He was walking towards me and waved. A man in a suit — tall, thin, 50s, sandy hair. I waved back, half-heartedly. He was close enough that I could see him smile. Our paths were going to cross, unless I suddenly crossed the street, but that would be utterly stupid because I know him — but I have no idea who he is. I gave him my closed-mouth polite smile.
“I don’t see you at the gym anymore,” he said.
(Oh no, which gym?, I thought.)
“I only go to Northampton Athletic Club,” I told a man I had never seen before.
“Are you still a trainer?” he asks.
He’s giving me a context, I’m picking up clues, I can fudge this.
I told him I only train people at home, we spoke about the benefits of home training briefly, and then we said goodbye and walked our separate ways.
It was days later that I remembered he was a man I had as a personal training client at Smith College several years ago — someone who I never saw out of sweatpants and a T-shirt. It wasn’t long-term training like most of my clients; he only wanted a few sessions and an exercise plan to follow on his own. He was a therapist. A good-natured, friendly man. I looked him up in my client folder. His name was Bob. I was pretty sure it was him.
In the days that followed, I kept my eye out for him, and there he was again, walking out of a store. “Bob,” I said, not too loudly to his back, in case that wasn’t him. “Hi Robin!” he greeted me cheerfully.
“Listen, I feel badly the other day because I didn’t recognize you,” I said. I was tempted to make my time-worn excuse about it being “out of context” but Bob’s a therapist, he’s used to disclosure, so I said, “I have a problem recognizing people’s faces sometimes.”
“Do you know Oliver Sacks?” Bob asked me. “He has that problem, too. It’s called ‘prosopagnosia’ — face blindness. He writes about it in one of his books.”
I found the book that afternoon at the library. Prosopagnosia: It may be congenital; or a result of damage to the brain. It could be extreme — one does not recognize their own face or those of family members — or random. I have a mild case.
Last spring I had lunch with an old friend, Steve, who I’ve known since my 20s, along with our respective partners at the time. A woman walked past our table and cheerfully greeted us. When she was gone, my partner turned to me, knowing full well that I would say, “Who was that?”
Steve laughed and said, “You've never recognized anyone!” and then he pitched into anecdotes from when we were in the music business together: I told a music biz mogul to buy me a drink because I didn’t recognize him; I spent hours getting a club DJ to play a record I was promoting and then didn’t know who he was the next day on the street. I listened, mesmerized. Have I really always had this problem?
Thinking back, there was the time in the '70s my cousin walked up to me at the Whisky-A-Go-Go and I said, “Do I know you?” or when I stood at the arrival gate at LAX waiting for my new boyfriend, petrified because I forgot what he looked like. Another time, I left my infant daughter at a babysitting service in uptown Manhattan crowded with babies and spent my job interview fretting I wouldn’t know which baby she was.
On the subway in New York City, I used to make a game of staring at the ears or noses of people around me — what made an ear or nose unique? Maybe I was teaching myself facial recognition.
In recent years, my facial recognition problem seems more pronounced and sometimes comical and a little bit to my advantage. I was strolling alongside a gay pride parade a couple of years ago, smiling at everyone on that lovely day, and not until I noticed the woman beside me giving me a Bette Davis horror face did I realize I was walking with my evil ex from years before and her new family.
In a park, I asked a woman about her poodle only to be met with shocked stuttering as she walked away. When I considered the dog and location of the park, I realized it was the overly aggressive buyer of my house a few years before who made my life miserable. At times like this, I’m glad to be oblivious.
Even stranger than not recognizing familiar faces is when faces of people I know seem to belong to other people. Recently I walked by a café window and waved excitedly at the father of my son’s former girlfriend, a man I like very much. The man waved back tentatively and then made a quizzical expression. I mouthed “Sorry.” A friend of a friend is a tall, big-boned redhead who favors Stevie Nicks clothes. These traits I remember, but I can’t picture her face, though I always recognize her when I see her. I’ve said to my friend numerous times, “Oh there’s Kate!” only to be wrong.
My mind uses a twisted logic in these instances. I know from secondary clues, like clothing, body type, gait or hair style that the person is not the person I know, but my mind overrides that and says, “Close enough,” as if a person were an accessory that almost matches an outfit. I have to be conscious of that game my mind plays.
I didn’t know there was a name for this problem or that others shared it until I ran into the former personal training client. It turns out I’m in good company: Oliver Sacks’ assistant apologizes to people for him, the painter Chuck Close makes portraits of the faces he wants to remember and Brad Pitt stays home a lot.
I don’t want to be one of those people who tell you about their ailments the moment they greet you, but on the other hand, there's a very good chance that I won't even recognize you.