John-Paul Byrne took a risk by putting a personal ad in the Village Voice, a weekly New York City newspaper, far from his home in Sydney, Australia. Dawn McCombs responded and a long-distance romance ensued.
McCombs and Byrne’s love was kindled by the series of letters, photos, and especially the audio tapes they sent one another - even though they didn’t meet in person for over a year. They recounted their love story in the StoryCorps booth when it was in Columbus.
McCombs’s response to Byrne's ad began: “Hi! I am answering your ad because 1. I am zany, 2. writers with red hair turn me on, and 3. I love Australian accents."
Byrne wrote back. What followed was a long-distance friendship turned courtship. The couple used audio recordings on cassette tapes to feel closer to one another, in an era where long distance phone calls were too expensive and Skype was nonexistent.
“I remember when I got that first tape, and listening to it in my Walkman, and hearing your voice for the first time," McCombs said. "It was really, I was just very excited about that."
Byrne sent her recordings of his daily walks throughout Sydney, complete with commentary. When she finally heard his voice, McCombs couldn’t help but feel pleased. “I really liked your accent, I remember especially,” she said.
She also sent tapes documenting her life in New York City. “I definitely felt I was projected into this real, very different environment,” Byrne said about hearing the hustle and bustle of the city.
These recorded soundscapes helped the couple connect and communicate in a very personal way. Countless tapes made their way back and forth throughout that first year. There were a lot.
“Enough that I couldn’t even count, probably a couple of dozen," Byrne said.
Photos, at times, accompanied the tapes and letters.
“I think you just sent me one picture of yourself," McCombs reflects. "And that was black and white, you were in a photo booth and you had a banana peel on your head."
“I think I just wanted to be goofy. And I happened to have eaten a banana,” Byrne explains. “I liked it,” McCombs admits.
McCombs sent a few photos of her own artsy inclination: a building she liked, or inanimate objects in the snow. She said those made her connection with Byrne that much stronger.
“I definitely in that year of corresponding with you, fell in love with you," McCombs said. "I’d never had that experience before where I had gotten to know someone so well over the course of a year but hadn’t even met them in person."
Byrne put one, and only one, personal ad in the Village Voice. And McCombs responded to one, and only one, ad: Byrne’s.
She remembers that she circled his ad, and then placed the paper in a pile with other Village Voice issues. She’d forgotten about it, until one day when she accidentally toppled the stack. The issue with Byrne’s message fell to the floor, opened to the page with his advertisement.
“It’s just the idea that all of that had to come together makes me feel like this was meant to be,” McCombs said. Byrne agrees.
“It was like the proverbial message in the bottle,” he said. “It was all very random.”
At the time, he was studying artists that did random acts, and decided to do something a little uncharacteristic. “That ad in the Village Voice was a good example of me doing that,” he explains.
“Well, I’m glad you did,” McCombs says.
Dawn McCombs and John-Paul Byrne were recorded in the StoryCorps booth during its recent trip to Columbus.