Where in the world is Ray Carboni?

The last time I saw Ray Carboni, he was sprawled out on the gymnasium floor of our high school, carefully penning his goodbyes into my yearbook.

It was 1976.
"Well, here it is, the moment I've dreaded and feared all year, the moment that I have to capsulize four years in 100 pages or less," he wrote in the inside cover of my book. "I guess I could call it The Agony and the Ecstasy. But that would be mild...

"Time has passed. All wounds are healed, and we coexist peacefully on the same planet. It wasn't always so. But our friendship has at times been as deep as it has been stormy. And it leaves me with a feeling like going to the bottom of the ocean and returning with a pearl. Because I journeyed into your soul, a harrowing journey, and came back undamaged but enriched..."

(Be kind. Remember, this was high school in the Barry Manilow era.)
"But this is now, and that was then--and we must look back now and then to see the pain of growing up," he continued. "You, my dear, were one of the biggest of those pains! But you also helped me grow up, and I thank you...

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"Keep Kool, live long and prosper (and all that other bullshit) and don't forget the one who loved you."

Even today, I can still see Carboni slapping the yearbook shut, handing it back to me, and loping away--shoulders slouched, thumbs hooked tenaciously into the pockets of his jeans, big black tennis shoes pointed outward, almost Chaplinesque.

I figured we'd see each other again. We didn't.
Last week, I went looking for him.

There is no good reason to try and find Ray Carboni.
I am happily married. I have three children. I have a job, a new TV, a life. I don't have time to read a magazine, let alone go off on some wild tear, looking for a guy to whom I haven't given more than a passing thought in 20 years.

It's true that I tend to jump into things on impulse and then, at the sight of the first obstacle, become downright obsessed with them. I am especially attracted to challenges where the goals appear entirely unattainable and the missions themselves have no apparent merit whatsoever.

There was, for example, the time I spent four days tracking down a worthless gearhead who sideswiped my husband's parked car and booked without a trace. When I finally found him, in an apartment he'd only lived in for 48 hours, he threatened to shoot me, but settled, charitably enough, for calling me a "goddamn piece of shit."

The Hunt for Ray Carboni is, by comparison, entirely reasonable.
It began last March as the smallest germ of an idea. On a trip back East for my brother's wedding, my husband had flown back to Dallas while I had stayed on to visit my sister in Greenwich, Connecticut--the town next to Stamford, where I went to high school. Driving there in the rental car, with my kids asleep in the back seat, I decided to take a detour and do the nostalgia tour--to the old house, the old school, the old greasy spoon where I had been a waitress. While circling my high school, I remembered that my old friend Ray Carboni lived just a few streets over. Wouldn't it be fun to knock on the door, say hello to his parents, and ask how Ray was doing?

Try as I might, though, I couldn't find the Carbonis' house--or anyone who even remembered the family. I drove on and didn't give it another thought--until seven months later. That's when I received an invitation to my 20-year high-school reunion from an outfit that described itself as "professional class-reunion planners." For $54 a person, the letter stated, the Rippowam High School Class of '76 would get the following: a "buffet dinner, disc jockey, classmember search, memory book for each classmember, and other costs associated with conducting a successful reunion." Liquor and class photo not included.

The "classmember search" consisted of a one-page enclosed list of 107 former students who were "missing in action"--roughly a third of our graduating class. "We are looking for these classmates and welcome your help," the form letter stated. "Our search is ongoing and will continue until the night of the reunion."

Yeah, right--big, serious manhunt. Some of the names on the list were badly misspelled, and one poor guy had a new first name. One person on the list was an old girlfriend of mine whom I hadn't seen in eight years. I called her in New York, had a wonderful chat, then dutifully phoned in her address on the reunion company's 1-800 hotline.  

That's when I noticed that Ray Carboni was on the list, too.
Carboni hadn't shown for the 10-year reunion--and what a party he missed. I'll never forget the shock I felt that night, walking into the biggest, tackiest Italian restaurant in Stamford, and finding complete and utter vindication. Near as I could tell, the cheerleaders and football players and studmeisters--the most grossly envied people in my senior class--had matured into 27-year-old, fat, chain-smoking divorcees on their second marriages. All the fringe players--the chess nerds, the tuba players, the severely pimpled--had blossomed into great-looking, college-educated, happily married or happily single young professionals.

