He boarded the bus on a beautiful summer day in 1983. He had sparkling blue eyes and sandy brown hair, with a perfect physique wrapped in a light blue T-shirt and worn Levis. He sauntered down the aisle flashing a confident smile, tossed his duffel bag onto the overhead rack and asked if the seat next to mine was taken.
“My name’s Carl,” he said, and sat down.
He was headed from Chevy Chase to Ocean City to work as a lifeguard; I was going to meet friends. And with introductions out of the way we soon were chatting like old friends. I was surprised at how much we had to talk about: I was only a year into John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring; he was five years older, and reminisced about his days at Winston Churchill in Potomac. Six hours passed as the bus headed north to Baltimore, its final pickup point, before heading on to the Eastern Shore. There was hardly a lull in the conversation.
About 10 that night, the bus pulled into the 12th Street Station in Ocean City. Carl helped me with my bags and offered to stay until my friends arrived, but I assured him I’d be all right.
“If you want, I can get you and your friends into the Green Turtle,” he said, referring to a popular local bar.
“Thanks, but I’m not sure what they have planned,” I said, suddenly aware that he was technically a stranger and that I wasn’t even old enough to drive.
“Well, take care now,” he said, and was gone.
Three years later he showed up as my pity date for the prom. This time he wore a double-breasted brown suit with cowboy boots. I wore a floor-length, strapless, sky-blue gown.
We had encountered each other just three days earlier at the fitness center where he worked as a personal trainer and I was a lifeguard. We were separately meeting co-workers at the juice bar after work. I was explaining to a friend that I wouldn’t be going to my prom because of a breakup over the weekend, when a voice said, “Not going to your prom? Ridiculous.”
The man with the voice sat down next to me and began rattling off all the things my mother had said: “You can’t miss it.” “It’s one of those nights you’ll remember forever.” “You’ll regret it if you don’t go.” I looked at this crazy person next to me, and we did a double take. “Don’t I know you?” he asked. “Where do you go to school anyway?”
“Kennedy,” I said. “You?”
“I went to Churchill, but the only person I ever met from Kennedy was this girl on a—”
“Bus to Ocean City!” I exclaimed, and we both started laughing.
Carl took it upon himself then and there to see to it that I went to my prom. He would borrow a suit from his brother, a car from his mother and arrange a table at the only restaurant in town still taking reservations.
By the time Saturday night arrived, I didn’t think he’d actually show up. It was 1986, and there were no cellphones or text messages to confirm our plans, and no reason beyond faith for me to put on that dress. But at the designated hour, Carl pulled up in the largest sea-foam green car I had ever seen, and greeted my parents with that familiar smile. Presenting me with a white rose and gardenia wrist corsage, he gamely posed for the requisite pictures while I pretended that it was perfectly normal to go to the senior prom with a 21-year-old stranger.
At the restaurant, I found myself wondering how I’d arrived at this embarrassing juncture. I was reasonably popular at school, but friend, rather than dating material, to most of my classmates; and the college guy I’d been dating had dumped me after I’d refused to have sex with him. I wouldn’t have cared so much about missing the prom if it weren’t for my mom. She was so excited to see her Baby Girl off on her last big night of high school.
I looked over at Carl, and he said something about us being the center of attention at this place, rather than just another prom couple blending in at the usual haunts. He was right, of course, but it was hard to appreciate it when I was wearing a taffeta prom pouf to a salad bar with a sneeze guard.
When we pulled into the parking lot of the Columbia Inn to go to the dance, Carl turned off the ignition and looked at me. “All right, Annie,” he said. “I know how awkward this must be for you, showing up with a last-minute date who couldn’t get a tux or a limo. But you don’t need that. You’re beautiful. And you’re fun and smart. And,” he added with a wink, “we are going to make heads turn in there!”
Then he reached under the seat, produced a bottle of champagne and, in his best superhero voice, toasted: “To the prom!”
Inside the ballroom, I felt everyone staring. Only the stares didn’t convey pity. Carl played the part of the prom date perfectly. He held my hand and invented a new story each time someone asked how we’d met. He got drinks when glasses were empty, and complimented me whenever others were around. We danced to the last song of the evening, a ballad.
And before we left, he insisted we have our official prom photo taken, to ensure I’d remember the night.
I never saw Carl after that evening. He had done his good deed, but dating a 17-year-old would not have been cool. He was right, though, that I never forgot my prom. He had shown me that opportunity can be found in a chance encounter and that a wonderful memory can arise from the most awkward situation.
Four years after my prom, I was living in New York when I came home to visit my parents. As I walked in the door, my mother handed me a copy of The Washington Post. I looked at the headline, “Domino’s Pizza Deliveryman Fatally Shot,” and then I saw the name. Carl Krogmann.
“I knew it,” Mom said when she saw me blanch. “I was sure that was the boy who took you to the prom.”
Carl had been shot and killed in a robbery attempt in April 1990 by a police officer’s teenage son. The incident would spark a national debate over gun control, and in each article he would be referred to as the pizza deliveryman, as though that defined his life.
He had been a stranger to me when we went to the prom, and he was a stranger to me when he died. And yet he profoundly changed my life.
Ann Zanger-Calderone grew up in Silver Spring and currently resides in Glen Ridge, N.J.