So this past Wednesday, I met with my publisher's graphic artist, to begin the process of laying my book out. After the short meeting, before going home, I decided to stop into my favourite coffeehouse, Brasil, to have a quick lunch.
I was sitting there, watching people come and go, thinking about how much I love this place. I was also thinking about the book, and how everyone I was honoured to photograph is so different, and how that difference is the source of so much good. And as I was going back and forth between those two thoughts, I remembered a time about 14 or so years ago, when I met someone who, at first glance, appeared to be almost my physical twin, standing pretty much right at the spot next to the bar you see above. I've told this story before, about 4 years ago on a previous incarnation of my blog, but I think it bears repeating -- because, you know, when you have an experience this weird, you really can't tell the tale too often. So if you remember this story, apologies for the retelling. If you don't know it, honey, pull up a chair, 'cause this is a long one.
So, right: about 14 years ago, Brasil was pretty much a daily haunt of mine. By day, it's a coffeehouse that served delicious sandwiches and salads; by night, it transforms into a wine bar. Back when I used to go at night, there was this great DJ who used to spin neo-soul, trip-hop, jazznova and all kinds of really groovy music. The clientele was (and still is) made up of artists (tattoo or otherwise), goths, punks and academics (Rice University is very close by). I used to visit after work and have a glass of wine and chill out, usually reading a book by candlelight by myself.
One night, I noticed this huge guy walking toward me. His arms were covered in sleeve tattoos, and he had several piercings in several places all over his body.
"Hey!" he said enthusiastically, grinning from ear to ear. "I haven't seen you in ages!"
I looked at him blankly, smiling one of those weak do-I-know-you smiles.
His grin disappeared as he registered my confusion. "Oh," he said. "You're not her."
"I'm not who?"
"The Cigarette Girl."
"Oh, yeah. No. I'm not the Cigarette Girl." I've never smoked a cigarette in my life.
"Sorry to bother you," he smiled. I smiled back. "No worries," I replied.
So I didn't think anything of this, until the next night. This time, I was standing in line at the bar (above), waiting for my glass of wine. A woman walked up and tapped me on the shoulder, with a cheery, "Hi!" I turned around, and her face immediately fell. "Oh. God, I'm sorry. I thought you were the Cigarette Girl."
"Um, no, sorry, I'm not," I said smiling. She looked really embarrassed, and slunk off to join her friends again.
A few days later, when it happened a third time, I finally asked one of the guys who worked behind the counter. "Dude, seriously, who is this 'Cigarette Girl' people keep thinking I am?"
"What?" He looked at me for a moment, and then he laughed. "Oh my GOD," he said, "You totally DO look like her! Wow. You haven't seen her?"
"Oh, she's here all the time. I don't know her name. But she always has a bag of cigarettes with her. And she looks ...well, she looks like you. You can't miss her. Seriously. Wow." We stared at each other for a moment before I left to sit down with my drink.
Anyway, a couple of weeks later, I was back at Brasil one evening, and the door opened. I looked up, and saw ...
The woman who entered looked just like me, except with a slightly darker skin tone. She was about my age, my height, my build, and she had my face. She was wearing a hug duffel bag of boxes of cigarettes over her shoulder. She had on Doc Martens and her arms and upper chest were covered in tattoos.
She went directly to the counter to give the barristas her order.
I couldn't help myself: I walked over to her and tapped her on the shoulder. "Hi," I said, when she turned around. "You must be the Cigarette Girl."
She looked at me for a moment, and I watched as surprise registered across her face. "Oh my God," she said. "You must be the Lawyer."
"Where are you sitting?" she asked. "Would you mind if I joined you?"
"Not at all," I replied, pointing to my table. "Please do."
I returned to my seat, and when she got her coffee, she sat down. "So, I'm Kay," she said.
"You're kidding," I answered. "I'm Karen. But some of my friends call me K."
"Incredible," she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "I can't believe how much we look alike."
We laughingly traded stories of mistaken identity. I thought she was really funny and smart. I immediately liked her.
"So, what do you do with all these cigarettes?" I asked.
"Oh," she grimaced. "It's this promotional thing. I hate smoking, actually. But you know... gotta make a buck."
"What do you do?"
"Well, I go to lounges and clubs, and I walk up to people who are smoking, and I ask them if they'd like to trade their half-empty boxes of cigarettes for a full box of this brand."
"Oh," I said. "Well, at least you're targeting people who already smoke," I said, half-heartedly.
"Yeah, I guess."
It seemed like such a weird way to make a living, and she seemed smarter than this, capable of so much more. So I asked, "So ... is this your full-time job?"
"Oh HELL no," she said, quickly. "I couldn't live on what I make doing this! This is just for a little extra money."
"So what do you do?"
She looked me dead in the eye, and said, completely matter-of-factly:
"I'm a dominatrix."
"I'm sorry," I said stupidly, "did you just say 'dominatrix'?"
She smiled. "Yes. I'm a dominatrix."
"Like ... whips? Chains? Cat-o'nine-tails? That sort of thing?" I asked, realizing that I sounded like a complete prude, but unable to hide my disbelief.
I stared at her dumbly.
"It's not about sex," she added quickly.
"Well, right, no, of course ..." I started mumbling.
"It's about domination."
"Uh-huh, right. Yes. Of course. Obviously." I struggled with what to say next. "So ... how's ... business?" I smiled wanly.
She laughed. "Booming, actually," she began, and then she proceeded to tell me all about it. She told me about the domination house (I think that's what she called it, I really don't remember now) and about the other girls she worked with. She told me how her clientele was primarily made up of professionals -- doctors, lawyers and even schoolteachers (!). Eventually, I stopped feeling uncomfortable, and I started asking her questions that she gamely answered.
After a while, she looked at her watch. "I better get going," she said. "I've gotta get rid of these cigarettes."
"Oh, of course. Well, nice meeting you," I said.
"Yeah, you too!" She smiled as she stood. "Hey, we should meet for coffee again. Should we trade numbers?"
We did, and even spoke on the phone a few times after. Once, I remember talking with her in the middle of the day while I was at the office, and she mentioned that she was engaged. "Really?" I said, somewhat surprised. "Your fiancé doesn't have a problem with the work you do?"
"Not at all. He owns the domination house."
Well, of course he does.
Anyway, I never saw her again after that first meeting, and after a few phone conversations, we never spoke again -- not for any real reason, just that apparently lawyers and dominatrices have less in common than you might initially think. Interestingly, no one ever mistook me for her again either. She just sort of disappeared, as if she'd never existed in the first place.
Still, all these years later, I've often wondered what happened to Kay. Who knows: maybe she decided that the domination world was too stressful, so she gave it all up to become a writer and a photographer and a blogger ...