Mayfield: The name game |

Mayfield: The name game

by Rich Mayfield

Today is our most important national holiday, and that means everyone should get the day off, including newspaper columnists. So here’s one, slightly updated, from the archives…

“May I have a name, please?” the kind young woman asked as she finished relaying my tall latte order to her co-worker.

In the nanosecond or two that bridged the gap between her question and my response, a strange and potent power seemed to make its presence known deep within the gaps of my psyche. Here was my chance, I surmised, to change my identity. I could, with the ease of unchallenged conversation, simply become someone other than myself.

For instance, I might stare deeply into her rather unresponsive hazel eyes and say, “They call me ‘Steel'” and see if such nomenclature might buckle her probably aching knees. Or, if I was feeling a need to convince myself and any overhearing others that I possess intellectual powers now abundantly lacking, I might respond to her innocent request by squinting more than a little, push the bridge of my glasses higher up on my formidable nose and say, “Albert” or, “Leonardo” – if I’m feeling that bold.

My mother once mentioned that I bore a striking resemblance to Paul Newman or maybe it was Danny DeVito. No matter. Now was my chance to try on either for size. Actually, I have for many years now spent too much time wondering what it would be like to have a book on the bestseller list. “John” (as in Grisham), I could say or “Chicken” (as in Soup).

Isn’t this fun? OK maybe fun isn’t exactly the right word but surely you can see the myriad of possibilities that present themselves. You call the restaurant to make your reservation but instead of something as prosaic as Jones or Smith or Mayfield, we get to say, “Ferrari” or “Buffett” or maybe “J. Biden” if you’re feeling really cheeky. I’ll bet the table waiting for you won’t be by the bathroom door.

I probably shouldn’t admit this but, just between you and me, I sometimes am not completely honest when someone asks what it is I used to do. Like changing my name, I have been tempted not to fully reveal my former professional status to strangers. Over the years I have found such a pronouncement can, and very quickly, end conversation and put dampers on any fun. Once on a chairlift, I was, most hospitably, offered a share in my seat-partner’s marijuana joint. My smiling declination did not prevent him from sharing two-thirds of his life story by the time we were half way up the lift. As we hit the mid-point, he inquired as to my former profession. Honestly I told him and, honestly, he never said another word.

Another time, on a two-and-a-half-hour flight to California, the fellow sitting next to me offered me something very different than my acquaintance on the lift. This guy gave me nothing more than a big smile. But then he opened up a Bible and began to feverishly take notes, underlining whole chapters. He would frequently turn toward me in a not-too-subtle invitation to conversation. I buried myself in my book and pretended not to notice his very public piety. Had he asked I would, without question, have told him anything but the truth. I’m nauseous enough when I fly.

“Pierre,” I could say with one raised eyebrow, hinting of exotic locales. “Igor” I could grunt and experience, if only momentarily, what it might be like to be an intimidator rather than always the intimidatee.

My dad had the wonderful name “Max,” although I never appreciated it when I was a kid. I wanted an old man with a moniker like “Joe” or “Bud.” “Max” always seemed more mousy than macho. People named their dogs “Max,” not their people. Only now that he’s gone I miss hearing his name. So here was my chance to honor his memory. Should I take it?

I once knew a man named “Caroll.” Johnny Cash knew a boy named “Sue.” I have a male friend named “Joy.” Would it be too shocking to tell her my name was “Charlotte”? Would the laugh be worth the embarrassment of innocently shouting out “Margaret?”

The possibilities are many, the risks reasonably few. I bit my lower lip and took a deep breath. “Rich,” I said.

Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to

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