The close friendship between the 20-something rapper in New York and the 80-something retiree in Florida started with the word p-h-a-t, which is hip-hop slang for excellent.
Rosalind Guttman, 81, was playing Words With Friends, the online Scrabble-like game, and used the word. She had been randomly paired up with Spencer Sleyon, 22, an aspiring rapper and hip-hop producer.
“I was like, yo, how do you know that word?” Sleyon asked her.
And so they started messaging as they played. When that game was over, they played another and another.
Over time, they became gaming partners across the miles, playing more than 300 games starting in the summer of 2016 and found that they were a superb match. They were competitive, but as the games kept coming, a familiarity developed, and soon, an unlikely friendship.
And last week, they met in person in Palm Beach, hugging and smiling like long-lost relatives. Sleyon posted photos on social media, and their friendship instantly became an Internet sensation.
Sleyon doesn’t remember how Guttman knew the word phat. He said he thought she might have just guessed the word.
Guttman declined to comment, saying through an intermediary that she doesn’t know what all the fuss is about and that this is just how people should be toward each other.
Words With Friends lets people play against people they are Facebook friends with or other random people. Everyone has a profile picture up, so their identity is not secret.
“From day one I knew I was playing an old white woman,” Sleyon said. He just wanted to play, he said, and she was a fun sparring partner.
He also enjoyed their side conversations, where they would talk about their lives a bit. He once deleted Words With Friends for a short time and before he signed off he asked her for life advice. “Shoot for the stars,” he recalled her typing. “Whatever you want out of life, just go grab it.”
Their face-to-face meeting happened because of a chance conversation with a pastor in New York.
Sleyon was in his friend Hannah Butler’s living room a couple months ago with some other friends when he told them that he was a friend of an 81-year-old woman who lives in a retirement community in Florida. Hannah’s mother, Amy Butler, is a pastor with the Riverside Church and happened to hear what Sleyon said.
“All of us were like ‘what?’ ” Butler said in an interview. “I found it such a compelling story.”
She wanted to write a sermon about it.
She started thinking about the chance friendship and what she could do to foster it.
After all, the vast world of gaming is almost entirely transactional. It continually connects strangers but rarely presents an opportunity for people to actually get to know each other.
What if she could get them together face-to-face? She asked Sleyon if he’d put her in touch with Guttman.
After a few conversations with Guttman, she asked Sleyon if he would like to take a trip down to Florida with her to meet Guttman.
“I’m all for just experiencing stuff, I was like ‘yeah,’ ” Sleyon said. “I love random occurrences, I thought it was cool I was able to befriend her.”
When the three of them met in the lobby of a hotel in Palm Beach on Thursday evening, Sleyon and Guttman immediately went in for a hug.
“She is hilarious and fabulous,” Butler said. “She’s like a character on ‘The Golden Girls.’ ”
Sleyon said they talked about everything from Words With Friends (he didn’t realize how competitive she felt about their games) to the show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (she said Larry David uses too many curse words this season).
Butler said she feels lucky to be a part of their relationship.
“We’re living in a country divided by fear of the other, and people are longing for ways to connect,” Butler said. “This story has two unlikely people becoming friends. It’s very beautiful and hopeful.”
Sleyon said he plans to continue playing Words With Friends. He and Guttman have three simultaneous games going on, and they have a new way to connect, too: They just became Facebook friends.
Video editor Amber Ferguson contributed to this report.