As Well as I Do My Own

WHEN SOMEONE TAKES too authoritative a tone with my friend Slick Lawson, the Nashville photographer, he will say, “Well, I go along with what Donald Wilson Breland said about that.”

Then he will proceed to snap pictures. After a few moments the person who has taken too authoritative a tone will say, “Well . . . I don’t know Breland. Of course I know his work. . . .”

Then Slick will go on to mention that Donald Wilson Breland was a kid who sat in front of him in the fourth grade and ate paste. And what Donald Wilson Breland said, about everything, was “Whutcha wawnt me t’do uhbout it?”

Someone is going to catch me out like that someday. And only because I am trying to be gracious.

At my twenty-fifth high school reunion, last year, you would have been proud of me. The way I called those names up, with seldom even a quick half glance at a tag, you would have thought they were Ajax, Salome, Mrs. Miniver, and Jackie Robinson. I hadn’t seen Steve Fladger or Mickey Wallis in a quarter of a century, and they were the only two returning members of the class whose bone structure had changed (late height spurts) since graduation. But their names came to me like the list of vowels, because I had learned them when I was fresh, back before I had met or heard of 375,000 other Americans. By the time anyone gets to be forty-three, if he has followed current events and been out of town a few times, two thirds of the names he hears sound vaguely, but only vaguely, familiar.

People ask me, “Do you know Mason Swint?”

And I am not sure whether:

(a)I certainly do.

(b)I don’t personally, but I do know of him, because he is the one who just won an Emmy or Oscar or Grammy or Tony or Obie or Golden Globe or Golden Gloves or Olympic gold or Nobel or National Book Award or that other thing that’s like the National Book Award or one of the three or four world junior light-heavyweight championships.

(c) I don’t personally, but I do know of him, because he is that petting-zoo operator who was charged with lambkin, piglet, and duckling abuse.

(d) I am thinking of Morgan Swift, Morris Wilt, Milton Sweet, Marion Sweat, Morton Swing, Martin Short, or Myron Smart, some of whom I am sure I do know, or know of, and some of whom I believe I do, unless I am thinking of Mason Swint.

I should cut down on my name intake. But I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t know who’s who in my field. And I don’t know what my field is. Furthermore, I love names too much, for their own sake. How can I close my eyes to the fact that Stanford University has professors named Condoleezza Rice, an arms-control specialist, and Jon Roughgarden, an ecologist? All those z’s and g’s, on one faculty! Roughgarden should be a common term, like roughhouse or rough fish. Condoleezza Rice, according to the Stanford Observer, is from Birmingham, Alabama, and “her unusual name of Condoleezza is derived from the Italian musical term con dolce, which means ‘with sweetness.’” Ah.

Does Condoleezza rhyme with Louisa, pizza, mezza? In this country names can ring a range of bells. My friend Walter Iooss, the Flemish-American sports photographer, pronounces his name like “Yost” only with another s in place of the t. When Iooss took his marital vows, he did not say “I do.” He said what New York Knicks announcer Marv Albert says when a Knick hits a shot: “Yesss!” Iooss and I once rode in a Chicago cab driven by Rosetta Shinboom.

Cabdrivers, as a class, have the most noteworthy names in America. There was one in the New York Daily News the other day named Just Ackah. And yet they are quite often quoted anonymously. This strikes me as fishy. The way I look at journalistic ethics, license to cite a cogent cabdriver should not be extended to anyone who cannot also make up a credible name:

“Well,” observed U Gonxha, the Burmese-AIbanian hackie who drove me in from the airport, “what most folks around here are saying is. ...”

Most folks are not cabdrivers. But when I was younger I could remember their names anyway. One weekend in Pittsburgh I must have introduced my wife to two hundred people, flawlessly except for a set of twins. (With twins I have always tried too hard. I get them down pat, and then I look at one or the other, and it’s not as though I don’t know which one it is, but I think, “Pat. Is this the one I am determined to remember is Pat, or isn’t Pat?”) That was ten years ago. Now names come to me like dreams: at first so vivid (Oh, I’ll have no trouble holding on to this!) and then gone.

I FAULT NOT ONLY my age, which is advancing, but also the one we live in, which isn’t. Names today are like dollars: there are far more of them than there used to be, and they amount to less. Baseball players should all be mythical. But today there must be, among the Minnesota Twins alone, four or five semi-phenoms who have moved right on into budding sort-of-stardom without ever quite registering. There is a Puckett—or am I flashing back to Howie Pollet or Duane Pilette or General Pickett? And there is a Teufel. If you held a knife to my throat, I couldn’t tell you whether Teufel is pronounced as in

Teufel, Teufel, We adore thee

or to rhyme with rueful. I just don’t know. I don’t know whether I ever will know.

But I can live with that. What bothers me is finding myself face-to-face with an actual human being who looks familiar and who seems to know me (and why would he lie?) but whose name I am afraid I will not be able to dredge up until sometime next week, if then. Recently I spoke with my old college friend Lamar Alexander, who is now the governor of Tennessee. (Which means that I can name one American governor. Didn’t governors use to be more vivid?) I asked him how he managed to remember all the people he must shake hands with. His answer was he didn’t. He said that when somebody comes up to him with a certain sly grin and says, “I bet you don’t remember my name,”he often replies, “No, I bet I don’t.”

