© 2022 Robert Sickles
Jean Shepherd (writer of A Christmas Story, for example) told a story on his old radio show about having been struck by lightning on three separate occasions. Incredible! I think Shepherd’s story-telling is tops, but I have a three-times-happened-to-me situation that comes right out of my true story files.
I have been mistaken, vividly and emphatically, for another person at three different times in my life. Each time it happens, my peace of mind goes sideways—I hope this doesn’t keep occurring or I may end up in some sort of crisis!
Déjà vu, which is a familiar concept or experience to most people, is the feeling that you’ve been through the present situation before. What I’ve experienced is, in a way, the opposite of that—I know who I am, but people insist, almost convincingly, that I’m someone else. I understand there’s a psychological phenomenon called, in French, jamais vu or “never seen,” that is, finding that a person, yourself or a situation is unfamiliar while it should be very familiar. I’d call this disorienting feeling the opposite of déjà vu!
The 1st Time. Neah Bay
While hiking in the Olympics with my roommate Jake one August, we were heading back to the trailhead when we encountered a young man coming the other way on the trail. He beamed out a big smile “Oh man, Rob, what a treat to see you here!” He didn’t look particularly familiar or unfamiliar. I had met so many campers and hikers over the week. I went along with it and assumed I’d met him briefly and he had my name slightly wrong (I went by Bob then).
I reached out to shake his hand but he had both arms out and he closed in for a full-on hug. I said something generic like “Yeah, wow, man! Good to see you, too!” I glanced at Jake and mouthed, “Do you know this guy?” He shook his head. There was more about how incredible it was to find me there, and that he had no idea I was even in this part of the country. I was getting uneasy, but by this point, embarrassed to suggest the fellow had me confused with someone else.
Then our mystery guy pulled me in for another long bear hug and said he was going to Neah Bay later on that day for Makah Days, and hoped I’d be there at Michael’s party so we could have a chance to catch up. “Everyone is going to be there and I know Michael would love to see you again.”
Again, I made eye contact with Jake, mouthing “Who’s Michael? What's a Makah?” Jake could see I needed to be rescued, so suggested it was time to get to the trailhead and pack our car for home. I couldn’t shake the weird feeling that maybe I did know him and that it would be rude to ignore the invitation to Neah Bay. We had no plans for the rest of the day so I said to Jake, “Crikey, I guess we have to go to Neah Bay.” Jake did his Hindu head-bobble and gestured "OK" with both thumbs up.
When we reached Neah Bay, the celebration on the Makah Indian reservation was underway. We cheered for canoe races, enjoyed alder smoked salmon and corn bread cooked on beach fires, clapped time for the women dancing, and tried to fathom the elder’s stick gambling game. The event strengthens the bond among members of the community and reunites those who have moved away. It is worth the long drive to the northwesternmost corner of the State to visit Makah Days, to learn about their culture and support their pride.
Toward evening we cruised the streets looking for something that looked like it could be Michael’s party, eventually spotting a second-floor apartment with a bunch of people that had spilled out onto the balcony and steps. Jake said “If that’s not Michael’s, we might as well go in anyway, music’s good and looks like a good time… I could use a beer.”
After asking around, we learned it was indeed Michael’s party, and we entered to a full room and a welcoming chorus of “Yay, Rob’s here!” I didn't see a single familiar face. What episode of Twilight Zone was I in? Our friendly guy from the hiking trail spotted us from the kitchen. He smiled and gestured “wait a second” and I assume he went to look for Michael.
Jake was grinning. He’d grabbed a beer from an ice chest and was nodding with the music and looking like he was about to go mix in with a group of partiers. I nudged him, “Don't wander away... you remember why we're here, right? You look like you're enjoying yourself. Nice crowd, huh? Do you notice anything special about this party?” I was referring to the fact that all the folks were men, some were dancing hip to hip and a couple were making out in the hall.
Jake stopped sipping his beer and looked around. “Ohhh,” he said, then inhaled, puffed his cheeks and slowly blew out a silent whistle. He said “Wow, no, I did not catch on. What do you want to do, wait to meet this Michael?”
“Nah, let’s go,” I nodded toward the door. I had let this fraud go too far. This was not a party of our friends. I didn’t want to embarrass and disappoint a bunch of people and myself by revealing I was an imposter!
As we drove out of town, I watched the scenery from the passenger seat. “That was a trip! But do you think we should have waited to meet Michael?”
Jake replied “Yeah, maybe. That would have been something. I wonder if the real Rob ever showed up!” and we laughed over and over.
From the vantage of 50 years later, I can see how I could have graciously corrected the mistake and stayed a little longer. After all, it was a nice party with interesting people. And, did I actually know Michael somehow… or was it jamais vu?
