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Identity Crisis

There’s a place I go where everybody knows my name — it’s just not always the same name.

BBQ ChickenLet me explain. I’ve been getting the same lunch — half a barbecued chicken, with “salad and salad” on the side (you get two sides) — for the past three years or so, thanks to my modified-low-carb diet. I love this restaurant! It’s owned by two incredibly hard-working brothers from Iran, Mostapha and Morteza. They remember what everyone likes to order, and they bring daily joy into the lives of all their customers. Strangely, many of the regulars call both brothers “Mo.” Well, I guess that’s not so strange — but it’s definitely ironic, given what I’m about to tell you.

Which is this: A couple of years ago, after I’d been eating there for a few months, Morteza read a little article about me in the newspaper. And when I came in, he told me about it; but the thing is, he misremembered my name from the article as being “Joseph.” Looking back at it, I suppose I should have corrected him right away — okay, you’re right, I definitely should have done that. But I guess I was slightly embarrassed at having been in the paper: Who did I think I was, anyhow? Anyway, for whatever reason, I let it slide. And from that day forward, to both Morteza and Mostapha I was “Joseph.”

And as I said, I always ordered the same thing. My wife teased me, saying they were going to put “Chicken Joseph” on the menu. My friend John embarrassed me by ostentatiously, and loudly, calling me “Joseph” over and over. As in, “Where should we sit, Joseph? How about over here, Joseph? Could you pass me the ketchup, Joseph?” Whenever anyone was going to meet me there, I’d make sure they knew to call me Joseph — and I’d beg them not to make a big deal of it, as John had done.

Thus the months passed, and five days a week (give or take) “Joseph” had the half BBQ chicken with salad-and-salad (and a large glass of ice water with a slice of lemon — unless Joseph was feeling a little racy and got a Diet Coke instead). Joseph also started having low-carb breakfasts there as well. A couple days a week, in the morning, Mostapha or Morteza — or sometimes Humberto, who works there a lot as well — push a bunch of tables together for a “breakfast club” of senior citizens. It’s a jolly group; they particularly like it when I bring in my young son for breakfast before school. (Early on, my son and I had along talk about why Daddy was known as “Josh” in most places but “Joseph” in this place.) At some point I realized that I was getting something much more valuable than food at this restaurant: it was a community that I felt very comfortable in, a home away from home — but without any strings attached. And the person I was when I entered this world was not “Josh” but “Joseph.” Not Josh the neurotic, but Joseph the solid citizen and healthy eater. Yes, I liked being Joseph. The breakfast-club people liked Joseph. Joseph was the best of public me.

And then I got a TV show. And the TV show was called The Josh Kornbluth Show, and there was a big article about it in the paper. And when I came in for lunch that day, the moment I’d been dreading for months and months was finally upon me. Both “Mo” brothers were there, and they had an urgent question: Who was I, Josh or Joseph? Now, I’d given this matter a lot of thought, trying out different possible answers on my friends and family. So I went with the answer I’d decided on, itself a semi-lie. I said, “Well, my legal name is Joseph, but my friends call me Josh.”

After that, here’s how it broke down: Mostapha started calling me “Josh,” while his brother went on calling me “Joseph.” In the meantime, Humberto — possibly not wanting to take sides — seemed to be calling me “Josheph.” The food continued to be excellent, no matter who was ordering it.

It’s been a while since then, and the Mo brothers still observe the same Josh/Joseph dichotomy. But Morteza, having repeatedly seen me being called Josh on TV and noticing that everyone else seems to know me as Josh, appears to have taken a whimsical attitude towards the whole thing. Not long ago, I came in for breakfast, and a new customer said, “Hey, aren’t you that guy on TV?” Morteza told him, “Yes, he’s Josh Kornbluth.” Then he smiled and added, “Although I call him Joseph — I have no idea why!”

I hope he never stops.