The ‘don’t I know you?’ phenomenon

As a Greater Bostonian for nearly six decades, I live in a world rich with people I know but can’t place, and vice versa. Our eyes meet across the tracks below Park Street, in the throngs at the Fluff Festival or the dog-eat-dog aisles of Market Basket; we exchange a measured look that says, “You’re familiar but I don’t know why . . . and whether I like you.” We may have been grade school chums or jogged on adjacent treadmills at the Y. I may have typed their divorce complaints, signed in for visits at the same prison, or squirmed across from them in one therapy group or another. I may once have waylaid them in front of Walgreens, leftist screed in hand, exhorting them to think like me or be forever on the wrong side of history. (In that case, they probably remember whether they like me, even if they can’t recall why.)

But several times a year, I experience a different I-know-I-know-you phenomenon. It’s because I look like countless other women around here. The mold wasn’t broken after I was made; the mold endured, turning us out by the dozen. We crisscross the region, short, slight, ecru-skinned, with our brown eyes and curly brown hair, our significant noses. Strangers ask me if I’m Russian, Lebanese, Armenian, Greek. More often, though, they ask: “Are — are you Jennifer?” “Your name isn’t Leah, is it?” “Hey, Mary, remember me from Microsoft?” People greet me open-armed on sidewalks and subway platforms, tap my shoulder in ticket lines. One man tottered toward me down a Brigham and Women’s hall — “What’s it been, Linda, five years, ten?” — both of us in johnnies and rubber-soled socks, dragging our IV poles. Excited and off target, all of them.


In my 20s, it rankled me. Insecure in my identity, I’d laugh at jokes that didn’t amuse me, plow through books I thought I should like, risk arrest for causes I didn’t understand. I already felt like a cheap knockoff of a genuine person; I didn’t need reminders that all over town, authentic people who just resembled me were the ones other people truly wanted to see.

The shift came gradually, in my 30s and 40s. As my sense of self took root, those effusive, misguided greetings from strangers morphed from maddening to mildly bothersome. By 50, they’d gotten downright funny: So many of us, like Kewpie dolls! Always fooling people! Even now, with half-gray hair!

Then a few weeks ago, on the Red Line between Kendall and Central, a young man caught my eye and grinned. Removing his earbuds, he asked: “Is your name . . . Nancy?” “Afraid not,” I said apologetically. “I just look like her. I’m a type. They made tons of us.” He smiled kindly before returning to his tunes. “Oh,” he said, “but I’m sure you’re very special in your own way.” And I realized not only that he was charming (and right) but also that I’ve grown to feel grateful for such encounters. It’s a gift, when mistaken for a long-lost friend, to glimpse that exquisite eureka in a stranger’s eyes. No, I’m not the real object of my greeter’s elation, but I’ve unwittingly helped to conjure her. In truth, she might look nothing like she used to. She might be continents away. She might be dead. Still, she is fleetingly, vividly present in another’s mind, and I’m both catalyst and witness to the happy rendezvous.

Would we recognize each other if we met, we sisters of the unbroken mold? Doubtful. What person ever sees another and thinks, “Wow, spittin’ image of me”? Have we swapped glances at ATMs and gas pumps, musing, “Why so familiar? Friend or foe?” Perhaps. Has one of my look-alikes been flagged down on the Common by a breathless, gleeful stranger crowing “Peg?’’ Can’t rule it out. If she has, I hope they both were cheered by that brief, bright, errant spark of human communion.

Recent verifiable sightings of Peg Malt have been primarily in Cambridge. Send comments to

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