Two men get ready to leave the same house.
It’s 7:00 AM on a Monday as Mike Ralls, Government Contract Manager, puts on his business slacks and light grey Brooks Brothers dress shirt. He tucks his shirt into his pants, and then loosens it to the exact amount of appropriate slackness. His tie loops around his neck, goes in a standard knot, and is cinched until it looks straight and sharp. Mike checks himself in the mirror and likes what he sees; it is a man whose image is cultivated to professionalism. He is good to go.
It’s 7:00 PM on a Friday as JR Ralls, gamer, throws on a heavily stained college t-shirt, a pair of jeans that are older than his marriage, and his favorite pair of sneakers. He didn’t put a single conscious thought into his outfit. Every article of clothing was picked based upon some unconscious desire to wear the familiar and the comfortable. JR doesn’t pause to check himself in a mirror as he leaves. Instead, he begins to munch on something crunchy and fried as he walks out the door. This is a night for indulgence.
Mike Ralls arrives at his new place of work; he turns off his car and the business audio book he was listening to gives him a final word of advice before going silent. Mike recently moved 3,000 miles. It was a necessary move, but was still a shift that caused him to lose all of the social capital he had built up over the last decade of his professional life. His new job is not only in a different part of the country, but also in an entirely different field. Some part of Mike relishes the challenge of learning something new. Some part fears it. But every bit of him is determined. He’s a family man now. People depend upon him. He has a written agenda for the action points he plans to accomplish in his first 90 days. Mike knows that first impressions are important and is actively rehearsing the best methods to greet new colleagues as he exits his car.
JR Ralls arrives at a Game Night he found on Meetup. He recently moved 3,000 miles and hasn’t made a single friend in his new city, yet. He keeps in touch with his old friends via text or Facebook, but it’s just not the same. The physical world is too important to ever be fully replaced by the online one.
While JR loves his wife and kids, he still needs the occasional break from them. He hasn’t had one in months. But tonight is his night. No responsibilities. No deadlines. No expectations. JR is relishing the opportunity to just geek-out for a while. He listens to a couple of the top 100 songs from 1971 as he drives to Game Night. He’s in the process of listening to the top Billboard songs from the 1940’s to the present in chronological order. It’s the type of weird project JR likes to take on. The only thing he is thinking about when he leaves his car is whether he likes Old Elvis more than Young Elvis. (He does.)
Mike Ralls walks into the door with his head held high and a confident look in his eyes. He greets the receptionist. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Britney. I’m Mike Ralls, the new Government Contract Manager.” He uses a voice that is deeper and crisper than his everyday voice. Britney shows him around. The office has all the florescent lighting and cubicles he could ever want. Mike is introduced to about 20 people in a five-minute time period. Mike has never been good with names. He’ll try to remember them all but knows it will take a while.
JR Ralls walks into what he thinks is the right house. He sees someone walking and gives them a head-nod greeting. “Hey man, is this where Game Night is being held?” It is. “Cool.” He walks in with a few of his favorite board games balanced on top of each other along, with a box of donuts as the proverbial cherry on top. This is probably the biggest game night he has been to. He meets tons of people. He’s not even going to try and remember them all at this point. He sits down for a game of Puerto Rico and starts playing. The groups needs two more players and a set of identical twins end up joining the game. That won’t be confusing at all. They introduce themselves. JR responds, “S’up Brook n’ Britney. I’m JR. Y’all want a donut?”
Mike Ralls has a good first week at work. His desk has a certain amount of stark despair:
But within a couple of days he accumulates an appropriate amount of office clutter. The job itself is rather solitary, as Mike’s work is not directly connected to the rest of the team. Still, he does need some help, and simple social interactions have him make some polite chit chat with most of the other employees, including the receptionist, Britney. Most of their interaction with each other consists of him asking her to mail something or get him some supplies and her doing what he asks. He tries to always be polite when he requests her to do something but, while he’s not her boss, he’s also not her co-worker either. He’s a 38-year old manager and she’s a 20-year old receptionist. At the end of his first work week, he walks over to her desk and says in his crisp voice, “Britney, this needs to be in Raleigh by Monday at 2:00 PM. Please give me the tracking numbers when you get it done, OK?”
At JR's second time at Game Night he is trying to decide whom to throw in the volcano. He makes his move and pushes one of his opponent's pieces to its fiery demise. He turns and looks at her with a predator’s smile, “Never trust a Sicilian when death is on the line!” She’s doesn’t get the reference. Ouch. That made him feel old. But really, why would a 20-year old get that reference? JR and Britney have a nice little conversation about movies and games and other geeky matters in-between turns. It’s nothing deep but it’s nice enough.
Mike’s second week at work is much the same as his first. He has more contracts, more e-mails, more tasks, and he feels like he’s starting to get into the flow-space. He’s still isolated from the rest of the workforce, and that probably won’t change. On his average day, he walks in the door, gives a quick nod, starts answering e-mails and making phone calls and filling out forms, and then the next thing he knows it’s time to rush home and start making dinner for the kids. He hasn’t even eaten lunch with anyone yet. Nods, requests, polite chit-chat, and then back to his desk to try to make that day’s deadline. He gave himself a new buzz cut on Friday. Nobody noticed or mentioned it, not that he expected them to. He nods at the receptionist as he leaves for the weekend.
JR walks into his third game night with a freshly buzzed head and starts chatting with the host. He hears someone behind him, “I knew I knew you! You’re Mike!” He turns around to look at a young 20-year old woman and something in his mind goes click. “Britney?” JR/Mike asks.
It is the same Britney as from work. JR/Mike had been interacting with Britney at three separate game nights and two weeks of work before either had recognized the other as the same person they had been seeing in a different context.
“Why’d you say your name was JR?” she asks.
I talk with her about how my legal name is Michael Ralls II and how, when I was young, I went by JR. But when I started writing short-stories and making movies I didn’t want the first thing every employer googled about me was www.darkdungeonsthemovie.com , so I reverted to JR Ralls as my not-very-hidden pen name. Since that was how I was known in geek circles, it just became the name I’d use among my fellow nerds.
“I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you!” Britney says.
I can though. A similar thing happened at another job I had, for the exact same reasons.
The jokes about Superman’s glasses being a horrible disguise have been a tired cliché since the 1950’s, but we really do see the person we expect to see more than we see people as they are.
Mike trying to get a quote from a vendor in order to get an IPS contract submitted on time does not use the same tone of voice as JR trying to make a funny Monty Python reference. They don’t use the same verbiage. They don’t even have the same body language. It’s not surprising that they can be seen as different people.
A change in posture, a different outfit, or choosing different words when speaking can make gamer JR and contract-manager Mike register in other people’s minds as different men for different places. But in the end, there is someone – the same someone – beneath both of those personas. It can just take him a while to shine through.