I’ve always had difficulty remembering names. Proper nouns seldom found easy purchase in my synapses unless I consciously affix them there through steadfast repetition or continuous familiarity. Needless to say, when people leave my life their names are often soon forgotten. This can have some embarrassing consequences.
Five or six years after high school graduation, I was perusing the shelves of a local auto supply shop when I noticed someone familiar enter the store. I knew him. He was in my graduation class and although he was not a good friend of mine, we had shared many classes and knew each other well. I began to feel a heightening sense of foreboding and quickly ducked behind the nearest shelving unit. I should have known his name. How many times had I heard it during class role call? How many conversations had we had in the hallways?
I easily remembered his surname, “Ricca”. His was a large, well known family in the town of my childhood. I couldn’t have just acknowledged him using his surname. I might as well have confessed to forgetting his name, which was not an option. One’s name is fundamental to every person’s identity. Neglecting to remember an old acquaintance’s name is akin to forgetting your wife’s favorite flower, a faux-pas of the highest order.
I quickly ran through the alphabet, a strategy I developed for just such an occasion. Abe? No, Adam, Andy, Bob? No. Bill? Yes! Bill sounded right. Of course, his name is Bill. I confidently made my way around the shelves and accosted him as he was studying some cans of motor oil.
“Bill, how are you doing?”, I said offering him my hand which he took with a friendly shake. We talked a bit, some jovial banter about our college experiences and such. I took his hand again, said how it was good to see him and gave him a genial wave, calling him by name again, as I departed.
I was so pleased that I avoided yet another awkward encounter that I could feel a broad smile stenciled on my face as I paid the cashier and exited the store. As I strode jubilantly across the parking lot, an awful thought crept into my mind. John, his name is John! Where did Bill come from? Was that one of his brothers? The sudden realization of what I did made me stop in my tracks. My head dropped when I realized the extent of my gaffe. There was no way Mrs. Ricca would name one of her sons “Bill”. “Billerica” was the name of a town just north of Boston, not thirty miles from where I, yet again, took a big bite of shoe leather.