I had been a fringe player.
Dubbed "Most Unpredictable" of the senior class, I was the overly intense, occasionally maniacal, aspiring writer--editor of all school publications, including the student paper, where I had tried my hand at that new "investigative journalism" thing that Woodward and Bernstein were doing. My first scathing "expose"--a story about two teachers who had made the grave mistake, as I recall, of disagreeing with us on our choice for a band for the senior prom--prompted the principal to shut down the paper, call an emergency meeting of the student senate, and bring in my parents.

My other claim to fame was an organization I founded called Students with a Purpose. If memory serves me correctly, we sold bagels in the mornings to raise enough money to buy cleaning supplies to scrub the school's water fountains to set an example for the other students. That's it.

Ray was a fringe player, too--obviously, since he liked me. We were friends, I suppose, because we both had sharp tongues and rather cynical views of things. We hung out together for four years, in varying degrees of intensity, and I inevitably turned to him whenever my steady boyfriend and I were spatting. Mostly, I remember Carboni and I passing insanely long notes to each other in French class and spending late afternoons at his house--his mother Bridget upstairs cooking elaborate pasta meals for her family, Ray and I sitting downstairs in front of the largest stereo system I have ever seen while Ray blasted Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" at me for hours.

Ray suffered from a rather obvious inferiority complex, but the truth of the matter was that he was a pretty sharp guy, with an astonishingly quick mind, a savage sense of humor, and an incredibly irritating cackle for a laugh. I liked him immensely, but I'm afraid that I treated him like most 15-year-old girls treat boys they like--badly.

Now, staring at the invitation for our reunion, I could not think of anything I'd enjoy more than watching Ray Carboni, beer in hand, getting a firsthand look at how dramatically our high-school class had matured--me included.

But I had no idea where he was. No problem. I would just find him and make him come to the party.

Easier said than done.

Thanks to the stalkers of the world, it's getting harder to find people--at least if you're doing it the old-fashioned way.

It always surprises people when I tell them how easy it is for me to find out things about them. In less than an hour--with just a couple of quick phone calls--I can find out just about anybody's date of birth, home address, occupation, social security number, place of birth, marital status, religious preference, driver's license number, driving record, height, weight, and obscure middle name. I can also determine who lives with them, the size, value, and layout of their homes--and any other properties they might own--and the amount of taxes owed on them.

If, by chance, a person happens to have a criminal record, a divorce, or a juicy civil suit in his or her past, I'm guaranteed to know a whole lot more.

But elected officials are sealing up public records at an astonishing rate. In Texas, reporters (and inquisitive citizens) are still in relatively good shape--about the only public documents I can't get are tax returns and birth and death certificates. But in other states, like Connecticut, I'm pretty well hamstrung.

That's where I started looking for my friend. There was only one Carboni in the Stamford phone listings--for someone with the first initial "D"--but she was not related to Ray, she told me.

I then turned to the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles. What I was looking for, I told the department's media spokesman, were the addresses for every Raymond H. Carboni in the state. Sorry, he told me, the state Legislature recently sealed those records.

Incredulous, I called the Stamford public schools and talked to the director of student records. It would help me greatly, I told him, to have Ray's date of birth, his parents' names, and his old address. Sorry, he told me, the Legislature had sealed those records.  

So I called the Stamford Public Library, and I begged a reference librarian to dig up a 1976 phone book. There were two Carbonis--a Peter and a Remo, and Remo's address and phone number rang a bell. Next, I persuaded the librarian to pull the current crisscross phone directory--a nifty tool that categorizes people by street addresses instead of names. The librarian looked up Ray's old street and gave me the names and phone numbers of five families now living on it, including the people who had Ray's old home.

Although the directory indicated that no one on the street had lived there prior to 1978, I felt certain that somebody would remember the Carbonis.

I was wrong.
I had two options left: I could call directory assistance in every town in Connecticut to see if either Remo or Raymond Carboni was listed. Or I could call every town hall to see if either man was registered to vote. Either way, it would take several days--and it would be no sure thing if they had left Connecticut or had unpublished phone numbers.

It was time to either give up or go to my ace in the hole. I chose the latter, which hereby exposes a deep, dark trade secret that no self-respecting journalist would ever employ, let alone divulge.

I called my friend, the private investigator.
I didn't call to ask him to don a raincoat and a fedora and take the next red-eye to Connecticut, mind you. Heck, I could do that. (I'd start with a hunt through the Fairfield County deed records on Ray's old address.) No, I wanted my friend's computer.

