the newspaper and came across one of those national supplements that came with the Sunday paper, called Parade Magazine. It was nothing amazing, just a weekly recap of social stories and lite news, a little People Magazine to connect the country. I opened up Parade on this particular Sunday to a section called “Ask Marilyn,” a single-column Q&A put together by a woman by the name of Marilyn vos Savant, who supposedly is one of the smartest people alive, with an IQ of like 180.
I got to the Ask Marilyn section that Sunday and for some reason I stopped. Instead of a fun math problem (a train leaves Chicago at 10:04am with one passenger. . ), the question on this day was out of left field — , “annoying questions parents ask teens,” if memory serves. Since I was a teen, and was dealing with annoying questions from my own mom (no doubt due to my life choices at the time), I could instantly relate.
Two girls from North Carolina had written in who could also relate, so already we had something in common. I don’t remember both girls I just remember Wendy. The cute Southern thumbnail. Wendy Hayes, 18 of Lexington North Carolina, which to my limited experience might as well have been Fiji. It was a tiny black-and-white square picture that accompanied her comment but there was just something about ‘her girl next door-ness’ that caught me, and I imagined she had some sexy Southern spunk to go with her cute looks.
Brené Brown would call this a classic example of “stories I tell myself.”
I folded up the paper and pretended to forget. A few days later at my minimum-wage pizza job all I could think about was Wendy. I set up the salad bar and thought of Wendy. I poured pitchers of beers and thought about Wendy. I took my 30 minute lunch break watching daytime TV and thought about Wendy. I wondered what life was like in Lexington, North Carolina. Maybe it was because my life had stalled that somewhere else seemed more interesting. Maybe it was because my last crush had just met some doof named Brian down at the same college I’d dropped out of. Either way, I just kept thinking about Wendy. Wendy Hayes from Ask Marilyn.
A week passed.
I’ve already been vulnerable here so let’s go all the way and I’ll tell you the answer is yes — yes I thought of quitting the pizza job and driving to North Carolina. I had already realized that I had a very impulsive dna strain but even for impulsive me North Carolina is pretty far from Northern California.
I had to let it go.
But I wasn’t satisfied to let this crush go. Maybe that’s why it’s called a crush.
I tried to think of my most basic desire and came to the conclusion—
“What if I just told her I think she’s cute. Wouldn’t a girl like to hear that?”
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe she’d think I was as crazy as any California girl would. As I stood there looking at her picture one more time, I realized I was internally committing myself to try.
What were even my options in 1992?
I decided to write a letter.
I didn’t have her address though, right? There was no Facebook, no Google remember so I became a private investigator and started at the very beginning, and went with the only clue I had — Marilyn.
I addressed a letter to Ask Marilyn, c/o Parade Magazine, New York, NY 10017, asking whomever it may concern if they could pleeease forward the enclosed letter (already stamped) to Ms. Wendy Hayes of Lexington, North Carolina.
Then I wrote out my letter to Wendy, laying out how much I liked what she wrote and how cute I thought she was, among other sappy details I’m sure. I signed my name and wrote down my phone number. And I put it into an envelope with the other letter and off it went.
A few weeks went by and this was worse.
Did she get my letter? Did she hate me? Was she laughing at me? I realized very quickly I’d put myself in a bind. I had to at least know if she got the letter. Why would anyone at the Ask Marilyn office (if there was an office) bother to forward my silly letter? What the heck kind of hopefulness had I let myself buy into?! Goodness!
The waiting was horrific.
thanks Tom, I KNOW it’s the hardest part
Before Google or even cell phones waiting was a common practice. Especially for the angst-ridden adolescent of which I was one. Stuck between mom’s house, the pizza job, and selling an odd bike or two I was trapped wondering DID SHE GET MY LETTER?!
That’s all I really wanted. I wanted some equivalent of an email in my inbox that read: “received.”
But this was 1992.
So I waited. And waited. At this point I didn’t even care if Wendy replied to me — I just wanted to know if she had at least received my sappy attempt at love.
Back to square one.
With nothing to lose (and by now I assumed my letter was wedged in between the trash can and the water cooler in some Manhattan mail room), I wrote a follow up letter and sent it again to the same address. I was shocked when I looked in the mailbox just seven days later to find a reply. It was so prompt! Their response had been instant by today’s standards.
I brought the letter inside and just looked at it. This was a small thrill even though I was prepping myself to be let down. I expected a form letter or maybe some kind of “how disgusting of you trying to contact this girl” response.
