One of my co-workers has taken to calling me “Keith,” which is interesting because that isn’t my name. To my knowledge, that has never been my name, and at this point in my life, it’s probably never going to be my name.
This started quite a while ago, and it took a few instances of it happening for me to finally realize what exactly was going on. This co-worker in question is probably in their 70s—only working a few days a week, for a few hours in the morning, and after I realized what was going on, I just didn’t have the heart to correct them. I didn’t want to have that conversation with them, so I was hoping it’d just work itself out.
But it hasn’t.
Where I work, we wear nametags; all of us. Every single person, whether they are at the very top of the company hierarchy, or the very bottom, wears a piece of cardstock in a little plastic sleeve, attached to their body. My nametag doesn’t say “Keith.” It says my name. My name is still Kevin.
I walk past this person countless times during their shift, with my nametag dangling from around the lanyard digging into my neck. The word “Kevin,” in big, bold letters moves in front of their face.
I am still Keith.
I sat through a three-hour meeting at work, and this person in question—they also were in this very same meeting, sitting at the same table. I offered up responses to discussions, and was called upon by the meeting’s facilitator. “Kevin,” the facilitator would say. “What do you think of this?” or “What would you do in this situation, Kevin?”
Perhaps I was naïve to think that being called by my name, in front of this person, for THREE HOURS, would passively take care of this situation—but it hasn’t.
I am still Keith.
* * *
I have this problem. I guess it’s not even really a problem. It’s not a talent or a skill. It’s neither bad, nor is it inherently good. It’s a thing. I have this thing, and that thing is that, in most cases, I remember faces, I remember names, and in some situations, I remember somewhat obscure or seemingly trivial details about a person.
It doesn’t even have to be the face and/or the name of somebody I spent a great deal of time with; this trait of mine applies to just about anyone I encounter. If I sold you a book once or twice during my tenure as a bookstore employee1, if I hassled you about buying advertising back when I was an ‘advertising sales representative’ for an awful free publication no one gave a shit about, if I interviewed you for story when I was writing for the newspaper—there’s a good chance that I remember you.
And there’s an even better chance that you, more than likely, don’t remember me at all.
* * *
I received a Facebook message a number of months ago from an area author, alerting me to the fact that they had a new novel coming out in the first portion of 2018.
This person were telling me this because, around three years prior, I had interviewed them for a piece in the newspaper regarding their other book, a memoir, and the subsequent award it was nominated for. They were reaching out to see if their publisher could mail me an Advance Reader Copy of this new novel, presumably so I would either review it, or use it to come up with interview questions for another profile in the paper.
“Funny story,” I began my response to this author. “I don’t work for the newspaper anymore. I haven’t for, like, over a year.”
An even funnier story, though, is the one I chose to keep to myself—a few hours before the message had been sent, I had rung up a transaction for this very same person during my shift that day at the bookstore.
The funniest story, though, is all of the times I’ve seen this person in the local coffee shop and they haven’t looked up from their work to acknowledge me—or if they have looked up, and in my direction, have given no indication they knew who I was.
How could I possibly be all of these people—the person who once wrote for the newspaper, the person who once worked in a bookstore, and the person who refills a thermal mug with coffee and then pours half the thing of sugar into it?
How can I be all of these people, and have done all of those things, and expect someone else to follow along, remembering who I am?
It’s not surprising that in a town this size that touts itself as ‘liberal,’ ‘affluent,’ and ‘artistic,’ there is a rather large cross section of people who shopped at both the bookstore where I used to work, as well as at the food cooperative that I have worked in for the last year and a half.
Of that cross section, only a handful of people put it together—that I was the same person from both places. Are the rest of them just not choosing to acknowledge that they recognize me from elsewhere, or is it because I work in service based jobs that I am merely ‘the help.’ Am I reduced to the man who sold them the book they heard about on National Public Radio? Do I become the man who stocked out the green kale that they purchase because they read something in ‘The Times’ about how they should be eating more of it?
