Mistaken Names I have Been Called By Customers*†
*All “customers” & their calls have been fictionalized for the purpose of this story.
- Kim (From Kimberly, originally male usage, meaning “king’s meadow”) – Sometimes my customers call me Kim, mistaking me for my co-worker who also handles the incoming calls—even though we both recite our names in greeting. Sometimes Kim & I plot on how to use this confusion to our advantage, like some classic noir like Laura or North By Northwest. Except we imagine that we are smarter, that our aims are smaller and a mistaken identity can only benefit us in a mild, good way & leave our previously confident customers bewildered, self-doubting.
- Shelly (meaning “meadow on a ledge”) – A male customer calls in, his voice smooth, demanding, quiet. Despite my introduction, he proceeds to call me Shelly every other sentence. ‘I have a question, Shelly. Can you email me the inventory numbers? Shelly, I need the numbers for 2011 and ’12. Do you think you can do that? Do you know what I’m talking about, Shelly?’ As I let him listen to the sound of his own voice, waiting for the pause in his questions, I remember the scene in Sunset Blvd. in Sheldrake’s office, where he calls Betty the wrong name repeatedly while asking for paperwork. Like Sheldrake, this customer was too busy getting what he needed to pay attention to anything else. Like Betty, I glided calmly out of his life once he hung up the phone.
- Allison (Diminutive of Alice which means “noble”) – Allison; Elizabeth. One is a full syllable longer, though I guess with the hurried, mumblefuck way I sometimes speak, I could see where a less attentive person could have misheard. Maybe. Since the customer only calls me this once, I don’t get too upset. My memory sparks, my idle mind eager for something to play with. I remember “Allison Rd.,” Dorothy Allison. As I hang up the phone, Frank Black sings multiple variations of the name in the back of my mind. Al——-lison, AHHHHHL-li-son, Ah.Li.Son. I look out the window at the midday sun over a heat-shimmering parking lot & imagined myself walking out of frame in a short film soundtracked to the song, striding into some better off-camera fantasy.
- Jennifer (Variation of Guinevere, meaning “white, smooth, soft”) – Sometimes, a mistaken name can be a small defense. The slick-voiced customer calls again—the one who had originally called me Shelly. He is angry that he hasn’t gotten reports. He is angry that repair work has started late at his store. He is angry that we, customer service, do not work harder for him, our customer. ‘Jennifer, I don’t know why you can’t understand how critical these problems are. But what are you going to do about it? I need to get this resolved today, Jennifer, do you understand?’ Each time he calls me Jennifer, the less real his anger becomes, the less personal & immediate is the condescending tone & the nonstop monologue of complaints. ‘Jennifer, I really don’t want to have to complain to the boss. Do you want to stay out of trouble?’ He doesn’t stop to let me answer or assist; his affectations blur into harmlessness. As he threatens again to complain, I think (but do not say), ‘Go ahead. See how far you get trying to have that Jennifer girl fired.’
- Robin (Variation of Roberta which means “bright fame”) – I hear this name attributed to me as often as Kim. Mostly, this happens with Arabic or Asian customers who think my last name is my first and cannot yet pronounce it correctly. Robin crops up in emails from them as well as calls despite the identification. Robin, I think, running through other homophonous misidentified names I hear for myself. Ravn, Raven, Rabin. No matter how I spell it, most people seem to think I am a bird.
- Alyssa (Variation of Alisa which means “happiness”) – Despite the misidentification, I am pleasantly surprised to hear this name come back to me. For a time, I had tried Elyssa as a nickname, since all other diminutives of Elizabeth were tiresome or didn’t fit or only sounded nice in the mouths of certain friends. Alyssa—spoken by a customer who had once called me Robin & I had tried to politely correct him. This was as close as he could get. I didn’t mind much. I didn’t try to correct him again & helped him cheerfully, waiting to hear the name again.
- Melissa (meaning “bee”) – A secret, then. I saved this name last because it has followed me since my first job at a dollar store during high school. The boy who worked at the sandwich place next door came in to buy a bottle of water & to flirt with me. I wore a name tag with a different name on it (Porcelain (don’t ask why)), not my own. I made him guess my real name; he chose Melissa. When I laughed & told him it wasn’t my name, he insisted that I looked like a Melissa. The name has followed me since, with customers or co-workers at each job mistaking me for a Melissa, asking me if I have a sister or cousin named Melissa because they know someone who looks just like me or having someone shout it in a crowded room at me trying to get my attention. I like to think that somewhere out there is my doppleganger, my shadow who is often called Elizabeth or asked if she knows anyone by that name. Maybe one day, in a city somewhere, I’ll take a left, she’ll take a right & we’ll meet in the next moment, acknowledging each other with a nod.
†All name meanings and spellings taken from The Everything Baby Names Book by Lisa Shaw