A 1967 Rose By Any Other…
Posted on July 15, 2016
He just asked me for mine. He’s so cute and I’m so not worthy. But here we stand, me pulling on my long red hair with one hand, tugging at my mini skirt’s hem with the other. He is shifting his weight from side to side, hands clasped behind his back, in a futile stab at coolness. He doesn’t know his fly is down; I’m not sure how big the sweat marks are under my armpits. The cavernous room’s lights have been dimmed, but not so much as to prevent me and my fellow teenagers from employing our pinpoint laser night-vision assessment capabilities. And it’s certainly light enough for the adult chaperones to be on the lookout for premarital sex. Wait! Is that Mrs. Pointdexter? Carrie’s mom? Oh God. How embarrassing.
The boy and I stand in the middle of this church rec hall which has been transformed into our parents’ ideal of a teen-dance milieu. The theme for the evening is Land of the Midnight Sun. There are garlands of crepe paper festooned from wall to wall and sparkly Styrofoam crescent shapes glued on the ceiling. It’s early in the evening, and one sad moon has already fallen to the floor. The sun is represented by an orange-painted orb precariously dangling from one of the several fluorescent lights.
Glossy wooden floors might be just the ticket for a clean sweep of apple pie crumbs or an errant gloppy potato that jumped ship from the rest of the potato salad on any given Sunday church social. But, for tonight’s teenage dance, it’s pure hell. Shoes stick and then squeak when the Twist or the Monkey or the Swim (come on in!) is rendered. When a paper cup, ladled full of punch, is spilled, I hear guffaws from the lower registers of the football players and tinkley tee-hees from their female counterparts who make up the in-crowd. Embarrassed teens step in and skid on the puddle. Mortification ensues for those called sissies and dorks. They weren’t going to be dancing anyway. Only the really boss ones avoid the mess, tiptoeing around the spilled pool of pink on their way to claim their dance floor real estate. They owned it already.
As a pimply faced guitarist works out the refrain of “Light My Fire” on the Fender his parents just bought him for Christmas, his band mates nod their heads in an effort to find the beat. More likely, however, they like the way their bangs and shaggy just-ear-length hair moves when they bop around on stage for the chicks to admire. I can’t hear this potential dance partner’s name when he offers it up to me, but he asks me again for mine. Why don’t I know him? Have I seen him before or more importantly, will I ever see him again?
This Saturday night church dance in Orinda is not my first rodeo. In fact, these dances are the answer to my angst-filled prayers. Any kid in the area is welcome to attend—regardless of religion. Such monthly dances are meant as a means to get kids off the cruising strips of Walnut Creek and Lafayette and into the clutches and guiding eyes of adults. Keeping teenagers vertical and moving, where chaperones can monitor behavior is critical as we all lurched through the late 1960s. My peer group is a moving target.
These assemblies of teenagers from assorted high schools in the area and hosted by the well-meaning ecumenical folks–one month at the Lutheran hangout, the next at the Presbyterian joint, and later in the year, at the Catholic hangout–allow those of us on the B-list to have a crack at moving up the very steep and narrow social ladder and into the heady world of popularity. Social mobility can only be attained by those of us on the lower rungs when no one knows your name. It’s like an early rendition of the witness protection program. Your name could betray you. What if someone had heard of you or your wayward sibling? Or what if your father were a high school principal? Not that these worries were mine. Rather, my name was my millstone because of its shear uniqueness and its audacious Jewishness. It was like hitting somebody in the face with a matzo ball when I introduced myself. The resulting grimace was always followed by a “Huh?” and a “How do you spell that?” Faking my identity was an easy way to have a fresh start at each dance every month.
My best friend, Holly (this was her church-dance moniker and not her real name) would say to her potential suitors who asked and in whom she had no interest: “Hey, Holly, can I have your phone number?”
“It’s in the book,” she answered– referring to a phone book.
“What’s your last name?” he persisted.
“That’s in the book too.” And, Holly would move on before the punch on the soles of her shoes got too sticky.
My name is Chris, I told the boy. Thinking about my choice today, I wonder why I imagined Chris and not Kris. Nobody was ever writing anybody’s name down anyway. Last names were never exchanged — only phone numbers if you were lucky. But did we bring pens? I don’t think so. At one dance, I experimented with a last name. That night I was Chris (Kris?) Pandora. Of course, the guy who asked my name was the one kid in the whole room who had actually stayed awake for the section on Greek mythology. He asked me if I were born in Crete. If I wanted ethnic, I certainly didn’t have to make up a new name. Mine was already a mouthful of cultural diversion. I kept it simple after that and was on a first name basis with my crowd.
That is, I kept it simple and Native American. Several years prior to developing breasts, a waistline, and a need for teenage boys’ affirmations, I had another chance to rebrand myself. As a Campfire Girl, all I was looking for was a place to belong. The group of eager preteens met weekly, at someone’s home that was more nuclear in feeling, more suburban-standard in décor, and much more filled with the fresh-baked aromas of cookies and brownies than my eclectic but more-often-than-not motherless house. It was on a tufted sofa that 4 or 5 of us could squeeze in and dangle our legs while we sewed onto navy blue vests the felt patches and assorted beads that represented our many good deeds. Just like real Indians. Except for the couch. There was a book that passed from lap to lap, and you were instructed to leaf through this bible of Indian names to pick out one that best described you. After a couple of bites of brownie and a tall glass of milk, the obvious choice was as plain as war paint: O Kee Kee La…meaning? Able to arrange flowers well. One of my fellow tribeswomen, from then on, called me O Kee.