* * *
I keep the whole ‘Keith’ thing to myself for a long time before I mention it offhandedly in conversation with other co-workers. They laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing, and I’m quick to snap at them with, “IT’S NOT FUNNY.”
“Yes it is,” one of them responds without missing a beat, waving their hand dismissively at my presumably feigned outrage over the situation.
“You don’t look like a ‘Keith,’” I’m told by more than one person, and I guess that is supposed to be comforting. It is, to an extent, but it leaves me wondering what does a ‘Keith’ look like?
And if I don’t look like a ‘Keith,’ do I even look like a ‘Kevin’?
Some of my co-workers attempt to console me with similar tales. “Don’t worry about it, man,” I’m told by one of them, who explains that he called one of the clerks at the municipal liquor store the wrong name for a very, very long time, and only discovered his mistake after overhearing someone ahead of him in line using the correct name.
“You let me call you the wrong name for five years?” he asked this clerk, to which she responded, “I just didn’t have the heart to correct you.”
Another co-worker tells me that when she was in college, a fellow student took to calling her ‘Megan’ as they passed one another on walks to and from class. Similar to my situation, her name has never been Megan.
“Hi Megan,” she’d say, until my co-worker stopped her and said, “I have something to tell you. My name’s not Megan.”
I guess the person in question found the whole thing hilarious in the end, but for some reason, I suspect my story would not conclude in laughter if I ever found it in my heart to explain that I am not Keith, and given the way things are going, I’m never going to be Keith.
* * *
Long before I started working in the produce department at the co-op, and I was simply just a customer, the staff referred to me as ‘cilantro guy,’ because I would almost always ask one of them to go into the back room and bring up fresher, less wilted cilantro. One of them eventually asked me why I bought so much of it, or why I needed the very best they had, and I told them it was for my companion rabbit.
Then I became ‘rabbit guy.’
Once I was hired, I joked the only reason I got the job was so that I would no longer have to hassle anyone for better cilantro—I could just go into the cooler and get it myself.
I had never really considered it before, but our names, whether we want them to or not, wind up becoming important to us, and
maybe we wind up taking them for granted until we find ourselves being called something, or someone else. I didn’t think that I had some kind of Arthur Miller-esque2, or even a Marlo Stanfield3 level need for people to ‘remember my name,’ but maybe I do.
I shouldn’t expect anybody else to have the kind of idiosyncratic capacity for remembering faces and names the way I do, but the simple acknowledgement of, ‘yes, I know you from someplace else,’ while a possibly trifling nicety, is comforting never the less.
I’m called many names at work—whether you want them or not, nicknames are a big thing there. Shortly after I started, a woman in another department began to address me as ‘K. Dogg’; a girl from the front end greets me as ‘Kev Dogg Millionaire’; the receiving clerk, unprompted and without much explanation as to why, branded me as ‘Kevy Cakes.’
And, much to my chagrin, I am still called Keith.
1- From August 2008 until the bitter end in May 2009, when the store shuttered thanks to the economic crisis, I worked at River City Books. In July 2014, I started working at a bookstore again—named Monkey See, Monkey Read. In November of the same year, the business was sold to a new owner, moved to a new location, and rebranded as Content. I somehow managed to last there until November of 2017 when I was unceremoniously let go.
2- In almost every Arthur Miller play, the male protagonist is concerned with leaving behind a legacy and name that needs to be remembered.
3- Marlo Stanfield is introduced as a very young rising drug kingpin in the third season of “The Wire.” During a very volatile discussion with his cohorts, uses titular phrase from this essay.
Keith Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog, Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the Southern Minn Scene magazine for roughly three years. His writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, Spectrum Culture, and in River Valley Woman. His presence on Twitter, much like his writing, is ‘disturbing and mean,’ as well as ‘irritatingly ambiguous’: @KevEFly.
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