The Other Gates

27 Feb 2005
February 27, 2005

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates is a spectacle consistent with [the Renaissance art tradition], a piece of elaborate social theater that’s an unintentional portrait of our time. That portrait can be poignant and charming; most of all, it’s funny. I’m surprised more isn’t being made of the ongoing social comedy surrounding The Gates, which is a satirist’s dream. Well, actually, I’m not surprised: People are afraid to smile too much around art.

Mark Stevens
New York Magazine

The Gates. “The Gates” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Much is being written about Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s latest public art piece in Central Park. There are even homages and parodies (and parodies) of the work. Whatever you think and whatever you’ve read, it’s certainly a cause for celebration: art displacing war on the front pages of major media.

But I’m not here to talk about the work. Instead, let’s talk about the title of the work. The Gates. It’s nice to see your name in headlines, plastered all over the Web, and on the nightly news. But it certainly isn’t the first time.

I’m what you might call a Celebrity, once removed. I see my name on airport and train station signage all the time: “To Gates 71-75.” At the Oakland Airport there is even a more personal acknowledgment: “Gates 7-17” (my birthday). And now I’m associated with fine public art.

Yes, my name is famous. But I am merely a country cousin. Not in the real sense. I’m not related to Bill (or to Christo and Jeanne-Claude for that matter). I actually come from a very short line of Gateses. It’s just my two daughters and me now. At Ellis Island some low-level official set me up for this by christening my grandfather Herman Guyetsky as Herman Gates. I’ve given thought to changing it back, but, then, I’ve built up quite a reputation –once removed of course.

I’m not related to other Gateses. But people I come in contact with on a daily basis often think I might be. On the average I am asked the Bill question at least twice a month.

Just last week my friendly Italian dry cleaner decided it was time to find out the truth. When I handed her my receipt for last week’s dirty laundry she wanted to know the real dirt: “Are you related to Bill Gates?” she queried in her heavy southern Italian accent. I’ve been handing over my clothes to her for 12 years with nary an acknowledgment of my special status. Suddenly, she needs to know. “I am his evil twin,” I replied, using answer number 2 on my list of quick Gates quips (“Who is Bill Gates?” is number 1 and “Why, yes I am.” is number 3). She let out with a nervous snicker.

Once when I answered with number 3, a man replied “Really? You’re kidding. You are not! Write me a check.” I can’t win.

Tech conferences and trade shows are the worst (only Windows-based ones –never at Apple events). People think they can come right up to me, put their arm over my shoulder and ask THE question. They think I’m their friend and they expect me to think of them in an identical fashion. Fawning over me like that. Oh, the burdens of almost being SOMEBODY.

My Business Card

Trying to cash in on my near-legendary status, I put Bill’s photo on my own business card. Introduce yourself at any conference and mention this code (JGISRELATED2BG) for your souvenir copy.

So I’ve concocted a way to cash in on Bill’s fame in my own idiosyncratic fashion. I’ve place his photo on my business card. Can I be blunt: “Yes, I am indeed a Gates. See it says it right here on my card. The picture? Well, I’ll let you connect the dots. I could have real connections.”

I was once mistakenly invited to speak at a conference with Bill in Mexico City. The organizer thought I was another Jeff Gates –the even more famous one. I quickly accepted but was immediately exposed to be the interloper I truly was trying to be. A hijinks worthy of The Yes Men.

My wife was worried I’d get arrested for impersonating a celeb. She doesn’t recognize my real status. She decided to keep her own name, totally uninterested in riding the coattails of others. But my mother-in-law uses “Gates” whenever she makes a restaurant reservation, even when I’m not with her. She and her bridge club friends reap the benefits of my almost stardom. I’ve been able to deflect her requests for a pile of my business cards.

It’s not that I haven’t basked in my own limelight over the years. When I put my personal demographics up for sale on eBay back in 1999, Marc Fisher wrote a piece about it in the Washington Post magazine. But then I got an angry email from the business partner of that other Jeff Gates accusing me of using the well-earned reputation of his associate to build upon my own. “The hubris!” we both thought. I felt like Frank Sinatra, Jr. No matter what I did, I would always be living under someone else’s shadow.

Now that I’ve posted my card for everyone to see I may get a cease-and-desist letter from that other Mr. Gates’ lawyers. Only then will I move from a Celebrity-by-Association to simple Celebrity. Surly his image is open source, even if his software isn’t.

It’s been a pleasure being connected with those beautiful saffron-colored Gates these past few weeks, even in my marginal, vicarious sort of way. On behalf of all the other Gateses in the world (may I speak for you too, Bill?) I’d like to thank Christo and Jeanne-Claude for including us.

No autographs please.

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1 reply
  1. Donna says:

    Since I’ve known you before I knew who Bill Gates was, I never made the association of his name and yours. I suspect that’s because I think of him as “Billgates” – the one word icon in the tech world.

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