Two years ago, watching Sleepless in Seattle, I had rolled my eyes when Meg Ryan, playing a newspaper reporter, sat at her desk, tapped in the name of Tom Hanks' character and--bingo!--pulled up everything about him, even a picture. What garbage, I remember thinking. What a dream. Too bad no such technology exists.

Last Wednesday, I went to my friend R.I. Harris. He owns a company called Texas Research. I gave him two names--Raymond H. Carboni and Remo Carboni. He turned on his computer. I looked at my watch. Five minutes later, he found both men in Milford, Connecticut, eight towns up the coast from Stamford. Remo had a listed phone number. Raymond did not.

Harris had simply gotten on his modem and tapped into one of his many expensive databases--this one called "Autotrack," which is a funky combination of white pages and lists of registered voters, licensed drivers, and magazine subscribers. (He says "Autotrack" is only available to registered private investigators, but that a California company called Information Resource Services Company at 1-800-640-4772 sells similar data to anybody.)

Harris then slipped into his computer a compact disc called Street Atlas, available for less than $100 at local stores, and we did an aerial map look at Milford, then zoomed in on Raymond's street.

Five minutes later, I was 16 years old again--back on the phone with Ray's mom, who sounded just as disinterested in hearing from me now as she was when I was calling her house four times a night.

Bridget Carboni, bless her cold Northeastern heart, flatly refused to give me her son's phone number. "I don't feel comfortable doing that without his permission," she said. "If you give me your number, I'll have his wife call you."

So much for surprising the guy.
When I hung up with Darth Mom, my friend Harris warned me not to expect much. "You know, some people just don't want to be found, even if you're an old friend," he said.

Harris knew from experience. As a favor to his old high school in New York City, Harris has used his computer magic to find about 40 fellow alumni. One guy was so enraged to be found that he threatened to sue for invasion of privacy. "You'd think this was pretty innocent stuff, calling about a reunion," Harris says.

Yeah, you'd think.
Late that night, using a phone number that Ray's wife had dutifully called and given to me, I finally talked to my old friend. He was on a business trip outside Philadelphia, staying in a Holiday Inn, and when I called, he had his portable CD player cranked up high. Some things never change.

But other things do.
For one thing, he, too, sounded underwhelmed to hear from me. For the first 15 minutes of the conversation, I could have been the town dogcatcher instead of a good friend who, according to his own damn yearbook note, was not supposed to forget him.  

He dutifully answered my questions--though, for the life of me, I couldn't quite grasp what he did for a living. It had something to do with installing computers that run giant conveyor belts for huge manufacturing companies that flatten steel to make scissor blades and car fenders. "Who'd have thunk it?" he remarked, sounding just like Ray--only many octaves lower and much less frenetic.

He was a workaholic, he said, traveling often for business, sometimes to the Far East. He hadn't taken a vacation since 1985 and was proud of the fact that his wife Anne--a local Stamford girl he met just as we were graduating--didn't have to work. She stayed home with their three kids, ages 14, 10, and 7.

Gradually, he warmed up to the conversation, but I had to work at it. I did get him to laugh a few times--that irritating cackle, which was nice to hear--and, at one point, he said he recognized my laugh, too. "The business-type manner and the voice don't recall anything," he said, "but the laugh goes back."

Finally, I asked him why he hadn't come to the 10-year reunion. "I just had no interest in it," he said, carefully choosing his words. "I had so many mixed feelings about school and everything. It was a time of great changes for me. All the wounds hadn't healed." And now? "Maybe--I don't know--it's stepping up the pace a little bit for me as far as buying the RX-7 and losing 10 pounds," he said, flashing the wit.

When I told him the date, he didn't sound hopeful: He had business trips that would probably cause him to miss it, he said. So we wrapped things up, promising to send photos of ourselves with spouses and kids. Then, remembering he had an unlisted phone, I asked him for his home number.

"My wife specifically asked me not to do that," he said, sounding only slightly embarrassed. Huh? "I don't know, she just made me promise, and I gotta do what the wife says...I mean, I can tell you have a life--that you aren't coming up here to burn any bunnies," he said, referring to that horrid scene in Fatal Attraction where Glenn Close breaks into Michael Douglas' house and boils his daughter's pet rabbit.

My heart sank. This was my reward for going to all this trouble to look up an old friend? With one innocuous phone call, I had become a...maniacal husband-chaser? How could anyone think that?

Ah, well. I could already see my husband rolling his eyes as I described the all-too-predictable results of my obsession du jour.

Well, that's OK. Maybe Ray and the wife will mellow out by our 30th. Heck, I can wait.

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