The Science To Falling In Love In Public Places

Two strangers meet on a fall day in 1966, in New York City's Washington Square Park. Four months later, they are married. Inspired by his parents' romance, author Ariel Sabar set out to find other couples who met and fell in love in New York's iconic public spaces. The result was the book, Heart of the City. Host Michel Martin speaks with author about his latest book and the importance of place when meeting a mate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next to stories of falling in love in some of New York's most iconic public spaces. Take, for example, the tale of Yona and Stephanie Sabar. They came from completely different backgrounds, met in Washington Square Park and were married four months later. Their son, author Ariel Sabar, told their romantic story in his first book, the award-winning "My Father's Paradise." But then he pieced together other such tales for his second book. It's called "Heart of the City." And he joins us now in our bureau in New York City. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. ARIEL SABAR (Author, "Heart of the City"): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, we spoke with one of the couples profiled in the book, Bob and Mara Koppel. They met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975. Both said they had been in a lonely, kind of sad place that day. Bob said Mara didn't even glance his way when he kept trying to talk to her until she finally did. Here it is.

Mr. BOB KOPPEL: The pleasure of seeing Mara for that very first time was really, you know, double in that I was meeting someone really wonderful and doing it in, you know, such a favorite place of mine.

Ms. MARA KOPPEL: It beats a bar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KOPPEL: I just kind of turned around and looked at him and he really looked pretty cute, you know. He had these nice blue eyes. So I just slowed down and, you know, the next thing I knew, we were walking through the rest of the exhibit talking about it together and one thing led to another.

Mr. KOPPEL: And basically we haven't stopped walking since then together.

Ms. KOPPEL: No. No, we haven't.

MARTIN: That is so romantic. They're so cute.

But it turns out that your reporting - in your reporting you found that there's actually a little bit of science to that. Is that - would that be right?

Mr. SABAR: Absolutely. I mean, this is one of things that surprised me. I had to kind of go digging. It wasn't out there to easily sort of find. I went to the Library of Congress, of all places, and started digging around. And sure enough, there are these obscure studies in social and environmental psychology that explained what sorts of places are more likely to induce friendly glances among strangers.

So the things that matter are, if a place is beautiful, if it gets your pulse racing and your adrenaline flowing, if there's something interesting to look at, whether it's a juggler or a street musician, then it's the kind of place where strangers are more likely to sort of think favorably of one another and to strike up a conversation. And so, you know, there's something to be said for going to a museum where you're surrounded by beautiful objects because the people inside will also seem more beautiful.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite story of the nine and of course, other than your parent's story, without which you would not be here.

Mr. SABAR: Oh, gosh. You know, that's like asking me to pick my favorite child. I'll tell you the story I had - I was just blown away to be able to tell, which is the story that happens - the earliest story in the book. In 1941, a dirt poor sailor from Texas is on liberty in New York City for all of, like, 24 hours. And he walks into Central Park and he finds this very sort of waifish young woman who is trying to light a cigarette under a bridge abutment in Central Park.

It turns out she's had this horrible life story. Her father has just died. She's 19 years old. She's a runaway. Her mother has disowned her. And he sort of starts talking to her. He offers her dinner. And they had his just phenomenal tale that winds up actually becoming something of a cause celebre in the 1940s, then immediately faded from the headlines after Pearl Harbor. And so I'm thinking, you know, there's no way this couple is still around.

And sure enough, I put Willis Langford, the sailor's name, into Google, and up pops a website of a nutritional supplement salesman in Southern California and his bio puts him at precisely the right age. And I emailed him and he writes back, he says, yes, I am indeed the same party. And I was just sort of blown away that we could still tell that wonderful tale.

MARTIN: And that chapter is called "Green" in your book.

Mr. SABAR: "Green." Yes.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask you, and I know - I'm sure other people have asked you this - we just did a story and a number of people have done stories about the role that social media is now playing in getting people together.

Mr. SABAR: Yes.

MARTIN: And on the one hand you think that that would increase the odds because it can put you in touch with people you would otherwise never have met. But given your research, do you think that social media is actually making our lives better or is it in fact increasing our chances or not?

Mr. SABAR: Well, it's hard to be critical of anything that brings people together. I mean, you know, I think that that's certainly, you know, one of the things that the priests and rabbis and other folks in New York City told me, who married folks a lot, is that, you know, if I had asked him this question 20 years ago, can you bring me couples who met in public spaces, they'd have dozens of stories. Now, increasingly, people are meeting online. And so it's hard to say that that's a bad thing.

But I think, you know, a lot of social media just connects us to people we already know. And I think the wonderful serendipitous encounters that happen in public where we actually have to open ourselves beyond our limited social circle, where we have to reach out across lines of class, of faith, race, to people who might not otherwise cross paths with us. I think that's where these phenomenal and, sadly, kind of diminishing public spaces in many ways in America are so important.

And one of the things that I hope people take away from the book is that we do need to care about our urban parks and squares and gathering places. Because this is where, you know, people engage. This is where community is built. This is where democracy happens, democracy with a lower case d.

I mean, just look at Egypt. I mean, a lot of those protests unfolded in a giant public square. And where else would those folks be able to express themselves in such a powerful way? So I'm a believer in love that blooms in real soil.

MARTIN: Ariel Sabar is an author and journalist who teaches creative writing at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. We caught up with him in New York. His latest book is called "Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York." Ariel Sabar, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. SABAR: Thanks for having me. It was fun.

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