Rachel Lyon | Longreads | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,849 words)
I signed up for Gmail in 2005, a month after graduating college and outgrowing my .edu address. Technically the service was still in beta testing. It was early enough that I could claim my entire name, beginning to end, no numbers or crazy characters. The simplicity of my “OG handle”speaks to its vintage. I have to admit I’m rather proud of it. It also means I get a lot of correspondence not actually meant for me. Since I joined Gmail, it has grown to more than 1.5 billion active users: 20% of the world’s population. Since I joined Gmail, the world’s population itself has increased by 1+ billion! There are only so many words in the English language. There are only so many variations. Social media handles are stolen and sold like Uranium on the black market. IP addresses are finite.
I am included on the timesheet of a Melbourne store, Boost Juice — scheduled to work the closing shift on March 24 — and on the agenda for the 64th annual general meeting of the Citizens Advice Bureau in a small town outside of London. World Vision UK writes to thank me for my “donation of 10” (ten what, I don’t know). Kid to Kid Utah thanks me, too, for a donation of $9.32 worth of used children’s items. I am notified that my job application to teach at primary school in Leeds, UK, has been received. The school is rated 2.6 out of 5. One review reads: “Want your child to be bullied then send them there.”
One November I receive a note from Matt, who thinks he knows me from East High. “You Freshman Scum! A belated happy birthday this week. Hope all is going well.” (My birthday is in April, and no one would have called me “scum” when I was a high school freshman. I would have blushed. I might have cried.) December, I get a photo from Zoe — subject line: “SNOW,” body copy: “Happy Winter!” — of a courtyard, stone walls, and iron grate, blanketed in white. Adam sends me a photo, accompanied by no text at all, of three men in a lush, walled garden, one holding a Smart Water, the second holding a Starbucks cup, the third showing off three tickets to a Colts game. An American flag is stuck in a flowerpot.
Sophie writes to say how proud she is of my daughter, who “was such a sweet leader in the classroom today.” Marci tells me she signed up her son Cameron for the Abundant Life Garden Project, an after-school program at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Durham, NC, and she thinks my son Jack would have “a fabulous time” there, too. An automated message arrives from a public school in Cherryvale, KS, notifying me that my son Gary is failing English 11. His grade is 39%. What can you do with a kid like Gary? His future is looking bleak. I write to the school to let them know that the email address they’ve got on file for his mother, a different Rachel Lyon, is actually mine. They apologize and I don’t hear from them again — until the following year, when Marla writes to say she’s collecting pictures for a senior slideshow on graduation night, and will need photos of Gary no later than April 19. So Gary’s graduating after all! I’m glad he turned himself around.
One reason for all this misdirected correspondence is there are at least a few hundred people around the world who share my name. According to the dizzying website howmanyofme.com, there are 186 Rachel Lyons, Rachael Lyons, Rachel Lyonses, and Rachael Lyonses in the United States. The consonant-rich website uknames.gbgplc.com approximates 45 people in the UK, including spelling variations. (Canada — not known for its big egos, really — doesn’t seem to have an equivalent site; a search for an equivalent Australian site yielded suggestions for the following “related searches”: how many Daniels are in the world? how many people are named Mitchell? how many people in the world are named Humphrey? Apparently Daniels, Mitchells, and Humphreys are peculiarly given to egosurfing.) We Rachel Lyons are a not insignificant population.
Another reason I get so very much email, I suspect, is that when people are prompted to enter their email addresses to get something they want — free samples; access to 30 days of unlimited whatever — but don’t want to get all the spam that comes with doing so, they enter something else. What’s an easier address to think up than one’s-own-name@gmail? Given the number of digital receipts I get for things I didn’t buy, I know many Rachel Lyons have put my address down to misdirect their spam. If you’re a Rachel Lyon and you’re reading this, please know: I am here, I am real, I am receiving your correspondence, and I don’t want your spam any more than you do.
I do, however, very much enjoy the non-spam correspondence. An email is a glimpse into another life, a fragment of a story. Maybe I love getting other people’s mail because I am a fiction writer. Maybe I’m a fiction writer because I love getting other people’s mail. Chicken or egg, I do not know. All I know is it gives me a little rush. I read my misdirected correspondence carefully. I read it nosily. I read it with a little voyeuristic thrill and odd surprising pangs of envy. Rationally I know that to share a name with someone is a simple, random thing. Irrationally I can’t help but feel connected to the other Rachel Lyons of the world.