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ON THE TOWN

SORRY, WRONG WANDA : Sharing a Name and Looking Like Someone Else Lead to a Life of Double Trouble

October 22, 1995|Wanda Coleman

"Oh, there you are!" Huz did an exaggerated double-take as he exited the post office and greeted me with a handful of mail. While he'd checked the P.O. box, I'd dashed across the boulevard for a pound of coffee. "I thought I was talking to you, but this other young woman turned around. Quick--I'll show you." But she'd vanished. Rushing through the same post office a day later, my friend Donna saw the same African American woman. "G-i-r-r-r-lll! She looked just like you."

Once again, there was a tear in the space-time curtain. But this doppelganger and I would never meet. Relieved, I assumed I had once again avoided impending cosmic doom or displacement by an alien. Besides, it wasn't the first time I'd been mistaken for someone else.

Frequently, I'm cast as a celebrity look-alike. In the late '60s, though still a teen-ager, I was pegged for folk singer Odetta because, I speculated, we sported similar 'fros. In the mid-'70s, I was a ringer for Maya Angelou or Tamara "Cleopatra Jones" Dobson, all of us tall and dark-skinned. In the late '80s, it was writer Alice Walker (outspoken) and, lately, it's either Whoopi Goldberg (shared birthday) or Oprah (shared tendency toward "heavyset").

But being big, black and misidentified in L.A. can also be scary. Early on, I learned to carry a tome-sized book when traveling by bus after sundown. Vice officers, looking to roust prostitutes, would pull curbside to the bus stop, spot my book, then speed off. Far worse were those times when I was mistaken for a black male. My giant earrings didn't always save me the outrage of being stopped and frisked.

More amusing are those moments when my nationality is mistaken, like on one return from Mexico. "Where'd you come from--Honduras?" a border guard once shouted, eyeing my head wrap suspiciously. "I was borrrn in East L.A.!" I sang out. He laughed and waved us on our way.

Strangest of all was my 20-year orbit with another Wanda Coleman. When I enrolled in one arts workshop, she joined the rival one. After my director accused me of betrayal, I drove over to confront the other Wanda. She wasn't there, but our name appeared on the workshop roster. Later, after moving into my first Hollywood apartment, our "double starring" increased, and I received her calls from feminist groups and old boyfriends. Once my phone rang at 3 a.m. "Where you livin' now?" the man blurted without name or hello. "This is loverboy, Deacon."

"Sorry, I don't know you."

"Don't bullshit me, baby!"

"Oh! You want the other Wanda!" He apologized and hung up.

At a late-'80s party, another old flame looked me over and gingerly stated that he'd expected to meet the other Wanda, that we looked nothing alike and that she was "more modest." A year later, I deplaned in Sacramento for a business jaunt and was puzzled by the unexpected royal treatment. My host explained that he'd expected the other Wanda, having worked with her before. A few months later, an unfamiliar white-haired lady stepped out of a crowd, hugged me and announced that she was my 12th-grade English composition teacher. I explained the mixup. Disappointed, she said I'd probably been a wonderful student, too.

One Friday, I received a gift from a friend: "Pages of My Mind," a 1968 yearbook featuring work by high school seniors. His note said he thought I'd treasure it. In it was "Virgil," a story by--guess who--a senior at San Fernando High, a school I'd never attended. The very next day, at a public forum, a tall, brown-skinned woman approached me and said flatly: "Hello. My name is Wanda Coleman." Beside myself, I babbled: "I've so much to tell you!" I scribbled my home number on a card and pressed it into her palm. That was six years ago. She never called. And, oddly, our lives haven't intersected since.

Then just days ago, at my Westside coffee hang, I again felt that familiar starstruck gaze. Ignoring it, I placed my order. The counter girl hesitated, then asked. "Are you Angela Davis?"

" That ," I sputtered, "is a new one!"

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