Why you should care
Because we’ve all spent our share of years waiting to become ourselves.
Anthony Hamilton is an OZY essayist and an author. This is part of an ongoing OZY video series of conversations in his Mountain View, California, barbershop.
Where I’m from, having a nickname is like having an American Express card. Whenever you received one, you kept it in the imaginary wallet in your pants pocket. You couldn’t leave home without it. It was street cred, and without it, you were nothing.
Most of us wanted names with a ring to them; we wanted to be called something so memorable, that our birth names got lost in the shuffle. It wasn’t always that we hated our birth names or two … we would just rather be called something cool. As a young boy, I was called many things, so I guess you could say that finding my right nickname was like trying on one pair of shoes after another.
When my mother called me by both my first and middle names, it meant I was in trouble. “Skip” was what my father affectionately called me … but for the life of me, I could never figure out why. I mean, my name didn’t start with an S, nor did it end with a P. But I knew one thing: Skip was a pair of shoes I would never be caught wearing, not even around the house. It just wasn’t cool. My brother and sisters called me just about anything and everything they could wrap their tongues around, but none of them was the one I anxiously awaited. I wanted the kind of nickname that could immortalize me. The right nickname could catapult me into a new place; it was who I’d be known as in the eyes of those who counted. And it would give me a voice without ever uttering a word.
I stood there in the midst of it all, feeling the snug fit of my new shoes. I was somebody now.
Even if you wanted to use your birth name, you had to at least put something in front of or behind it to turn something common into something uncommon. For instance, if your name was Rick, you’d add “pretty” to the front to become Pretty-Ricky. Quick and in a hurry. Wasn’t no way around it: You were going to be called something other than your name, and needless to say, you’d rather pick your nickname than have the streets name you, ’cause ain’t nothing more cruel than the street.
I was about 15 when I found the right-fitting pair of shoes. It was during the holiday season and the junior high school I was attending didn’t have classes, so me and a few of my boys walked up to the local high school to watch my brother’s football team practice. When we got there, the team was already on the field. My shoes were delivered, and boy did they fit. One of my brother’s closest friends spotted me and yelled out, “Hey, Fly, isn’t that yo brotha over there?” “Fly” was the nickname my brother had proudly donned less than two years earlier. Then another teammate I had never seen before yelled out,“Wow … that must be ‘Gnat.’” A little fly. Everything stopped moving; my feet felt as if 4-ton bricks weighted them down. I wanted to run, but for the life of me, I couldn’t. I wanted to cry, but I was much too boyish for that, so I did what everyone felt I should. I stood there in the midst of it all, feeling the snug fit of my new shoes. I was somebody now.
And it wasn’t a bad name. I’m happy I wasn’t named “Freckles” — one girl’s white peers named her that because they didn’t know black people could have freckles. Or “Dumpsy,” who was adopted after her birth mother left her in a dumpster; her adopted siblings gave her that name. Or what if my nickname became “Lil Blood” or “Baby Devil” or “40 Ounce” … “Shaggy” or “Lost One”? No way.
Today, “Gnat” has evolved into a 53-year-old man with slightly bigger feet. I’m now known as “Doc.” Not because I’m a surgeon, but because I operate on the heads of hundreds, cutting their hair with precision and skill. And when that part of my day is done, you’ll find me moonlighting as a writer in one of the newer, fresher, online magazines in the world and loving it. My new shoes fit me well. In fact, though I’m still Fly’s little brother, I like these digs even better.
This essay is an OZY encore that was originally published Feb. 8, 2015.
Video by Tom Gorman