This past Thursday at work, we had an all-staff lunch meeting—nothing fancy, just burrito fixins ordered in from Chipotle, an opportunity to celebrate the issue just completed, our biggest in terms of pages (which means in terms of ads, which is good for all of us) since 1989. The publisher thanked the ad "team," the design "team," and certain individuals who had made it all happen, particularly the guy who oversaw the cover package. He has been there about two years and has worked with me closely, which is to say I clean up after him and make him look good. Nice guy—we could be friends if our work relationship weren't so respectful-but-fraught.
At the lunch meeting, in front of the entire staff of about 50 people, he said his own thanks to those who had supported him this month and made his job easier, including "Billy Kristofferson, who proofread everything, caught all my mistakes, and was here till 10 o'clock last night."
All true. Except my name isn't Kristofferson. It has the same number of syllables as Kristofferson and ends in the same letter, but that's the extent of the similarities.
For a second I honestly thought he was talking about some freelancer I'd never heard of. But I would have known if we'd hired a freelance proofreader. Because it would be part of my job to do so. In the next second, I realized, no, he meant me. But owing to a fair amount of ambient noise, I wasn't sure I'd heard right. So afterward, I e-mailed a colleague who has known me for a long time. I said, "Am I going crazy or did P. refer to me as Billy Kristofferson at the meeting?" She said, "No, you're not crazy! Until you mentioned it, I had NO idea who he was talking about!"
For a long time I've been feeing pretty invisible at work, like the guy everyone relies on but no one really sees. Finally I get a little recognition and I'm still invisible! The majority of the staff, who do not work with me directly because they're not in my department, no doubt thought he was talking about some other crackerjack proofreader. (By the way, my job, which contains the word "senior" in its title just as his does, even though he's worked there 14 years less than I have, entails much more than prooofreading.)
I decided to let it go and chalk it up to nervousness on his part (who likes public speaking?), but that night it really started to bug me. Kristofferson? WTF? I send him probably a dozen e-mails a week that have my signature on them. And why did he even use a last name in the first place? I'm the only Billy in the office! If he'd simply said, "I'd like to thank Billy for his help . . . " there'd have been no confusion whatsoever. I felt really, really insulted.
By Friday morning, I'd resolved to say something to him, not in a threatening or accusatory way, just kind of like "Hey, did you realize . . . ?" But not long after I got to work, I had reason to be in his office to talk about an unrelated matter, and I immediately realized I couldn't bring it up without sounding utterly petty and completely embarrassing him. He's a decent guy and I couldn't see the point. I had to suck it up and get over it.
Last night I had dinner with an old friend, a gay guy, and was telling him about this incident. His theory was that my coworker with the apparent Kris Kristofferson fixation—a coworker who is straight, as it happens—was subconsciously distancing himself frome me by assigning me the wrong name, both because I'm gay and because I had saved his ass by mopping up after him on this project and he may be uncomfortable with both.
"And you know," my dinner companion said, " 'Me and Bobby McGee' is a very intimate song."
I take this with a grain of salt—my coworker has always seemed gay-friendly and in fact has a a gay brother, though of course that does nothing to disprove any deep-seated unease—but I also love it as theories go, and it made me feel better. There could even be some truth to it.