April 1, 2020

From an alley to a chuppah

suppose it all began on a trip to Los Angeles with Vice President Al Gore in the summer of 1998. I was a New York Times correspondent based in the Washington bureau, and these were the days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Just in case Gore said something about President Bill Clinton’s involvement, we wanted to be there; I was assigned to be his shadow until he did.

After landing at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), we piled into the motorcade and headed for a home in Beverly Hills, where Gore was the guest speaker at a fundraiser for Gov. Gray Davis. Police on motorcycles cleared the way during rush hour, making the 15-mile trip a breeze. Upon arrival, Gore and his staff were ushered toward the back lawn; my journalist comrades and I were ushered to the back alley, where we could watch the event and listen to the speech but not mingle.

Now, flash forward two years.

I was in Los Angeles again, this time as part of our team covering the 2000 Democratic National Convention. At this point I had been divorced for several years, and on one particular morning my cellphone rang. It was my ex-wife, now remarried, calling from Washington.

“We have someone you should meet,” she said, the “we” being my ex and her best friend, who lived in L.A. “A really nice woman.”

Hmm, I thought. Was this a peace offering? An olive branch of some sort? Why would an ex-wife recommend someone who could become my next wife?

“I’m in L.A.,” I said.

“That’s great,” my ex-wife said. “She lives in L.A.”

“OK,” I said. “What’s her name and number? I’ll try to call. But we’re so busy. I doubt I’ll have time to meet her.”

I didn’t. But I had taken her phone number and email address, and over the next few weeks Joan Harrison and I exchanged calls and notes, each of us expressing optimism that we might have a chance to meet sometime.

By this time, I had become the Denver bureau chief, which meant I covered the interior Western states but not those along the coast. In September, I got an email from Joan, saying she and some of her friends were planning to spend part of the High Holy Days in Aspen, Colo.; maybe we could meet at the Denver airport for a coffee when they changed planes.

I had a better idea: “I haven’t done a story in Aspen in a while; I’m sure I can find one,” I told her. “But one caveat: I’d like to attend a service if I can find one, and maybe you’ll come with me.”

We made a plan.

I stayed at the home of an old friend in Aspen, but Joan and I spent almost all of the next few days together — dinners (our first date at Nobu Matsuhisa’s restaurant), hikes and a High Holy Day service officiated by a real estate lawyer in a local church.

By Sunday, our fourth day together, we were sitting in a park, collaborating on the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. We both knew this had been no ordinary few days.

“Something’s here,” I said, meaning us, not the puzzle. “I’m willing to pursue it if you are.”

“I agree,” she said.

We pulled out the calendars in our Filofaxes.

I never looked hard for that story in Aspen, but over the next year I managed to find one every Friday in either Salt Lake City or Phoenix, knowing those cities in my coverage area had the quickest flights into L.A. It became our weekend routine — in on Friday, out on Monday. This was before 9/11, when airports were easy to negotiate. Upon landing, I sat on a bench outside the United terminal at LAX, Joan picked me up and the weekend began.

One Friday, I climbed into the car and she said, “We have a really fun thing to do tonight.” She had good friends in Beverly Hills who had invited us for dinner and the screening of a film. “Sounds great,” I said, and we headed over.

After parking the car, we approached the home, and I had deja vu. “Wait a minute,” I said. “I think I’ve been here. Does this house have a big pool in the back with rocks behind it and an adjacent tennis court?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I was here, in 1998.”

I told her the story, of Gore, of the fundraiser, of being kept at bay in the alley beyond the event.

“I was at that fundraiser,” Joan said.

Cue “The Twilight Zone” music.

A few months later, we became engaged, and in September 2001, three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, we were married at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where Joan was a member. The late Rabbi Harvey Fields, who was very dear to both of us, officiated.

The party that followed was held at the same home in Beverly Hills where Gore spoke. In my little speech before the dancing started, I told the story of how Joan and I had not met at this very spot a year and a half before.

And I told our family and friends that on this, the happiest day of my life, I was grateful not to spend it in the alley.

MICHAEL JANOFSKY is assistant editor of the Journal and a lifelong journalist, who spent most of his career at The New York Times.