Hardware Store Doppelgänger


Our Correspondents

May contain duplicates.


There’s a mom-and-pop hardware store half a mile from my house. It’s the kind of place that if you need two nails, or a small screwdriver, or some bug spray, you might choose it over Home Depot.

I really like this store, but I’ve had some weird experiences there—specifically, I’ve been mistaken for someone else on multiple occasions. This doesn’t happen to me a lot outside the hardware store. I have a unique look. I don’t mean that as a boast or a knock; I just don’t resemble many other people.

The hardware-store doppelgänger business started about two years ago, when I went in to buy a pint of paint. I noticed a man staring at me, and then sidling up to me, and then changing his mind and walking away. I am not a big fan of sidling, so I made hard eye contact with him, flashing my fiercest what-do-you-want look. 

He started walking toward me. The closer he got, the more I realized that his forehead was beaded with sweat, and his hands were trembling. “I’m your biggest fan,” he said; words that strike fear into the heart of any public figure who’s seen Misery.

I’m not a celebrity by a long shot; I am not trailed by paparazzi or tattled on in gossip columns. But I do have some very devoted readers, specifically for my food writing and for the travel guide, Roadfood. On a good day, maybe one in fifty thousand people might have heard of me.

In the man’s quavering hand was a piece of paper. “Please, please, please may I have your autograph?” he pleaded. No longer thinking he was a lunatic, I happily obliged, scribbling something like “Happy Eating, Jane Stern” and handing him back the paper.

He looked at it and then looked up at me. “What the hell is this?” he barked.

“It’s my autograph,” I said.

“No, it isn’t,” he said, with more than enough defiance in his voice. It took only a minute for both of us to figure out that he thought I was someone else. He was not a Roadfood fan; he was an opera buff, and he’d mistaken me for his favorite diva. But clearing this up didn’t seem to reduce his anger. He threw the paper on the floor and ground it with his foot, a gesture I’d only seen in movies. “Screw you,” he said as he headed for the door.

When I got home, I Googled the name of the opera singer he had mistaken me for, and damn if I didn’t resemble her. I mean, not feature by feature. I was looking at a photo in which she was wearing a horned Valkyrie helmet, and I have never worn a horned Valkyrie helmet. But she was a deep-chested, formidable woman like me and I could see where he was coming from.

The second time this happened, I was heading home from the barn where I’d boarded my horse, Piegan. I’d just ridden and was still wearing my black leather chaps, and I had stuffed my small crop into my beltline. This time I was shopping at the hardware store for a ball-peen hammer. I’d read that keeping one in your car was a good security measure.

Again I saw a man; again he was sidling up to me and staring at me in a weird way. Instead of being creeped out, as I’d been with the opera fan, I gave him a smile. I was flattered that he recognized me. I was prepared to sign another autograph.

“Oh my God, it’s you,” he croaked. And this was true, it was indeed me, so I nodded and said, “Yup.” This man handed me a piece of paper, too: it had his name and phone number on it. As I read, it I could hear his heavy breathing. “Please call me, I will pay whatever you want,” he said.

“Who do you think I am?” I asked. He rolled his eyes and said a name that started with the word Mistress.

“I’m sorry, that’s not me,” I said. “I’m Jane Stern … the writer.” The glisten of excitement left his eyes.

When I got home, I Googled the name of this “mistress,” who turned out to be a famed dominatrix in the S and M world. Yes, I did vaguely look like her. I’m sure the black leather chaps and whip sealed the deal. Intrigued, I read everything I could find about her online, including what she charged to beat the crap out of men. I admit, for a moment or two I weighed a midlife career change. After all, I had the right wardrobe, a shiny new ball-peen hammer, and enough grudges to keep me busy for a very long time.


Jane Stern is the author of more than forty books, including Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT. She is the canine editor of Departures. With Michael Stern, she coauthored the popular Roadfood guidebook series. The Jane and Michael Stern Collection, comprising forty years of their research materials, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian.