The year was 1998. Amazon was three years old – a puppy not yet showing any semblance of the big dog it’d become that would be the bane of every brick and mortar company’s existence.
In 1998, the “bad guys” were Borders, Barnes and Noble, and any other big corporate giant that moved in and put friendly, independent neighborhood bookstores out of business. Those same corporate giants are now shutting their doors thanks, mostly, to Amazon, but back then, you couldn’t mess with them. This “bullying” of small bookstores didn’t sit well with me because I’d envisioned a nice quiet life managing my own bookstore where I’d serve coffee and chat with customers I knew by name. It could have been a nice life, but with a Borders across the street and a Starbucks right next to it, it would have been short-lived.
Years before Ellen Degeneres came out as a lesbian, she had a TV show called, Ellen, where she played a character who owned a bookstore. I was a teenager at the time, fantasizing that I was watching my future life play out in front of me. I believed it could be like that. Just…like…that. The perfect business. The perfect friends. The perfectly-timed jokes. I was naive enough to think a TV show could resemble real life.
Then came the movie You’ve Got Mail. It still makes me smile when I watch it. It touches on two things I know well. Books and Internet dating. You didn’t boast loudly back in ’98 about having a profile on the Internet searching for love. You whispered it into a trusted friend’s ear, if you said anything at all. But You’ve Got Mail made Internet dating sweet and charming, in a way only Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks can do.
Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, owner of The Shop Around the Corner (friendly neighborhood bookstore) and Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, owner of Fox Books (evil corporate bully). Fox puts Kelly out of business all the while romancing her over the Internet, unbeknownst to her that it his him.
Only “always the good-guy” Tom Hanks can pull something like this off and come out looking as wholesome as Jimmy Stewart in an “ah shucks” kind of a way. “Ah shucks, Ms. Kelly. I’m really sorry I put you out of business, taking away your livelihood, as well as conversing with you online and not telling you who I really was. But I’d really love to take you to dinner sometime.” You’ve Got Mail segued into a sweet love story with a happy ending, in a way only Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks can do.
It was 1996 when I corresponded romantically with someone on the Internet for the first time. Meg Ryan nails it perfectly when her character says, “I wonder. I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: You’ve got mail. I hear nothing. Not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beating of my own heart. I have mail. From you.”
Yes, Meg, I know the feeling well.
In ’96 we didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or texting. If you had something to say to someone, you called them on the phone. If you weren’t ready to give out your number because you were, after all, talking to someone from the Internet, which could be ANYBODY, you used email. That was it.
I eventually met the woman that had sent me rushing to my room as soon as I entered my house, locking the door, and holding my breath until I saw her name in my email box. Big smile. She was the first woman I called my girlfriend. The woman who would help me come out to my family and friends. I remember the exchange with my mother when I told her. She sat on the living room couch. Me on the other. I told her I needed to tell her something. And then I lit a cigarette – signifying this was serious. She sat up. “Mom,” I said. “I met someone online. This person’s name is Chris. But not Chris as in Christopher. Chris as in Christine. I’m a lesbian. She lives in Jersey. I’ll be leaving to see her next month.”
Maybe that wasn’t an entirely fair way to put it to my mom. “I’m gay, but no time to talk. Got a flight to catch! Bye!!!!!” I was nineteen. What stupid things were you doing when you were nineteen? I flew to Jersey. Met the girl. Sparks didn’t fly.
Though it didn’t end “Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan” style. I don’t regret doing it because I took a chance. I wish one day I’d open my email and see her name again because I’d like to know how she’s doing – nineteen years later.
Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net