I can’t say I never meet a stranger; I meet them on a weekly basis. Not on purpose, but thanks to my inability to recognize people for who they are – or aren’t.
If I see you every week in Walmart, as you ring up my groceries or work the customer service counter, I won’t recognize you if I see you anywhere else. On the flip side, I often see people from other settings, at Walmart when I’m shopping. But I don’t know how I know them, and they don’t know how they know me, because we are in a different environment. The scenario’s always the same.
We exchange glances, as our grocery carts roll past each other. We back up, smile, and simultaneously say, “Hello.” Then we gaze at each other, while rapidly shuffling through our cerebral card catalogues to try to figure out the connection. Then begins the interview.
“Do you have kids in school here?” I ask.
“Yes,” they often answer. A glimmer of hope is shed on the mystery, until they add, “they’re in elementary school.”
“Oh, my son’s older,” I reply.
Because I work for a weight loss company, I can’t ask if they’re one of my customers; that could prove embarrassing, and an invasion of privacy if other customers were to overhear us. So, we continue.
“Are you a teacher?” they often ask.
“No. Do you have a special needs child?”
“No. Do you go to the local rotary meetings?”
“No. Where do you go to church? Where do you eat out? Where do you get your oil changed? Are you an elected official?”
It’s the equivalent of verbal stalking, but it’s mutual. Finally, I allude to my workplace, with just enough vagueness. “Do you attend any health related meetings or events?” I ask.
Bingo. Forty-five percent of the time, we know each other from my workplace. The other 55 percent, we know each other from shopping at, of course, Walmart. But when I’m not in Walmart, the game gets trickier. Weddings, parties, community events; those throw me into the deluxe edition of Where in the World is My Connection to You?
Even after I discover from where I know someone, I’ll most likely not remember his or her name. Some people, normal people, might ask, "I’m sorry, what was your name?" or simply not worry about their name. But not I. Nope. I jump in with both feet, blurting out a name.
“Oh sorry. You look like someone I know named Debbie,” I lie, so the person won’t feel insignificant, forgotten, completely unmemorable.
Or I’ll give the nameless person a multiple-choice round in the Name Game.
“Frank? Gregory? Carlton? Bartholomew? Light Beam?” Hey, if I’m going to humiliate myself, yet again, I might as well get creative.
Somehow, in my circle of friends, I’ve become the Name Seeker. Countless times, in social situations, they will whisper in my ear things such as, “See that girl in the red dress? What is her name? I can’t remember.”
In those cases, I walk up to the unidentified person and say, “I’m sorry. What is your name, again?” They politely oblige, and I return to my friends to give the report. It’s over that quickly and painlessly. Knowing I’m not the only person in the room with name amnesia gives me the confidence to ask a direct question.
But when I’m on my own, like clockwork, I contort my faux pas, until at least one of my feet is firmly lodged in my mouth. Recently, at a funeral, I saw my friends Dolly and Marty, a couple of ladies I'd gone to church with for decades; they’re like extended family. As we walked to the grave site, I hugged both of them, then saw a woman with the most beautiful white and silver hair. It was unmistakable; seeing only the back of her head, I knew it was Joanne, another friend of mine, as well as one of Dolly’s and Marty’s sidekicks.
I walked up behind her, and gave her a hug.
"I don't know you, but thanks for the hug," the stranger said, as she turned towards me, in response to my affection.
I was stunned.
“This is Pebbles,” Marty said, trying to graciously intervene as I crashed and burned.
"Oh, I thought you were my friend Joanne," I explained to Pebbles. At that point, I could’ve stopped talking. But, I’ve got verbal inertia – a sentence, or a barrage of questions, in motion tends to stay in motion. "Do you know Joanne?" I continued.
"No, I don't know her."
"Oh, well, she hangs out with Dolly and Marty, so I thought you might know her. Do you go to church with Marty and Dolly?"
“Yes, I do.”
“Oh, that’s where I probably know you from; my mom went there. I probably saw you when I visited there, or at Mom’s funeral,” I lied. I’d never seen the unsuspecting woman before.
