Personal Essays

"Thirty-Eight," 2009, Anthony Gayton
Courtesy the artist and MiTO Gallery Barcelona

Will the Real Frank Smith Stand Up

Sharing a name with thousands of other men, even hundreds of thousands, can make for interesting email. Some of the messages that have landed in his inbox.

The first email came from a woman named Emma. Emma had been stalked before and no longer sent photos by email, she wrote.

She was an Australian with a slim build, small bones, a slender neck, and long brown hair. She first wrote to me over the Christmas holiday. Well, she was writing to me, but she thought she was writing to someone else.

I was born Francis Joseph Smith. My father is Francis Edward and my grandfather was Francis Marlo. Both men went by their middle names. The name Francis has long been a family name—going back at least as far as the Civil War, starting with my great-great-grandfather. He had a farm, which is named the Frank Smith Farm. There’s a farm named after me. It’s an old farm, old enough to give me a solid claim to Frank Smith. Still, there are a lot of us Frank Smiths out there. Who knows what they have named after them?

Sometimes when I meet someone for the first time and tell them that my name is Frank Smith, they think I am joking. Hotel clerks have reassured me about their privacy policies when I’ve signed in at the front desk. For a long time I became so self-conscious of my name that whenever a new person misheard Craig, Greg, Clark, Fred, or even Jason when I said “Frank,” I let them think whatever they wanted to think. I spent an entire afternoon with a ski instructor who—for some reason—thought I’d said my name was Jeff. It made all of my fears of downhill skiing go away each time he called me that. Jeff cracked jokes about Sonny Bono that no one else found funny—and never once fell. For a few hours, I was able to live as someone who wasn’t named Frank Smith. It can be addictive.

What isn’t addictive is fielding emails for all the other Frank Smiths out there. Let’s just say that, being a nerd, I was one of the first adopters of what is now a very popular web-based email service. I set up an account with my name. No punctuation marks or numbers or anything like that. I have regretted it ever since. But I have gotten to know a lot of stuff about a lot of people named Frank Smith.

One of them was apparently an Australian and not bad with the ladies. The strange thing about Emma’s emails was that, even though I never responded, by the manner of her replies it seemed as if someone was writing back to her. Emma answered a variety of phantom questions. She was getting over bronchitis. Her bum was small. She wanted to know how many women I was seeing at the moment. I ignored most of these emails. But she kept writing. Finally, Emma threw down the gauntlet and said—

Every few months I hear from a new woman. Either she’s divorced or seeing other men on the side or she’s wondering how I found her work address in order to send her flowers.“How about I blow you on New Year’s Eve?”

I sat on my parents’ couch in southern Ohio and contemplated maxing out my credit card on a last-minute trip to Australia.

In the end, like always, I didn’t write her back. That was the last time I heard from Emma.

A wrong email is not like dialing the wrong phone number. With email, there’s no way to say, “Wrong number!” before the sender divulges eye-poppingly personal details. The emails I receive are the equivalent of the party line, which connected multiple phone customers on the same local loop; if you were quiet, you might luck out and get to hear your neighbors discuss something juicy.

Every few months I hear from a new woman. Either she’s divorced or seeing other men on the side or she’s wondering how I found her work address in order to send her flowers. I’ve received nude photographs, swimsuit pics, and close-up shots of what I can only assume are body parts photographed at odd, blurry angles.

One woman even wrote to ask me for more details on my seemingly recent arrest for marijuana possession. She, apparently, was not looking to hook up but instead to represent me in court.

I’ve received wedding photos from a woman who thought I was her new son-in-law. A blacksmith out West used to send me his thoughts on Obama (“The only bright spot in his administration is that there hasn’t been a Waco… yet”) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (“Lots of the stuff he said about farming I agree with”).

A man in the U.K. wanted to know if I had an R.V. to sell and when I said no, took it as a personal offense (“Fuck you then, mate”). There’s also a Frank Smith out there who is constantly trying to place an ad in the Chicago Tribune. Another Frank Smith is looking for quotes to ship his car and other possessions from Menlo Park, Calif., to Cambridge, Mass.