I got out a knife and opened up the envelope. I reached inside and pulled out the tri-folded piece of paper. I opened it up and set in on the table and began reading. It was typed out (“fancy,” I thought) with Parade letterhead. The contents were succinct, to the point, as a reputable publication should keep it:
Hello Alden, we have forwarded your letter onto Wendy. Good luck.
I read it at least four times. Of course it was a huge satisfaction just knowing my letter had been passed on but ‘good luck?’ They wished me good luck?? Did they know what I had in mind — talking and maybe eventually kissing this cute southern belle??
Probably not. After all Bill Clinton hadn’t even gotten involved with the blue dress yet. The world was just that much more innocent.
I went to work the next day living in a new reality.
A reality that I had managed to get a letter to a cute girl on the other side of the country.
This was already an accomplishment!
The following day, though, the good vibe began fading. What now? Would she write back? How long would that take? And she probably thinks I’m a psycho — after all, what kind of nice girl from North Carolina would respond to a blind-letter from some long hair out in California?
Again, before the internet if you lived in a small town in North Carolina, Sonoma, California might as well have been Mars.
But, as often happens, what I thought would be, was not.
I thought about Wendy. I knew I needed to know that she received my letter. But more and more I started to think I needed to hear her voice. “She’s gotta have a sexy southern accent or something,” I told myself.
I had come this far and I had to finish.
I put on my investigative hat one more time. She’s 18, I knew, so I guessed she’d be a high school senior. “Maybe there’s a Lexington High School?” I thought out loud. “Could it be that easy?”
But I couldn’t call 4–1–1 for information to North Carolina because it would have been long distance. Mom would see the charge on the bill and I’d get grilled. So the next day off I drove to the County Library in Santa Rosa. I felt incognito if I’m honest. My friends didn’t know anything about Wendy and I parked on a side street and you still need to remember with no cell phones no one really knew where anyone was most of the time.
I entered the library and walked to the back and saw an entire wall of phone books. I walked over and opened a few up. They were from all around the country. It was amazing, like having the world at my fingertips. I found North Carolina and narrowed down the pages toward ‘Lexington’ and then put my pointer finger on three possible high schools Wendy might attend.
I reached for a scrap of light green paper from the stack on the desk and with one of those little mini-pencils I wrote down the numbers to each school as if I were scoring a round of golf.
I drove home with a tingly sense of something happening, like a wall of dark clouds before a thunderstorm. Or something like that.
Days ticked by but I didn’t call. I kept waiting for a letter from Wendy to arrive that I knew was never going to arrive, each day walking out to check the mailbox for the delivery from far away.
After about two weeks, I knew what I had to do. My nerves were shaky, but I knew I had to bite the bullet.
But what would I say? Who would I reach? Would the Lexington High receptionist sniff out my game? Why would she forward me (even if I reached the correct school) on to Wendy — some strange voice from California with a story about seeing a girl in Parade Magazine.
I put on my logic hat again and figured if Wendy was a senior, and a smart one at that, she was probably looking at colleges. Therefore, if I was not myself, not Alden Olmsted but a college, some fancy liberal arts college or something, calling a senior in the spring before graduation, would be completely normal.
I had a plan.
Now when should I call? Maybe my lunch break from work? Nope, with the three hours’ time difference if I called during the noon hour, Wendy’s school day might be already be over. But I couldn’t call with mom home. She would hear my conversation from the phone in the living room (see what we went through with one line per house you feckless gen z’ers you!).
I decided to call in the short amount of time I had after my mom had gone to work but before my pizza job started. I would call at 8:15am Pacific, 11:15 Eastern. It would be perfect.
I punched the numbers and dialed the first high school on my list. A female voice on the other end answered and I tried to sound smooth.
“Hi, I’m John (it’s my middle name so I wasn’t lying — yet), from Olmsted University in California… yes, hi I’m trying to reach Ms. Wendy Hayes, she is interested in attending our college in the fall. She attends high school in Lexington right?”
(Yes, I’d watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and, yes, I’d taken notes). Despite my training and optimism, the receptionist answered back with, “No, I’m sorry, there’s no Wendy Hayes here.”
I moved on. I called the next high school.
“Well, theres only one left,” I told myself. I dialed the number for Lexington High School and I struck gold.
A nice sounding woman answered. “Hello, Lexington High School,” she said in the perfect southern accent I wanted to hear. I asked my question, again as John from Olmsted University.
