Alternate/Original title for this story…
Two Steves, Two Lynnes, and a Slew of Failed Aliases, including Sister Boogie Woman and the Old French Tart
Time for a quick intro/dedication and pre-ramble. This story is dedicated to my friend Shelley Brown who encourages me and inspires me to share this kind of nonsense. I’m reading her book “Weird Girls Adventures from A to Z” and this is my book report. Really it’s a tribute to her and her writing, some of her style may get mixed up with my style. I’m pretty sure if we were ever roommates we’d have raided each other’s drawers and closets. Currently, I find myself wanting to be more like Shelley. This is what happens when I lean into that idea. Okay, on to the story…
I’m sitting across from two Steves. One of the Steves is my boyfriend, the other is his buddy. One of the Steves has the last name Painter, the other’s last name is Cook. The Painter is a chef, the Cook is a plumber, but don’t let that confuse you.
Because the Steves know each other from the world of motorcycles, they often call each other by their biker nicknames. Everyone calls my boyfriend Steve, “Chef,” he’s the Painter who cooks. They call his buddy Taz, short for the Tasmanian Devil. There are stories there, but they aren’t mine to tell.
Steve the buddy, also known as Taz, has just hung up the phone. He told whoever it was that he was talking to that he’d call them back later because he was at Chef’s house.
I’m thinking: Chef. Taz. I want a nickname. Why haven’t I ever had a nickname that’s stuck?
So, I ask aloud, “What would my biker nickname be?”
The Steves don’t respond. Boyfriend Steve/Chef changes the subject, which is probably wise.
Now they’re talking about engines, so I have some time to chew on the following…
3. Maybe I’m not cool enough to have a nickname, maybe that sort of thing is for people who do things like ride motorcycles or go into combat.
Still drunk on my own pity cocktail, I begin to think about all the times I’ve tried to change my identity and my name. I recall the few nicknames others have given me, and the ones I tried to make happen.
My friend Kent used to call me “The Old French Tart,” though I was young at the time and did not speak French, so it got shortened to “The Tart.”
It wasn’t the “tart” part that bothered me so much as the article that preceded it. “The Tart,” as if I were the only cheap-looking woman to have ever walked into Manuel’s Tavern and ordered a pitcher of beer.
Why did he call me The Old French Tart? I think it had something to do with my bra size and the fact that cleavage is a difficult thing to hide, not that I tried to hide it back then either. Oh, and I have a loud mouth and used to have big hair and wear a lot of noisy jewelry. Fortunately, this nickname did not stick. Only three people ever called me “The Tart,” and two of them are in the great beyond now.
A couple of other friends in my theatre circle used to call me “Sister Boogie Woman,” not because I’m a master at doing the hustle or have ever been part of a Mormon polygamy group, but because I tend to get on a soapbox and preach about stuff. If you haven’t heard Lily Tomlin’s routine, “Sister Boogie Woman,” do yourself a favor and head over to YouTube once you’ve finished this essay.
I always liked the nickname “Sister Boogie Woman,” my friend Dixie (yes, that’s a nickname and one that stuck!) still calls me that. Her grandson has shortened the nickname to just “Boogie,” which is just alright with me. Still, Sister Boogie Woman or Boogie has not caught on. I wish they would. But, as Lily Tomlin’s character explains, “Boogie ain’t a meaning, it’s a feeling,” so maybe people just feel “boogie” when I’m around, which, like Jesus, is just alright with me.
There was also the time back in the 80s when everything I wore was monogrammed with my initials, RAB. A few kids at school started calling me “The Rabbi,” which I also sort of liked. Then a friend said, “She’s not Jewish, you can’t call her that!” So, that nickname was canceled toot sweet by the cultural appropriation police, though we didn’t call it that back then.
Once the nickname “The Rabbi” faded away, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I was obsessed with Boz Scaggs at the time. I still am. I wanted a cool name like Boz. I still do. I thought if I could find a nickname that ended in “z,” I’d be cool. I might even have a chance at becoming an artist or a superstar.
