I wasn’t supposed to be at the intersection of Foothill Expressway and Hillview Avenue in Palo Alto last Wednesday afternoon. A lot of unrelated events, occurring in a seemingly random sequence, put me there.
Nor is the intersection particularly meaningful to anyone just passing through. It is for me. On the micro level of my life, it is proximate to many parts of my life.
To the south, less than a mile away, the neighborhood I grew up in and the high school I attended.
Closer by, also to the south, visible from the intersection, the Veterans Administration hospital where I volunteered in the hematology lab the summer I was 15. (This was when I still thought I wanted to be a doctor, but hadn’t yet realized I couldn’t stand the sight of blood; how ironic to be assigned to the hematology lab.)
Just a half-block to the north, the swim and tennis club we belonged to when I was a child, where I swam competitively (sometimes – and not so competitively other times).
On the macro level of life in Silicon Valley, the intersection carries equal importance. To the west, within walking distance, are the offices of Xerox PARC, where Steve Jobs first saw the graphical user interface. To the east, the offices of Varian, founded by two brothers whose World War II contributions in radar helped lay the groundwork of Silicon Valley’s pedigree, and on the hill beyond Varian, the headquarters of Hewlett-Packard. To the south, on the far side of the hospital, the site of the R&D facility of Fairchild Semiconductor. That was the company founded by eight seminal electrical engineers, who later went on to establish manufacturers such as Intel and venture capital firms such as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers.
People argue about where the heart of Silicon Valley lies, deservedly so, but for my money, this is one of the top contenders. Even today, many of technology’s leaders in cutting-edge technology, from virtualization to in-memory computing, have clustered together in that area.
Life is a series of collisions, of people coming together and going away, interacting upon each other like electrons and protons. I know you probably think I’m leading up to the revelation that my car got broadsided at that intersection, but this isn’t that kind of story.
No, there was a different kind of confluence going on. That afternoon, I was supposed have a meeting with IBM at 2 p.m. and then be at the Hillview Avenue office of the Stanford Blood Center at 3 p.m. The IBM meeting was postponed, so I went to the blood center early.
Like I said, I wouldn’t have been there at all, except that I had donated platelets a few weeks before. In the intervening time, an adult female patient somewhere in the region – someone I’ll never know – was not responding to antibiotics in the treatment of whatever ailed her. The Stanford Blood Center is one of the few such centers to test blood for something called granulocytes, and this particular facility of Stanford’s was the only one that had the equipment to harvest them.
Granulocytes are a type of white blood cell that – like antibiotics – fights infection. They do not last a long time, so only by testing the blood of people who had recently donated could the blood center find people like me – it needed three for this patient, to donate sequentially in three 24-hour periods – whose blood was compatible.
That’s why I was at the blood center – to pick up a dose of something called dexamethasone, a steroid that would help make my white blood cells easier to harvest. I was to pick up the dexamethasone on Wednesday, take it with dinner on Thursday, and come back on Friday morning to donate the white blood cells.
As I was turning from Foothill Expressway onto Hillview Avenue, my phone rang. I didn’t think then that I had entered some meaningful vortex. I was just a supporting player in the bigger production that is life in Silicon Valley, where lives of families and strangers, friends and colleagues alike intersect in the most improbable ways.
I pushed the “accept” button on the touchscreen in the car, and the voice of my father’s nurse came over the speakers to tell me that he had passed away. My father was just a couple of weeks shy of his 95th birthday, and the date was also, I realized later when I went to update the family genealogy, his own father’s birthday.
How strange it felt to get that news, in that place of portent for both my world and the world. How ironic it felt to have death intervene on a moment that was supposed to be about saving someone’s life. But then again, maybe it was neither strange nor ironic. Perhaps it was really just a vivid example of the way life works all the time, bringing us together and then apart again, on its seemingly random path through time and place.