“Oh, Wendy! Yes, ’course let’s see,” she said over the line, across the country as I held my breath and maybe my heart stopped but I don’t remember. “The bell’s about to ring, but it looks like she has yearbook next period. You could prolly catch her then.”
“I could probably catch her THEN??!!!!”
????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! After TWO MONTHS I was less than an hour from ACTUALLY talking to Wendy Hayes from Parade Magazine??
I thanked the lady and hung up the phone with my heart beating out of my chest. Not only did I find out that this girl is real, I might actually get to speak with her if I called back next period!
And oh my what in THEE HELL was I going to say?
I told my boss I was taking my lunch break early and drove home to make the call.
I walked straight inside my mom’s apartment, picked up the phone and dialed.
Third ring. “He-lloo?”
“Uh, yearbook class?” I said, forgetting all about a b.s. Olmsted University.
Shoot here it comes. The thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. I told myself this is what I wanted but did I? Was I ready?? I was at the doorstep of tragedy and triumph. And I had made my bed, now I had to lie in it.
There was a series of beeps and then a couple rings, and then a high school girl picked up.
By this time I didn’t even hesitate. “Yes, is Wendy there?” I asked, sounding extremely confident.
“Oh Wendy? Yeah she’s right here,” she said.
I heard her call Wendy’s name out to the classroom and then heard footsteps on hard linoleum. The footsteps mirrored my heart pounding.
“Hello?” The voice of an angel spoke. It was sweet. It was Southern. It was exactly what I had anticipated.
It was Wendy.
Wendy Hayes. From Parade Magazine.
“Wendy,” I said, mustering all of my nineteen-year-old nerve. “I hope you won’t hang up, but this is Alden. Alden Olmsted. I wrote you a letter.”
I heard a gasp through the line, a southernly drawled-out gasp from all the way out in Lexington, North Carolina.
“Oh my God,” she said, her voice soft and sweet. And then I heard her call out to her classmates, “Guys! It’s that guy from the letter!”
Then I heard multiple girls’ voices gasp and hoot, I could almost feel the lighting up of their eyes.
*I should mention I’m calling from a landline to a landline and if you’ve never done that you can’t imagine how clear and connected it feels. We don’t like to admit it, but we’ve sacrificed a ton of sound quality for convenience in our cellular phones.
I felt like I was right in that yearbook class with Wendy.
“I can’t believe you called me.” She said.
“I know, I guess I just — I wanted make sure you got my letter.” I answered.
“I did,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it, but yes, I got it. I thought it was so sweet. I told all my friends.” and it’s admirable that you went through all this just to talk to me.”
All her friends?? I was being talked about in Lexington North Carolina?!
“I have to tell you, though,” she added, with a slightly disappointed tone. “I do have a boyfriend.”
“Oh well, that’s okay,” I said, almost laughing inside — as if she’d not had a boyfriend that my letter-plan would have worked?
“I figured you would.” I tried to sound like it didn’t phase me.
“But,” she said, “I am coming out to California this summer to see a few colleges…”
My heart leapt.
“Oh well, yeah,” I said, fumbling for something to say. “You definitely should look at all your options.”
My exuberance was hard to hide after the deflation of that boyfriend line and I‘m sure I came on too strong. “You gotta let me know when you’re coming out.”
“I don’t know if I can,” she said sweetly, “but I’ll try.”
“Okay,” I said, a mix of hope and knowing it wouldn’t happen. “It was great to finally talk to you, Wendy.”
“You too, Alden,” She said.
Boy I sure liked the way she said my name.
But that was it.
She never wrote nor called and I don’t know if she ever made it out to California. I never talked to her again.
When I was 30 or so and the internet became a thing I tried to look her up just out of curiosity, but I quickly found that Wendy Hayes is a pretty common name. I didn’t have the energy so I let it be. I assume she’s married and has children by now, but who knows.
I have no regrets though and I’m still a bit impressed with my investigative skills and, hey, I actually talked to her. I talked to a girl I saw in a magazine on the other side of the country. I didn’t creep her out, and she told all her friends.
To think today that with a simple Google search I would have been able to find her and her social media account in two minutes and maybe even make contact is almost depressing.
Because I guarantee it would not hold the same weight with her and would have required zero effort from me and most of all I know for sure it would not have made for such a good story.
Thanks to Classmates (dot) com here’s Wendy in the yearbook class in 1992. Was this what class looked like that fateful Spring day when she got a call from some dude in Northern California who called just to tell her he thought she was cute?
It’s entirely possible.
And maybe that’s the lesson.
If you can track down a girl from a magazine without the internet, maybe you can do anything.