I tried to get a few close friends in my Girl Scout troop to call me Benz, explaining that the last syllable of my first name is “bin,” and the first syllable of my last name is “Ben,” which makes me a double Ben or… Benz, with a “z” instead of an “s,” because that’s cooler.
I presented my case for the new nickname, and waited for the applause, the ahas! They didn’t come. Then, my friend Debbie said, “Well, if you have to explain it every time, I don’t think it works.”
I can’t prove this for a fact but I’m pretty sure I came up with the term, “Debbie Downer,” in my brain long before Rachel Dratch created and portrayed her on Saturday Night Live.
My obsession with my name and my desire for a nickname has been with me for as long as I can remember. It’s not that I dislike the name Robin, it’s just that those two repeating syllables, “bin” and “Ben,” really trip me up when I say my name aloud. Also, I’m not altogether happy with my name’s origin story. According to my mother, they chose the name Robin because it’s the feminine version of my father’s name, Robert. I think if my parents had told me I was born in spring and therefore named after the first sign of spring, the robin bird, I’d be less obsessed with this business. Instead, I feel like I’m supposed to be the female version of my father, which can really mess with your head.
I don’t like where this train of thought is going, so let’s check back in with the Steves. They’re talking about Ginger Baker now.
I immediately think: What’s there to say? He was a great drummer. Had a horrible temper… this could be the perfect time to interrupt…
“I always wanted my nickname to be ‘Birdie’, but now I think ‘Bird’ is probably better,” I announce, many minutes after the original topic has died a slow death.
Steve the boyfriend responds: “You mean like Charlie Parker? You don’t even play the saxophone.”
Me: “Well I played the clarinet.”
Steve the boyfriend, again: “You’re too old to be a Birdie.”
Me: Bites tongue.
Steve, the buddy, deftly changes the focus and starts talking about other people they know and their nicknames: Frog, Snake, Boomer. Pretty soon the Steves are trading stories about Boomer and how, when he died, they put his ashes in shotgun shells and blasted his remains into the afterlife. Boomer indeed, I think. And, while this story is fascinating, I’ve heard it before, so, once again, I fade back into my own scene of self-pity.
I am beginning to feel like I’m not special enough, that there’s nothing uniquely identifiable about me to warrant a nickname.
More examples of failed or not-quite-right nicknames come to mind. My friend Shelley (the same one that indirectly inspired this essay) calls me Bobin, and that’s fine, but I’m not sure I want that to catch on. Bobin Bennett sounds like a Muppet or maybe the main character in a cautionary tale about sewing.
My friend and former therapist, Dru, once asked me what I’d change my name to if I was part of a religious or spiritual identity ceremony. You see, sometimes, when you get to a certain place in a religion or a cult, you get to choose a new name, that’s why sages and zealots often have names like Dancing Arrow or Rainbow Rider. She had taken part in one of these ceremonies and had renamed herself something like Winter Hawk, I think. I honestly don’t remember.
“Rockin Robin, maybe,” I say to Dru, with that special Gen X kind of sarcasm that reads “I don’t care, but sort of wished I did care.”
“Think about it,” Dru said, “you don’t have to decide today,” meaning, Rockin Robin isn’t going to stick either, which is fine, because honestly, I’m not sure I can pull that one-off.
The next morning after Dru asked me this question, I left her place and began a day-long drive home. It gave me time to think and try on new names. As I made my way from Bogalusa, Mississippi back to Decatur, GA, I remembered the name “Pheraby.”
When I traced my ancestry I found a lot of women named Pheraby, or Ferabee, or Ferebee, on both sides of the family. Though, truth be told, the two branches of my tree merge several generations back. Yes, that means what you think it means.
So many Pherabys on both sides of the family and I’d never once heard this name. Crazy, right? Must be a sign, right? Maybe I could honor all these ancestors and their lost stories by calling myself Pheraby, with a “Ph,” because that’s cooler than an “F.”