The first day of high school each year was a chance to start over. I don’t know what the quarterback or the prom queen worried about the night before all of us assembled in the quad to regurgitate summer stories and show off our brand new dresses. Waiting for the first bell to ring in those sweltering early days of September sun was odious. But, you couldn’t be a wimp. Locating my friends on the first day of school was as much a relief as finding my luggage after a transatlantic flight is now. I was whole again.
What kept me awake all night before my first day of class was the worry over my name. I became frantic thinking about how each teacher, in every class, for 7 periods would struggle to pronounce it. The experience never deviated, it seemed. Even if for some reason I knew the teacher from the year before… once the kids filed into the classroom and those all-in-one desk-and-chair fittings were occupied, the teacher would address the class with a welcoming remark and then pull out the dreaded class roster. He or she would eyeball the name on the paper in front of them, find the matching student in the doe-eyed, motley assortment in front of him or her. A nod, maybe a smile, would ensue and sometimes that was followed by a “Aren’t you Judy’s sister?” or a “Oh, how is your brother doing in Viet Nam?”
Alphabetically prolonged terror would erupt in my bowels. I was Naomi Sinai. That’s about from here to eternity when you are waiting for the massacre to come.
I’d hear the teacher going down the A-Z class list: Ezra Pound? Here. Don Quixote? Here. Robert Redford? Here. As he approached the S’s, I’d have difficulty finding any saliva in my mouth. I could tell I was next. There was always the teacher’s prolonged hesitation. Then, the long, too-loud sigh of exasperation. This was my name he was looking at. “Come on teacher,” I would think. “Do this! Put me out of my misery.” Nie-oh-ma See-ah-nigh? The inflection indicated, “Is this right?” The teacher’s face seemed to register the question: “Are you a foreign exchange student from Nigeria?” Then came my response: “Here.” Pause. “Oh, and excuse me. But, my name is pronounced Nay-oh-me Sigh-nigh,” I would apologize while tapping the eraser end of my pencil on the pressed-wood surface of my desk. The teacher would acknowledge my somewhat nervy attempt to correct him or her. Some were kinder than others. And, I would look at the clock. Only 50 minutes until I had to repeat this long march in second period. Having a unique name in the 1960s was not only undesirable it was akin to being a leper except you didn’t get to live on Molokai.
So, obviously, my friends sensed an opportunity to make fun of one of their own by making up names for me. Cyanide (that’s with a C, dummy!), Albino (pale skin), Thin Reds (for the hair). Somewhere along my personal timeline, I became Nomi—a name which the aforementioned Holly came up with and which my dad shortened to Nome. Often I was Gnome.
When I moved to Israel in the 1970s, Nomi was the name Israelis used instead of Naomi. And, my lifetime of correcting people’s pronunciation of Sinai (from the erroneous See-Nigh to Sigh-Nigh)? Turns out in Hebrew it really IS pronounced See-Nigh. Who could have known that the name my father’s family came up with when they pushed through the Ellis Island turnstiles had been pronounced incorrectly from the start? They arrived from Minsk as Sinaicos; to hasten their departure from the Island’s dock to the mainland they must have thought, “Oy, this is taking us too long. Just call us Sinai already.”
When I met my future husband, so smitten was he that once we married he legally took the name Sinai as his middle name. And, a decade later, our son was given the same middle name. Two decades on, that same son bestowed the formerly unpronounceable surname on his two children. So, now two half-French kids, one girl and one boy carry with them this same name. I am eager to hear how they will pronounce it when they offer it up to an immigration officer at Charles de Gaulle airport one day.
By the time the 1980s and 1990s arrived, there were Naomis everywhere you looked: Naomi Watts, Naomi Wolf, and Naomi Judd to name a few. I was struggling to keep my individuality – especially when easily confused with my doppelganger: Naomi Campbell. Imagine seeing my name in glossy magazines or on book jacket covers! Hearing my name on the Oscars or on the radio! Was this really happening? The public was hearing Naomi pronounced correctly, albeit with an occasional Australian (Watts) or Southern (Judd) accent.
Back in the 1960s, I was on to something having an idiosyncratic name; but the timing was wrong for owning my uniqueness. My goal was to blend in, to go unnoticed, to get by. I thought that the roadblock to easy street was my name and its perplexing pronunciation. By being Chris, I drove straight through that barrier and onto the teen highway with glorious abandon until I realized that other SIG alerts remained. Route Teen still had its lane closures, detours, and off ramps. It didn’t matter what your name was. Maybe one girl worried about her weight, or another, her untimely zit outbreak. One guy wasn’t tall enough or white enough or athletic enough. A rose is a rose is a rose, after all. Just ask O Kee Kee La.
I hope in the rest home, they get my name right, though. That’s my new worry for the next decade. But it’s likely I won’t be able to hear them. So, I’ll just answer to whatever they call me as long as they bring me my lunch tray.
You can call me Al,
The Name Game
By Shirley Ellis
First released: 1964
Come on everybody!
I say now let’s play a game
I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name
The first letter of the name, I treat it like it wasn’t there
But a B or an F or an M will appear
And then I say bo add a B then I say the name and Bonana fanna and a
And then I say the name again with an F very plain
and a fee fy and a mo
And then I say the name again with an M this time
and there isn’t any name that I can’t rhyme
Arnold, Arnold bo Barnold Bonana fanna fo Farnold
Fee fy mo Marnold Arnold!
But if the first two letters are ever the same,
I drop them both and say the name like
Bob, Bob drop the B’s Bo ob
For Fred, Fred drop the F’s Fo red
For Mary, Mary drop the M’s Mo ary
That’s the only rule that is contrary.
Listen to it here: The Name Game
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