A writer discovers his doppelgangers
I didn’t just find myself out of the blue. Blame it on technology: On May 13, a strange subject heading — “Same Mike Ives?” — popped up in my email inbox. A journalism student from Virginia was wondering if I was the Mike Ives — not me, actually, but rather a legendary writer/pool shark who had a column in the Roanoke Times back in the 1970s. “Sorry to disappoint,” I wrote back. “I’m not him.”
I dismissed the inquiry as a fluke. Everyone has a doppelganger, whether it’s a look-alike or someone who shares your name. Filmmaker Angela Shelton made much of these coincidences when she contacted 40 other like-named women across the U.S., then chronicled the process on film. As for me, strangers have always asked if I’m related to Charles or, worse, Burl. (I’m not.) Then there was a guy in college who sported a similar hairdo. Most recently, my roommate has dubbed me “Mike Apartment” to differentiate me from another, apparently more important, Mike.This latest misunderstanding wasn’t so easy to dismiss, though. Two weeks later another message appeared, this time from a retired Navy man. “You were my favorite columnist!” wrote my second admirer. “I’d been wondering about what had ever happened to Mike Ives the writer/pool shark for, like, the past 30 years . . . the writing style makes me think I may have answered the burning question of where your adventures may have led you! Jah Rastafari!” Then he added, “If you ever find yourself in need of a quick sailing fix in the Caribbean, please feel free to contact us.”
Pool shark? Sailing fix? I thought. Sounds like my alter ego has it pretty good. So, a month after the first message, I decided to track down this other Mike Ives on my own.
Where do you begin a search for a mistaken identity? Google — duh. I arrived at the office around 10 a.m. and opened a browser window. By lunchtime, I’d turned up more than 20 Mike Iveses — including the shark himself, who lives in Bradenton, Florida. Neither the Internet nor the current circulation manager at the Roanoke Times had any of Ives’ stories on file. But I did manage to get his number from 411.
I picked up the phone, then hesitated: To cold-call Mike Ives just like that seemed a bit presumptuous. Instead of contacting him right off, I decided to make a few prefatory inquiries into myself.
First on the doppelganger list was Hannes Jaenicke, a rather handsome German actor who’d played a character named Michael Ives in an under-reviewed 1999 film, Free Fall. I wanted to ask Hannes what it was like to get into my role. Over lunch, I sent an email to his agent, Lutz Schmökel. “Hi, Lutz,” I wrote. “This is a Mike Ives, from America. I’d like to speak with Hannes about his portrayal of me, whether life follows art, etc.” No response.
Then I figured I’d keep it local. I called and emailed a poet named Michael Ives, who happens to be a visiting professor at Bard College in New York State. He had recently taught the son of a former Seven Days editor, so we were almost related, albeit in a tenuous, literary way. But the email was returned, and Ives’ answering-machine message had been changed.
“Good afternoon,” I greeted the Bard receptionist. “I’m trying to reach Michael Ives, but he appears to have disappeared.”
“Who is this?” she said.
“It’s him, actually,” I revealed. “Me.”
She said she’d see what she could do.
Later that afternoon, I reached the owner of Mike J. Ives Realty, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The guy who answered sounded a little self-important.
“Hello, Mike,” I began. “Could you tell me what it’s like to be me?”
“What’s it like to be you, Mike? What’s it like to be me?” he bristled.
Minnesota Mike wasn’t all that shocked to learn of my existence. He already knew enough people like us; there were two M.I.s kicking around the Twin Cities, for instance. His son, who was also named Michael Ives, had the same middle initial — “H.” — as I do. “Hey, there’s a lot of Bob Smiths and Bob Johnsons,” noted the businessman. “I guess it all doesn’t matter unless you have the same Social Security numbers.”
“Good point, Mike,” I said. “Any advice about what to look forward to . . . or look out for?”
“Keep your credit record clear,” he cautioned. “I don’t want to end up with bad credit from you.”
************This is all strangely underwhelming, I thought, heading home after work. Surely there was more to me than an obscure filmography or a fleeting professorship, let alone a Midwestern real-estate office. I had made one other call, to a painter from Arizona who’d founded http://www.ivesart.com — but I’ve never been artistic.
Outside my apartment, my roommate was lounging on the deck. “Hey, Mike Apartment,” she said, “I’m thinking of going out for a slice of pizza.”
“I would join you,” I said, “but I’m waiting for a call from a doppelganger.”
“Oh, are you writing a story about all that? I can’t wait to read it.”
I went inside thinking, I can’t wait to read it, either. I wondered what angle the author would take.
The truth was, I didn’t really have one yet. I hadn’t been able to locate any of the pool shark’s writings. Plus, I hadn’t interviewed enough alter egos to make for a representative sample — so what could I write, short of fiction? As the sun went down in my window, I speculated, What kind of Mike Ives am I, anyway? What’s in a name? They were bigger questions than I’d bargained for.
Just then — as if to quell my uncertainty — the phone rang. It was Michael Ives, the painter. Arizona Ives was ’laxing in Hawaii. And where my first doppelganger had been a bit of a downer, this one struck like a ray of existential light. Over the course of an hour, Ives — a self-described “child of the ’60s” — served up an epic life story that included generous helpings of drugs, creative epiphanies and wistful reminiscence.
