News & Politics

First Person: “That Guy’s an Old Biker”

And other misperceptions of a man’s life.

Photo-illustration by John Ueland.

Several years ago, in the course of conversation, an acquaintance referred to my time teaching at the University of Maryland. She seemed unconvinced when I explained that although I’d graduated from Maryland, I’d never taught there.

I began to picture the version of me she must carry—my campus office, shelves overflowing with books, long conferences about literature with students. When our conversation ended, I was just relieved she hadn’t told me how much my class had meant to her.

Her image of me wasn’t nearly as exciting as my ex-biker-guy alter ego. I learned about that one at an Irish bar in Bethesda. I was chatting with a former neighbor who mentioned that a friend of his had seen me walking with my distinctive limp, the result of living with a disease called ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis I’ve had since 1973. “That guy’s an old biker,” his friend said of me.

“No way,” my former neighbor told him.

“No, the dude’s definitely an old biker.”

His friend went on to describe horrible high-speed injuries in which motorcyclists were thrown onto the highway, handlebars breaking both hips, leaving them with a limp exactly like mine. I fantasized about that old-biker version of me in an earlier, carefree time, barreling down the open road, headed to who knows what adventures.

Then there’s the Iranian me.

“You speak Farsi?” The young man’s face lit up as I exited the Metro station. I was sorry to disappoint him, but he was just one of many Iranians who have mistaken me as a fellow countryman. When you take a mother from India and a white father from the US, the resulting children can look Iranian—or, in the case of my sister, Latina.

Then there was the afternoon at Mount Vernon after a walk of 15-plus miles that ended at George Washington’s estate. I’d done the trek often, savoring the views of the Potomac. I bought a lemonade and rested on a bench outside the entrance, happily exhausted after a brisk five-hour walk. (A fringe benefit of having fairly constant arthritic pain is that I can get a “runner’s high” simply by walking.)

Just then I heard a tourist say, “Bum.” He turned to his young son, pointed at me, and asked, “What’s that?”

“Bum. Bum bum,” the child repeated. “He’s a bum.” Though I work 40 hours, some of my days off are in the middle of the week—thus, I must have been a “bum.” I was too tired to say anything. People will think what they will.

All these encounters are balanced by one that occurred on a winter night around the time of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. A doctor’s appointment had ended and I was near Farragut Square at rush hour. Rather than deal with crowds, I decided to eat at a bar and soak up the atmosphere. At one point, I overheard two women talking about all the big-name musicians in town (followed by this non sequitur: “My husband’s a Republican, but he doesn’t wear galoshes”).

People came and went. One man—clearly a regular, talking loudly with the bartender—began to notice me. He seemed puzzled because I didn’t fit any of the categories he’d come to know. I wasn’t drinking heavily, wasn’t trying to flirt or make conversation, was just having a leisurely meal, slowly drinking a few beers.

Finally, as I was getting ready to leave, he clicked his fingers, pointed directly at me across the room, and said triumphantly: “You’re a writer!”

This article appears in the June 2014 issue of Washingtonian.