Why can’t I do that? Why must I bluff and flounder? Why in the name of all that is holy do I say things like, “Oh! Hi! Great to see you again, ah, Hmblmbl”? What possesses me to plunge into “Well! If it isn’t ...” at the same time that I am thinking, What if, in fact, it’s not!

It is time for me to face up to the fact that I can no longer place implicit trust in the tip of my tongue. I can no longer assume that I virtually remember the name in question and that if I just plunge forward with an honest heart. . . After your mind reaches saturation, an honest heart can’t carry it.

Not long ago I was autographing books in a city where I had worked some years before. No matter how bad your handwriting, you can’t fake an inscription: “For Mmninnln—those were the days!” And if you say, “For the life of me, I can’t remember the spelling. . . ,” then the answer will be:

“C-U-N ...”

“Right, right . . .”

“. . . N-I-N . . .”

“Oh, yeah, uh . . .”

“. . . G . . . H . . .”

“Ohhh, sure, . . . uh . . .”

“. . . A . . .”

“Oh! No! Of course! I don’t mean the Cunningham part! I mean your first...”


So I was delighted to see none other than old Greer Chastain (not his real name) in front of me. “Hey, Greer!" I sang out.

“This is old Greer Chastain,”I informed the bookstore’s proprietor. “Hell of a fisherman. Used to come into the office with a string that long of bass and bream and crappies and ...”

“Shea Whislet,” Greer said.

“What say, Greer?” I said.

“I’m Shea Whislet,” he said. (Not his real name.)

“Oh,” I said. “I . . . What’s wrong with me! Thing is, I guess because you used to hang around so much with Greer Chastain, and . . .”

“Noo,” he said, frowning.

“That’s right! That’s right! I don’t know’ what made me . . . Nobody used to hang around with Greer Chastain! Nobody even liked Greer Chastain! He stuck in my mind I guess because he was so unmemorable. Here, Shea, let me . . .”

Even though I made a point of not having to ask him how to spell Shea, our grins were forced when he moved away and the next person came forward.

“I’m Greer Chastain,” he said.

THE OTHER DAY I was playing tennis with my friend Lois Betts when a mutual acquaintance stopped by with his dog. I was almost entirely sure that this man was the one I thought he was, whose name I had heard many times, with whom I had chatted several times, and to whom I had often said, “Hi, how you doing?” I felt that if I strained for about five minutes I would know his name from Adam.

Furthermore, I felt that I would be able to stall for five minutes by focusing on the dog, whom I heard Lois call Bob. Unfortunately I am unable to focus casually on something I am not actually focusing on in my mind.

“Bob? Hey, that’s a good name for a big old orange dog,” I said, tousling Bob’s ears. “What caused you to name him Bob?”

“No . . , , it’s Hobbit, actually,” said the man.

“Oh,” I said heartily. “Thought Lois said Bob. Well, you’re a fine dog, Hobbit. Yes, sir. Never knew a dog named Hobbit.”

Meanwhile, I was thinking: Don’t babble. Concentrate. Wait a minute, it’s coming. Is it . . . ? No, no it probably isn’t. Don’t blurt it out! It probably isn’t!

“I had a dog named Bob when I was a kid,” I went on. “Because of his tail. And then, too, I had read Bob, Son of Battle. You know, that book by . . . Oh, you know. What’s his name? I know his name, it’s ...”

Meanwhile, I was thinking: Drop it. You’ve got enough to worry about. This man’s name. Concentrate.

“Old Bob, yep. I guess whenever I think of dogs, Bob’s name comes to mind. He was my favorite dog.”

Meanwhile, I was thinking: He was not! You’re lying about who your favorite dog was! Bob was no-account! Used to get lost all the time! Chipper was your favorite, and you know it! Somewhere in dog heaven, Bob is probably saying, “Hey, he never seemed to think I was all that great a dog when I was alive. Truth is. I wasn’t all that great a dog. I was always getting lost. He knows that. I never realized he was so shallow.

After perhaps four and a half minutes, Hobbit and the man trotted off. I gazed after them, relieved and yet vexed. “Lois,” I said, “what is . . .”

“Now that.” said Lois, “was awful.”

“Well,” I said, “I was trying . . .”

“The guy’s name is Bob,” she said.

I could, I guess, call all men Colonel or Big Fella. That doesn’t address the problem of what to call women. Sister? I don’t think it would go over.

For that matter, you have to be a certain kind of person to carry off calling people Colonel or Big Fella. You have to be a person on the order of Babe Ruth, who never made any pretense of remembering anyone’s name, even longtime teammates’. Ruth called everyone Jidge, a sort of affectionym for George, which was Ruth’s real first name. I believe that Bobo Newsom, the old pitcher, called everyone Bobo. Or maybe it was Bobo Olson, the old fighter. I don’t think I want to call everyone Roy.

I am reminded, however, that Byron Sahm, the Philadelphia Phillies’ announcer, is said to have opened his broadcast once by exclaiming, “Hello, Byron Sahm! This is everybody!”

If only one were, in fact, everyone else. Then the burden would be on them.