“It’s kind of surreal to see all the people with your name, isn’t it?” he said at one point, adding that he regularly Googles himself.
“Totally,” I said. “Have you met any other Michael Iveses, Michael?
Oh, yes: Arizona Ives had an even worse case of Identity Curiosity than I did. He admitted to having previously contacted about a dozen other doppelgangers, to no avail. Once, at a tailor’s shop in Tucson, Ives came within millimeters of himself: He accidentally tried on a jacket that, according to the tailor, belonged to a like-named stranger. But Ives never managed to connect with the guy in person.
“Wait a sec,” I stopped him. “So this is the first time you’ve ever spoken to ‘yourself’?”
“Yeah,” he reflected. “You know, I often wonder how many ways I might have gone in my life, given certain circumstances. Maybe it’s cool for you to see how other Michael Iveses have done it?”
Sure was. And if I could forge such an intense bond with Arizona Ives, I couldn’t even imagine how I’d get along with the celebrated journalist for whom I’d already been mistaken — twice.
On Thursday evening, I picked up my office phone and dialed up the shark. This is it, I thought.
“Yes . . .” I sputtered breathlessly. “It’s . . . you.”
But Ives quickly put me in my place. “No, it’s not,” he corrected in a dry, sun-soaked voice. “It’s you.”
My doppelganger and I talked for about half an hour. I learned that he’d been fired from the Roanoke Times in the late ’70s for, as he put it, “living with a woman who wasn’t my wife, et cetera.” Then he’d landed a job at the Arizona Republic and, later, another at the Phoenix New Times — a pioneer alt-weekly. Sometime in the ’80s, he quit journalism to travel the “lower 48” as, sure enough, a pool shark. Now he considered himself a retired “sailing derelict.”
Sailor Mike asserted that while he believed in fate, he didn’t necessarily see anything cosmic in our connection. “I think that probably happens,” he noted offhandedly. “I don’t know. You get a little more cynical and jaded as you get older. My name is a little more out there than other names . . . but who can say? You don’t know. I’m not gonna say it’s not fate.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“You got any good pool rooms up there in Vermont?” he asked.
“I’m sure there must be one, Mike,” I offered, mesmerized. “Listen, have you come across any other Mike Iveses out there?”
Mike explained that he’d once met an image of himself in Phoenix. “We ate lunch and bullshitted for three hours and that was the end of it,” he recalled.
What was that guy’s shirt size? I wanted to ask. But instead I wondered if the journalist had any wisdom to relay.
Well, said the sailor, he had done some research into our family heritage. He’d found out, for instance, that his great-great-grandfather, patriarch Jeremiah Ives, was murdered in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1827. That’s about 300 miles from Boca Raton, where my grandfather, Jack, lived for many years before his death in 2001. Still, Ives warned me, “I think people put a little too much emphasis on genealogy.”
I said I agreed, then confessed that Ives wasn’t my family’s original name: Jack’s had been Itzkowitz. In my rapture, I’d forgotten to mention that my father — Jack’s son — had changed it to Ives in 1975 in order to avoid a Jewish stigma.
“No shit?” inquired the former hustler.
After that, our conversation tapered off, but not in a bad way: There just wasn’t anything left to share. Mike Ives and I wished each other well and promised to stay in touch. But I think we both knew we wouldn’t.
“What about your writings, Mike?” I asked in closing. “Got any you could send along?”
Ives heaved a sigh and explained that, ever since he’d stolen his clips from the Roanoke Times archive in the late 1970s, they’d been in the care of a friend. That friend was now long gone. “I don’t have any copies,” lamented the shark. “I have nothing, and it makes me sick. I was nominated for a Pulitzer in the ’80s, too.”
On Friday, I called the Roanoke Times again to ask if their archive had even the tiniest clipping from Ives’ career. A few hours later, a reporter dug up the only surviving file — a grainy photocopy of one of his columns, from December 1978 — and faxed it to Seven Days.
The piece is called “The Meanest Woman in Town.” It immortalizes the saucy proprietress of a hole-in-the-wall Roanoke lunch counter. “As one approaches this tiny enclave of Catholic folk,” Ives writes, “one is hit in the chops with the cruel odor of sizzling meat, wafted to the great outdoors by the exhaust fan above the open gas grill where Josephine reigns supreme with her spatula.”
Not bad, I thought, though maybe a little overwritten.
I read on, anxious for some final, cathartic flourish. But the fax machine had corrupted Ives’ last paragraph, so for me the story ended there.
Or so I thought. On Saturday, yet another Mike Ives fan contacted me. This one was Garrett Mathews, a fellow newspaperman who writes a folksy local-interest column for the Evansville, Indiana Courier & Press. He wrote, “Am at the stage in my career (I started out in 1972) when I want to reach out to the people who had an influence in what I do. You’re in that number. Thanks.”
“Thanks for the feedback, Garrett,” I wrote back on Monday morning. “I’ll pass the message along.”