Is it or isn’t it?

I was riding the 1 train downtown when I spotted a familiar face across the aisle. He had that air of someone you vaguely remember but haven’t seen in ages. I scanned all of the places I could have met a partially bald, slight man with salt-and-pepper beard: work, coffee shop, library.

Then a name popped into my head. Barry. Barry Lewis! Not exactly an A-list celebrity, I know, but in New York he’s well known for his PBS series, “A Walk Around…” As in “A Walk Around Brooklyn” or “A Walk Around Harlem.” He takes you to places of interest and gives you nuggets of social, political and architectural history with such enthusiasm, I dare you to turn the program off. And here he was on the same train.

I have spotted a few honest-to-God celebrities while riding the subway. Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos and Steve Buscemi come to mind. Steve Buscemi has, shall we say, such a unique look about him that you’re not left wondering if that was really him or just his doppelganger. Because the more I looked (okay, stared) at Barry Lewis, the more I doubted my first judgment.

(My best celebrity sighting hands down was Harrison Ford in the Village. He was heading east on Houston; I was heading west. I turned to search for him in the crowd but he was gone. Like two ships passing in the night. Oh, Hans!)

When I got off the train at Chambers to transfer to the 2/3 heading to Brooklyn, Barry stayed on the 1, which terminates in a few stops at South Ferry. Now I truly second-guessed myself. He’s going to Staten Island? That seems crazy.

Robert Lanham has a funny essay in The Subway Chronicles book called Straphanger Doppelganger in which he seeks out his look-alike after numerous friends have mistaken his doppelganger for him. Lanham points out, “According to mythology, a doppelganger is the living incarnation of a person’s dark side. Their shadowy opposite.” Maybe this person who sat across from me was Barry Lewis’s double: a Staten Island-bound, insurance adjuster who didn’t know or care about the difference between Central Park and Bryant Park. Lanham goes on to say that coming to terms with the existence of our nonbiological twin is part of living in New York. In a city this size, everyone is bound to have one.

As if to prove the truth in that statement, today I sat next to an elderly black woman on the commute to work. I might not have noticed her except that she scooted over and motioned for me to sit. She had a calmness and elegance that reminded me of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Sutton. Everything about Mrs. Sutton was grace personified. Her reputation was one of toughness and an unwillingness to compromise. For us seniors, there would be no easy “A”. She wasn’t our friend or confidant; she didn’t stand at the front of the class to entertain us. And I loved her for it. Mrs. Sutton was a big part of the reason I decided to major in English. Lately, another opportunity to second-guess myself.

In the creative arts, one of the few professional tracks where there is a high likelihood that you will never be able to support yourself in your chosen field, it’s easy to doubt your choices and your ability. Maybe doppelgangers don’t always stem from the dark side, the Darth Vaders of the Force. Maybe they appear in order to remind us of someone or something we’d lost track of along the way, giving us an opportunity to reconnect with that part of ourselves we had misgivings about.


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