"The Wubnik Prophecy" by Steve Slavin

Louie Wubnik and I met during our senior year at the Bronx High School of Science. We had both just gotten our acceptances from Columbia University. It was years before the war in Vietnam, the scandals over the college's defense contracts, and all the unpleasantness that followed.

Our story begins on a warm May afternoon in 1955 – perhaps the most important day in Louie’s entire life. It was the day that The New York Times published lists of the names of the New York State Scholarship winners in each of New York City’s five boroughs.

You know how New York marathon finishers check The New York Times the day after the race to see their names listed just below their finishing times? Well just imagine the anticipation of the tens of thousands of New York City high school seniors checking the paper to see if they had won a three-hundred-fifty-dollar annual scholarship to defray the cost of attending any college in New York State.

The winners were listed in order by their test scores. As it happens, each of the five boroughs of the city – Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island – was also a New York State county. Each county had its own listing.

The state legislature, which funded the scholarships, happened to be dominated by upstate Republicans, who strongly favored their own relatively sparsely populated counties in doling out the scholarships. So, they allocated a specific number of scholarships to the winners in each county. Consequently, the scholarship winners in most upstate counties needed much, much lower scores than those in New York City.

All of this made Louie’s feat that much more impressive. He attained the second-highest score in New York County, which happened to be the borough of Manhattan. So, if winning the scholarship were considered a measure of one’s intelligence, then Louie was one of the smartest high school seniors in the entire state.

Louie had known, of course, as he walked out of the exam, that he had done extremely well. The exam questions, which tested math and literary skills, as well as knowledge of history and a few other subjects, were right up his alley. In fact, his pals at Stuyvesant High School had nick-named him “Polly Math.” Still, perhaps not even in his wildest dreams, did he expect to have achieved such a high score.

Back in those days, even such brilliant high school students as Louie often had trouble finding girls who would go out with them. They were considered “eggheads,” a term that would eventually be superseded by “dork,” “nerd,” and more recent unflattering appellations.

Most high school boys, especially the eggheads, were somewhat shy about asking out girls, or even asking for their phone numbers. I can still remember the time I passed a note to the prettiest girl in my English class. A minute later she returned the note with her reply. “Thanks, but I’m going steady.”

Fifteen years old and she’s going steady? By the time she graduates, she’ll be married with children!

But Louie, who had never had the courage to ask out a girl throughout high school, had suddenly become a hot commodity – at least by his own estimation. Nonetheless, he could not quite summon the courage to ask girls in his classes for their phone numbers – even after what would be his life’s greatest triumph.

And then one day, he suddenly had his Eureka moment! In fact, he would now be able to kill two birds with one stone. He would look up the phone numbers of girls who had won scholarships, starting with the highest-scoring winners in Manhattan.

Back in the 1960s, each borough of the city had a residential telephone directory with listings of family surnames in alphabetical order, street addresses, and phone numbers. Let’s say, for example, you were looking for Barbara Rothstein, who had attended George Washington High School. He might have found three or four Rothstein listings in the vicinity of Washington Heights. However shy Louie might be in person, he had no fear of getting a wrong number. He’d apologize and dial the next number.

He had a set routine. When someone answered, he’d give his name, and ask to speak to Barbara. If one of her parents asked why he was calling, Louie would say that it was in reference to the New York State Scholarship. Then, nine times out of ten, Barbara would be called to the phone.

He would congratulate her on winning the scholarship, even compliment her on her high score, and mention casually that he had seen her name on the list while checking to see how he had done. Then, if only to be polite, she might ask how well he had done.

OK, so far so good. Louie would keep the conversation going – helpfully, doing nearly all the talking – and then, as casually as he could, try to close the deal. But when she agreed to meet for coffee, or perhaps even a formal date, he would almost always make the same fatal mistake: He would keep talking… and talking… and talking… and talking. Later he would tell me that he talked almost as many girls out of dates and he had talked into dates.

At least the numbers were on Louie’s side, with well over 150 girls’ names on the Manhattan list, and hundreds more on the Brooklyn and Bronx lists. And even if the phone conversations seldom resulted in dates, Louie was quite content just talking with so many very smart young women. So, what was not to like?

And better yet, he did manage one or two dates each month – even if they rarely led to second dates. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t buy a date through his entire high school career.