[Cue The Twilight Zone theme]
The 2nd Time. My Own Apartment
For a while I lived alone in a cozy upstairs apartment close to downtown Seattle. It was an old early-century home that had been divided into 5 apartments. The building was the last vestige of a Seattle residential street, now in a semi-urban commercial area. The ground floor entrance to the building was an unlocked foyer, so with regularity I had all sorts of people climbing the stairs and coming to my door. If you remember the Soupy Sales show or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a part of the programs was a knocking on the door by the occasional visitor that brought zaniness or variety into the show—clowns, cops, silly people, a puppet, the mailman. This was like my life then.
Eventually, I had several reasons for moving out of that place, but the weird stuff happening with other residents of the area topped the list. I kept a diary of the “evening callers” I received during one typical week: a pair of runaway pre-teenagers asking if they could crash in the hall outside my door; two unkempt drunk men with thick accents demanding beer and sandwiches; a very scary fellow from downstairs insisting to know why I was spying on him through his light fixture; a young woman selling magazine subscriptions who responded to my “no thanks” by unbuttoning her blouse and offering herself; a pair of giddy young guys from next door dressed in drag asking me if I wanted to go to a party at Miss Titi Galore’s salon; an apparent would-be robber trying to jimmy my lock with a butter knife; and a slick dude who insisted Carlos told him there was a kilo for him at my address. My reaction to these visitors became routine: Open the door, take a look, roll my eyes, shut the door.
Then there was the guy who showed up with a pile of wet laundry, saying “Hey, Guy, (he said it French style, like GEE) remember me? Is it all right if I use your clothes dryer now?”
This one seemed to require a little conversation. “I don’t have a dryer and my name’s not Guy,” I replied, “wrong place, buddy.” He scowled, then tried the same spiel again, but irritated and louder. I waved him away and closed the door.
A while later he showed up again and got right into it. “Don’t tell me you’re not Guy! You are Guy, dammit, and you said to bring my laundry over! We talked about this at Todd's, how can you forget?!” He seemed about to go off the deep end, all for the sake of drying his towels and underwear.
I had to defuse this mess—he was very frustrated. “No, man, I’m serious, I’m not Guy. I don't know who Todd is, and I’ve never seen you before!” I tried to close the door but he was standing in the way. "And I really don't have a clothes dryer!" I told him to go the laundromat around the corner and he finally gave up, cussing and kicking at something on his way.
A few days later I was shopping for groceries at the corner store. The old guy at the register scolded me, “You! You pay cash, or get out!” and pointed indignantly to an NSF-stamped check taped under his counter. It was written and signed by somebody named Guy whatever. I protested and showed my ID but it would not satisfy him, so I left my goods on the counter and walked away. Screwiest neighborhood I’ve ever lived in.
Who the hell was this Guy guy? And there it was again, jamais vu!
The 3rd Time. The Wedding.
A dear friend’s son was to be married one summer day. I arrived very early to help with flowers and decorations. This was at the home of one of the bride-to-be’s relatives, and it was the first time I had met any of her family. Within a short time of my arrival, a lady I’d never met walked up to me and poked me on the chest and said “Wow, I wasn’t expecting to see you here this early, how nice!” I thought that was a little odd, but I shrugged and went about my chores.
Then another person called out “Hey, I thought you couldn’t come until after the ceremony! Change your plans, Steve?” Now this was getting weird. But I still wasn’t sure—did I somehow meet this family before? And what's with calling me Steve?
A third stranger comes up to me "Wow, how's it going, old boy? Haven't seen you since the last wedding! When was that... couple of years ago?" I didn't know how to respond and just nodded and smiled. Here it goes again, so disconcerting—jamais vu!
I went to the bride and diplomatically suggested some of her family might have me confused with someone else. “Oh, my God,” she said, “You do look so much like Uncle Steve! Mom, come here! Doesn’t he look just like Steve!” After they introduced me around to the incredulous guests as “Robert, not Uncle Steve” I heard it over and over that I was a dead ringer for Steve. I was very curious to meet my double.
After the wedding service, as everyone had expected, Uncle Steve finally arrived. I went over and joked with him about what had been going on all morning. “Everyone says we’re look-alikes!” Steve and I took a look at each other. I suggested “Big head, nice hair, round nose, pudgy around the waist?”
“Uh-uh” he said flatly, “I don’t see it. They’re all nuts.” End of conversation.
Nevertheless, it came up again. I started to chat with another guest, he acted distracted, shook his head and grinned, delighted to have seen it for himself. “You're Robert? Gee, it’s true, you really look so much like Steve!”
What else could I say but “Oh, really? How funny!”
Now I wonder if Uncle Steve is out there somewhere hearing the compliment, "Oh my God, I thought you were Robert!"
By the way, it was the nicest wedding I’d ever been to… with the exception of my own, of course!
This post is dedicated to one of America's best humor and social commentary writers and entertainers, Jean Shepherd.