*The email said we’d spent time together as kids in the same Oklahoma City neighborhood.
He did seem to know all the ways my friends and I whiled away our enchanting childhood summers: riding our Stingray bikes in the blistering midday sun, despite Mama’s advice to the contrary; spending spectacular mornings in the swimming pool at Washington Park; using penny candy as currency; swigging down bottles of ice cold Nehi and Squeeze pop at the Ice Dock on eighth street. Scarfing down hamburgers, hotdogs and potato chips from tiny, quality neighborhood greasy spoons such as Butler’s and Grady’s.
I wrote back that I have fond memories of all those things. I just didn’t remember doing any of them with a boy named Thomas. The man responded with just five words: “Stevie”–only family and friends from my Stone Age call me that–”this is June Bug.”
June Bug. My God. How many days had I spent wondering whatever happened to the doe-eyed skinny kid with milk chocolate skin, really good looking but not stuck on himself, who used to come from Kansas City to spend summers with his grandmother in Oklahoma City. Like a migrating bird, he’d show up late May and then disappear at the end of August. He found Donny and I one evening on our bikes behind Carter G. Woodson Elementary, introduced himself–what kid formally introduces himself?– and that was it. We were fast friends, hanging out a couple of summers.
I never knew his real name. The day we met, his grandmother stuck her head out the storm door of her clapboard dollhouse of a home and summoned him in for dinner as June Bug. From that moment on, that’s what we called him. Getting an email from June Bug–not knowing him by anything else–and him calling me Stevie as opposed to Steven, got me to thinking about nicknames.
I considered all the June Bugs I’ve encountered in my childhood; all the people I’ve known who answered to monikers that began with “Little” or “Lil,’” indicating that somewhere, there is someone bigger and older with the same name. How is it that a girl ceremoniously christened Margaret at birth but who answers to Allison, is known to everyone as Coco?
We’re a nickname-conscious culture. We rename everything, from people-–J-Lo and Brangelina-–to government programs-–ObamaCare. Strangers at cocktail parties, after being introduced, casually counter with, “What would you prefer to be called?” How about the name I just gave you.
Just once, with a straight face, I’d like to find the gumption to reply: “Call me Hank. But just for this evening, and just between you and I. To everyone else, please introduce me as King of the Booty Slappers. KOTBS for short.” I can just hear THAT being shortened (“…Oh, have you met Booty?….).
At least those people give you the courtesy of asking what you’d like to be called. How about the special souls you’re introduced to, who, in the name of brevity or implausible attempt at familiarity, promptly return your name to you sliced, diced and reduced to molecule form, as if it’s all just too much for them to mouth. Kevin becomes Kev, Gary becomes Gar and Barbara mutates into the hideous BARB. These people would find a way to shorten a weenie dog. The name Lee might be reduced to a breathy lisp. I’m not sure what becomes of Shaniqua.
Of course, nicknames can be terms borne out of sheer affection. Boo Boo. Daddy. Or, out of respect. BIG Daddy. Whether complimentary or mocking, self-anointed or designated by others, the names are our way of connecting simply, yet significantly. A nickname can say it all. Take Sweet Charles, for example. Or Chemical Ali.
I’ve nothing against nicknames. I use them, too. But I wonder: why suffer the trouble of getting your real name onto a driver’s license, only to go through life as…Pooky? And by the way, how do you get Dick from Richard?
As people evolve, nicknames are often shed. Larry becomes Lawrence. Pat quietly, firmly insists upon Patricia. After that email, I got on the phone with someone I hadn’t spoken to since we were children. I wondered aloud what becomes of June Bugs.
“They move to the big city!” said Thomas, chuckling loudly into his receiver. The inquisitive, rambunctious boy whose dust I used to eat when we raced our bikes down Kelly Avenue was now a 53 year-old man.
In a soft, assertive voice, Thomas said that throughout his life he wondered about all the people who so warmly welcomed him to that quaint Oklahoma City neighborhood in the mid ’60s. “I remembered your family name was like the soap. I found you online. How many black guys could there be out there writing about Oklahoma?”
It was his grandmother who first called him June Bug, “because I was born in June.” The name stuck with family and friends until his late teens, when he refused to answer to June Bug and began introducing himself as Thomas.
“And now I bet they call you Tommy, ” I joked.
“Not exactly.” A lot had changed since he and I were kids. “A LOT,” he repeated, in uneasy laughter. He grew up, married and fathered three “wonderful” kids before finally facing a stark truth about himself and divorcing.
Today, Thomas lives somewhere back east with his male partner of a decade, running their successful gourmet food company. He no longer answers to Thomas or Tommy, for that matter, preferring I call him what people in his life currently know him as: Pearl. A long way from June Bug, in more ways than one. But then, what’s in a name.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via: [email protected]