There was also a husband and wife in Philly who were seeking potential candidates for a ménage á trois. The wife was forwarding me emails meant for her husband, Frank Smith, along with her ratings of the emails on a scale of “knucklehead” to “creepy.” Her favorite was a gentleman named Chris who described himself as “devilishly handsome, polite, and sensitive to all your concerns.” He included a picture of himself in a hot tub. Though I didn’t write the woman back, Chris’s suggestion of “dinner, wine, and some good conversation as a first step” made him my favorite, too.

I’ve only written back to a few people. The woman sending me wedding pictures was very sweet when I told her that she had a lovely family but the wrong email address. A job recruiter was perfunctory. The blacksmith had thought I was his son, and even though we don’t share the same politics, his emails were touching, like cowboy poetry—

Dear Son,

The prairie dogs are out and about and we are slaying them left and right. The rancher next to Kevin has asked our help to clean them out up by his barn. We never go up that far and I guess the dogs have taken up residence. So we are going to have a big shoot up there soon.

How’s the job going? Hope you are having some time to enjoy good weather. Am going to Kevin’s this week to pitch the tent for the season and will be camping there this weekend.

Molly is doing well but got yelled at last night and brought inside and put in the crate. The pit bitch next door had puppies ten weeks ago and they love to run up and down the fence barking at Molly, who reciprocates.

Going to Tea Party organizational meetings and gathering signatures for the Constitution Party ballot access. Other than that, business has picked up from the dead of winter.


When I finally wrote to the blacksmith to tell him he had the wrong address for his son, I mentioned that I wished my father wrote me emails like that.

He was the first one to really understand what was going on when I wrote him back. His name was also Frank Smith. And—he’d named his son Frank Smith. I don’t even understand what that means. People who are aware of the confusion perpetuate the confusion? A family name is still a family name? Do people named Frank Smith just name their sons Frank Smith because of a biological imperative?

But even with all of these misdirected emails, at least I had always been the only Frank Smith in my neighborhood. Email was the internet, the ether, electronic beeps and boops. Until I met with a representative from a title company, I’d never had to confront the idea that there was real tangible evidence that there were Frank Smiths surrounding me.

My wife and I were in the brownstone office of a real-estate lawyer in Brooklyn. We were there to sign a massive stack of documents that would finalize the purchase of an apartment—our first home. Our lawyer and broker had yet to arrive, which gave a representative from the title company time to go over some information with us.

An entire subway car filled with people named Frank Smith is not inconceivable.My wife’s name is unique enough that she didn’t need to sit down with a ream of paper and say “yes” or “no” when presented with an address. In fact, she didn’t have to deal with this at all. But when the title company dude dropped his book of Frank Smiths on the table and said he had some questions, I was not at all surprised.

Hundreds of people with my name had committed a variety of unnamed crimes—crimes that would preclude them from getting a bank loan. And some of them lived near enough to me that an entire subway car filled with people named Frank Smith was not inconceivable.

Not only was I being confronted in real life with the strange misadventures of other Frank Smiths, but I could actually begin to match some of them up with their actual addresses. It was all there. I’ve sent queries out to different iterations of my email address. There has to be another Frank out there whose address is just a letter or two different than mine, right? Most of the time, the emails bounce back. I once managed to get a hold of the phone number of the Frank who was planning to move to Cambridge. A moving company sent me a copy of the form he filled out that had his phone number.

I dialed him up, but even my meager experience as a reporter—where making abrupt and often uncomfortable phone calls was a prerequisite for the job—wasn’t enough to compel me to complete the call. I mean, how could I play that one off without sounding like the world’s worst identity thief? I hung up when he answered the phone. Sorry about that, Frank Smith.

It used to bother me that I shared my name with so many people. We all want to think that we’re unique. But I’ve realized that it takes more than just a name to stand out. As it is, I am a man of many different races, political leanings, and sexual yearnings. I have been in jail. I am fighting to stay out of jail. I have opinions about prairie-dog infestations. I am not the only Frank Smith, even in my own neighborhood.

I am not alone.