Two weeks later, I went to the county courthouse to pay my property taxes early one morning. I pulled a number from a little machine, like we used to do in Baskin-Robbins while we waited our turn to order ice cream. But paying for ice cream didn’t hurt as much as paying taxes. I looked around the room, then decided to sit on the church-pew-like bench at the front of the room. After scrolling through Facebook for about three minutes, I glanced up at the lady next to me. I saw the most beautiful white and silver hair. It was unmistakable. But before I could hug, the lady turned to face me. It was Pebbles.
“Oh hi, Pebbles,” I said, impressed that I’d remembered her name for more than a day. “I’m the stranger who hugged you at a funeral the other day.”
“Oh yes,” she replied. “I remember you.”
Of course she did. Because how do you forget a random hug in a cemetery?
A few days ago, I saw Dolly and the real Joanne at a local high school musical. When I related my story about seeing Pebbles again, Dolly replied, “That’s okay. Last night, we were meeting Joanne and her husband for dinner. When we walked in, I saw Joanne, and thought nothing of it since they always arrive early. As we approached the table, I realized it was, in fact, Pebbles.” It was confirmation that Pebbles and Joanne are, in fact, hair twins.
On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I ran into HEB while Flash and Cowboy waited in the car. It was an NFL playoff day, so my goal was to make it to first and ten, the deli, before the crowd hit. I was running my cart down the aisles – 20 yards, 40 yards, past the 50 yard line – when I spied a familiar face as I raced past it. I backed up, looked directly into the man’s eyes, and he nodded his head.
“Jeremy?” I asked.
Again he nodded. Flash and I had texted him several days earlier, to no avail. I looked deeply into his eyes, shook his hand, and lingered with my hand still holding his, as I asked, “How are you feeling?” The last time he’d texted me back, he’d been very ill.
“I’m doing good,” he answered.
“Good,” I replied. And then I waited. Just staring at him. Boring holes into his soul.
Why is he not addressing our last text messages? Why is he not bringing up the problem we’re trying to work out with him? I thought to myself.
Finally, I broke the silence. “So, what do we need to do?”
“What?” he asked.
“What are we going to do about getting our free products that were promised?” It had been months since we’d done business with Jeremy, and we still hadn’t received our bonus products for purchasing a home appliance from him.
He had a strange look on his face.
Surely he’s not going to pretend he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I thought. Thinking perhaps he didn’t realize who I was, I explained, “I’m Kim Lindquist.”
“I know who you are,” he said, smiling. I was appalled that he was still not discussing the problem.
“You’re Jeremy, right?”
“No. I’m Tim.”
Obviously, he hadn’t heard me say “Jeremy” at the beginning of this catastrophe. And clearly, he knew me, but my head was swimming as I wondered how on earth I knew poor falsely accused Tim.
“Tim…” I repeated.
“From the tire shop down the street. You’ve been in there a lot, and I remember you.”
I can’t fully describe my feelings, dear reader, over having misidentified yet again. And in such a monumentally horrific way. As soon as he said “tire shop,” I recognized him from that setting.
“Oh my gosh, Tim. Yes, of course. I thought you were this guy we did business with, but we’ve had some trouble with follow-through.” I spared him the full story, and stuck with the Cliff Notes version, then added, “Y’all look so much alike, you could be brothers.”
We chatted for a few minutes, then I told him to have a great day. As I walked away, I turned back and said, “Next time I see Jeremy, I’ll probably think he’s you.” We both laughed, but then Jeremy’s face popped into my head. They look nothing alike. Except they’re about the same height, and have dark hair.
The look on my face said it all, as I got into the car. When Flash asked what took so long, I said, “Oh, the humanity. It’s just too painful to talk about yet,” as I winced.
And so it goes. All the time. I speak first, and look closer after the damage is done. Although, over the years, I’ve learned to make sure it’s Flash I’m about to kiss in public or hold hands with. It can get tricky when we’re at a function where every man is wearing a dark suit, but after one too many grabbing-the-wrong-arm incidents, I’ve learned to wait until I see the whites of Flash’s eyes before I make my moves.
Life would be easier, and less humiliating, if every person on earth wore a name tag listing their full name, place of employment, and any community events, restaurants, churches, pharmacies, or stores they frequent. It would take out all the guess work. And I’d save a lot of face. But, then, where would the sense of adventure be? I suppose I could start guessing everyone’s ages, instead.