My wife, when she was a child, used to think that her Uncle Ken had an amazing number of friends. This was because he was a polite driver. He frequently thanked other drivers for their courtesy with a jaunty wave of the right hand. She thought he kept waving at someone he knew.
On my way to the supermarket the other evening, a man in a small car was in front of me. He looked in his rearview mirror and then, Uncle Ken-like, waved at me. Since I hadn't been unusually courteous to him (unless you count my being careful not to rear-end him), I thought he must be a friend. So, naturally, I waved back.
But then I thought: I don't know who he is. For a moment or two I thought he might be Eddie, our Italian-Glaswegian neighbor, but I was as immediately unsure. If it was Eddie, he had evidently sold his state-of-the-art Merc and replaced it with one of those many small vehicles of Japanese manufacture among which it is increasingly hard to differentiate. Small-car design seems to converge toward standard similarity. I couldn't tell you what precise make the waver's car was.
He drove into the supermarket parking lot, and I followed suit in my own small Japanese car. Thirty feet away from each other we de-carred simultaneously and then glanced at each other.
"Ah, sorry about that," he said, grinning amiably. "I thought you were a friend of mine. You look very like him."
"Oh," I said, and laughed, "I don't mind at all being waved at by strangers."
We strolled into the store together. "When I lived in the Yorkshire Dales some years ago," I said, "I often used to pass, almost always on the same steep bend, a farmer on a tractor. First time I passed him, I thought I knew him and waved. A mite puzzled, he waved back. Ever after that - though neither of us knew the other from Adam - we waved as we passed. We became hard and fast waving acquaintances."
"Well," said my new waving acquaintance, "I'll know you next time!" And we went our separate ways.
Come to think of it, that expression "I don't know him from Adam" is strange and ridiculous. If one had ever actually met Adam (highly unlikely), then at least there would be a point of comparison.
One could then justifiably say to someone who bore a passing resemblance, "I don't know you from Adam, I'm afraid. You do look terribly like him, though, and I should perhaps warn you that this does not bode well for your gardening career, if you happen to have one. At the very least you should be scrupulously careful of snakes coiled around tree trunks."
I joined the short line at the check out. So did Waving Man, just behind me. "We meet again," he said, and chuckled.
"I should tell you," I said, "that there was a time a few years back when I kept being mistaken for other people. They would come up to me in the street and hail me as a long-lost friend called Timothy or John - that sort of thing. It would take a moment or two to extricate myself from sudden Timothyness or Johnhood."
"Dear, dear," he replied, "and you thought you had a distinctive face!"
"Oh, I gave up on that one long since!"
Actually, as an indulger in amateur dramatics, I find that the ability not to be recognizable has its uses. It helps one to disappear into a character. I discovered I was better at doing this than I imagined when I played a humorless and pompous Yorkshireman in J.B. Priestley's comedy, "When We Are Married."
One night, two friends of mine happened to attend the play in the same row. One was Nurse Elizabeth from the allotments - the community garden where everyone knows everyone. The other was an artist from the East Coast who had spent some time sketching at the allotments and in the process had come to know more than a few of the plotters. Her name is Lynne.
In the intermission Elizabeth spotted Lynne, and Lynne spotted Elizabeth. Elizabeth said (aiming for a mutual subject), "I haven't seen Chris for a while down at the plots. I think he must be away or doing something else."
Lynne looked at her with a touch of disbelief. "He could be doing some acting," she suggested. "You do realize that you have been watching him on stage for the last hour?"
Elizabeth had not realized.
Naturally, I love this flattering story.
After the supermarket's economic negotiations were over, and the purchases bagged, the Waver and I headed for our cars together.
On the way, I told him another story of a friend who had been recognized by an acquaintance - to the acquaintance's giant surprise. The acquaintance had come out of a building in the town center just as my friend was going past.
The acquaintance looked aghast - even, perhaps, paling slightly. "John!" he exclaimed (my friend really is named John). "Good grief! John! I was at your funeral on Tuesday."
Apparently it was the wrong funeral. Friend John was hale, hearty, and living in Glasgow. Both of them wondered whose funeral it could have been.
We were now at the Waver's car, or almost. "My wife," he said, "was in a public building and that soprano... What's her name? Oh yes - " and he named a well-known soprano (now retired), though I will keep her anonymous " - walked in. And a man went up to her and said, 'You do look very like that soprano' - naming her name, you know."
Apparently the famed singer had smiled with all due modesty and said "No, really?" This proved to be a tactical mistake.
The Waver continued: " 'Yes, yes,' the man said. 'You really look extremely like her.' And then he added: 'Well - I hope you sing better than she did.'
Clearly there are advantages to not being recognized, or at least not being mistaken for oneself.
Getting into his car, my new pal said, "Very nice to have met you, anyway."
"Likewise," I said. Giving him a wave, of course.