For some reason Mrs. Churm and I decided, back then, to fly to New York and buy our engagement ring at Tiffany’s. I can’t really recall why we did this. We knew it would mean a diamond the size of a grain of salt for the same price as a softball-sized rock from the Sears jewelry counter. (Sears’ ad copy reads, “This…stunning round [sic] diamond ring is authentic. The ring has 13 peerless stones set in 10k yellow-gold. Handsome to the touch.…”) But we’re not big-rock people anyway.
At one point I told the Tiffany’s salesperson that I hoped to pop the question over dinner during our few days there. She was a big-rock person. Under cross-examination, I admitted I’d made no reservations. She lifted her telephone and, with a whisper of her company’s mighty name, got us a reservation that night at a place in the Village that I’d mentioned hopelessly, having read it was a romantic hotspot.
Then, having healed my ineptitude, she bustled around us professionally—matron, hustler, ringmaster, dominatrix—charging my credit card, speeding along the jeweler resizing the ring, ordering someone else to put a final polish on the wedding bands, tying ribbons on the immaculate little blue boxes. When we were nearly done, she said, “Forgive me for saying so, but you guys look like you’re from the Midwest.” It was more observation than insult, despite the apparent need to be forgiven.
Sweaty, tired, dressed too festively, laden with camera and shopping bags, I understood. Obviously we were the sort of good Americans who sneaked in from the hinterlands, caught a peek of wicked Gotham, then fled back to the hotel to don hair shirts for the flight home and pray together that the airline wouldn’t serve those racy spiced peanuts as an in-flight snack. I didn’t hold the judgment against her, as I hoped she’d forgive me for thinking that discounted company pearls and Sisley-Paris Elixir could never disguise that she came from a long line of potato farmers.
It’s important to Crazy Larry, my actor friend, to figure out why we think we know things about people. Sure, it will make him a better actor, but he also figures that by controlling others’ perceptions of him, he’ll become more successful in life. Unfortunately, when Larry smiles at difficult bank tellers, acting the part of Friendly Guy Who Won’t Give Anyone Any Trouble, policemen unsnap their holsters.
I only partially understand why people think I’m anything but a teacher at a big state university. I used to get mistaken for a grad student a lot, but having kids fixed that (O! my beautiful face! The ravages of unsleep!). Other people have thought I’m a clueless visitor to campus, an English actor (!), a tech support guy, and once, the janitor come to let them into a locked classroom.
Much of it is cosmetic, of course. If it’s warm and I’m not teaching, I wear shorts, t-shirt, and boat shoes, whether I’m here or elsewhere. (Crazy Larry says comfortable clothes are a sure tip-off to “Midwestern,” whatever that means.) I don’t spend a lot on haircuts, and I’m usually lost in thought, so my expression ranges from distracted to unfocused. Is this not professorial?
Wear a cell phone clipped to your belt  or the lip of your pocket, and people will think: “support staff,” or “newspaper editor.” But having it hidden in a pocket, where it can bounce and make your pants sag, shows lack of repose . It’s complicated: Profs and grad students who frequent the health food store up the block wear sport sandals that mean, “I’m at one with the natural flow of the universe, enjoy flax seed pancakes, and like the idea of minimalist backpacking trips through the Tetons.” I have a pair too but they always stare, as if I don’t fit the subculture. I do know that if they ever try to wear those sandals into nature, nature will rip their toes off.
Speech plays a large role, of course, but like hair, it can often be styled. I remember a talking head in a linguistic anthropology course who claimed to be able to identify exactly where a person came from by listening to them speak a few sentences. Until then I had never been able to hear the difference between “gin” and “Jen,” “pin” and “pen,” and I said “woof” for “Wolf.” I learned to hear myself, and for the first time, knew shame. (It’s even odder, in this age of transnational media and shifting populations, that linguistic tags are still as identifiable as they are. See this website over at the BBC , which finds dozens of distinct dialects in the UK.)
There is a possibility that people look at me and see something deeper than haircut, clothing style, and teeth that have never seen braces—something from way back. My real surname, I read recently, means either “those who dwell in the woods in Warwickshire over by Shakespeare’s house,” or, less flatteringly, “those who live with the pigs in that copse down in the valley—that little stretch of woods where you better hide your moneypurse under the ox’s bellyband when you pass through on the way to market to sell your geese.” What can I do about that?