SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 26, 2017

Where Everyone Knows Your Name, Goddammit

 

“Jimmy! Hey, Jimmy!”

            I was on my way to the bank Saturday morning to deposit a much-needed check. It was just a few days after that mid-March snowstorm, so I was concentrating on maintaining my footing on the deadly and treacherous ice-slick sidewalks and ignored the voice ahead of me. Whoever it was, he was undoubtedly talking to someone else. He was probably on his damn phone anyway.

            Then he was directly in front of me. “It’s Jimmy, right?”

            I stopped. “Pardon?”

            “It’s Jimmy, right? It’s Jerry.” My brain spun around twice before I finally latched onto it.

            “Jerry the Pediatric Dentist?”

            “Yeah!” He grabbed my hand and shook it firmly. I wrote about him a couple of weeks ago, having learned his name and a bit about his childhood as he insisted on helping me across the street.

            “Hey, you better be careful,” he warned. “It’s real icy out here.” For some reason more people than usual had been stopping me on the street in the aftermath of the storm to inform me it was icy. Did they think I hadn’t noticed? “Yeah,” he went on. “I took a real header a couple days ago. Landed on my left elbow. I’m still feeling it. But I guess I’ll make it, right?”

            “I certainly hope so,” I offered. He shook my hand again, went on his way, and I crossed the street to the bank.

            Once I was inside four employees called me by name (though in the bank they call me “James”). Two days earlier I was climbing over a small mountain of icy snow to get to the drug store when another woman called me “Mr. Knipfel” while telling me to be careful. I nearly lost my footing at that and rolled back into the street. Who the fuck knew my name over there? Turned out it was the chief pharmacist. But how the hell she remembered my name I’ll never know, given I try to avoid going into that fucking drug store whenever possible, and hadn’t had a prescription filled in over a year.

            She took my arm, helped me over the snow onto the sidewalk, then informed me the store wasn’t open yet. She then helped me get back to the crosswalk, and shouted helpful instructions at me from across the street for half a block.

            Earlier this afternoon, I was having a smoke on the front stoop when I heard someone banging on the inside of the first floor apartment window. “hi Jim!” (BAMBAMBAM!) “hi Jim!” a small and muffled voice shouted. It was Christina, our downstairs neighbors’ two-year-old daughter.

            It was then I began thinking of how unnerving I found it that suddenly so many people in this neighborhood were calling me by name.

            Not that long ago I think I mentioned what an accomplishment it seemed, after living there seven years, to finally reach the point where four people on the block knew my name. Now, however, just over the course of a few short weeks, I go into the damn grocery store and the manager and checkout girls call me “Jim.” Once or twice a week I step outside and the drunk four doors down shouts “Hey, Jimbo!” from his own stoop. Even the small Asian woman who delivers the mail calls me “Mr. Jim” (Asians always call me “Mr. Jim”). Al, a veteran clerk at the main post office down here, not only knows my name, but my mom’s too. In fact I think he was the first one around here to start calling me by name, simply because he was fascinated by the whole idea of Green Bay. And now complete strangers, toddlers and pediatric dentists are getting in on the act, and it’s starting to freak me out. For godsakes, the Middle Eastern guy who runs the fruit stand on the corner has gotten into the habit of running outside and giving me a big hug whenever I pass on the sidewalk.

            I have made no efforts toward this end. It’s not like I go around glad-handing and back-slapping and introducing myself to people, far from it. The problem is when people ask my name, I’m not fast enough on my feet to introduce myself as “Omar Akhmed” or “Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.” No, I just say “Jim,” and they remember, damn them anyhow. Who the hell ever remembers a name like “Jim”?

            Not that I suspect these people of anything sinister, paranoid as I tend to be. It’s a very insular neighborhood, and they’re just being neighborly. But after so many years of trying to remain completely invisible, of keeping my mouth shut and handling all transactions in cash to maintain that safe cloak of anonymity, it’s unsettling. It only occurred to me now that for all the places I’ve lived, not since I was a kid in Green Bay have I resided in a place where so many people have learned my name. Maybe it helps explain why so many of them are resurrecting those early schoolyard variations like “Jimbo” and “Jimmy,” which is another reason to keep my last name a secret.

            Yes, there’s something pleasant and homey about being recognized and called by name by people who are just being friendly, but there’s also, from my perspective anyway, something a touch too invasive and revealing about it. It’s impossible to go about your business quietly and invisibly when some damn pediatric dentist is shouting your name from a block away, or the elderly Ruth Gordon type around the corner stops you to give you the latest update on her new dog, or the Asian mail lady chases you down two blocks away from the apartment to tell you you have a package. It leaves me pining for the olden days in Park Slope where my neighbors not only didn’t know my name, but made it perfectly clear they despised me. It’s so much easier that way. I miss simply being “buddy” or “chief” or “sir” or “my friend.” When you’re simply “buddy,” you have no obligations, as no one really knows anything about you.

            The ironic thing is, for all the people down here who suddenly know my name and make a point of acknowledging my presence, it was one of the few couples on this block who still don’t know my name who backed their car into me hard while I was just tapping my way home from the grocery store this morning, prompting me to break my cane across their car’s rear window. Now I need to get a new fucking cane.

 

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