All the cops in Big Chief’s squad were given street names by the kids they policed, and by now they heard the names so often, they had started using them among themselves.
Richard Price – Clockers
I love to take long walks and sometimes my wanderings take me through the Lyndale Park Rose Garden. Constructed in 1907, it is the second oldest rose garden in the United States. The parks director at the time, Theodore Wirth, wanted to prove that roses could indeed flourish during the combined five days of spring and summer in Minnesota. And have they. Even part of the 62 rosebush beds are set aside as an official site for the All American Rose Selections, a process where new roses are introduced, tested and scored. Every year winners are selected and allowed to be introduced into the marketplace.
But what separates a rose from a rose? For me it is the nicknames. Some selections that were awarded by the AARS are Care Free Delight, Cherry Parfait, Lady Elsie May and Knock Out.
A rose may be a rose, but their nicknames remind me of another breed, racehorses.
Since a racing program is as decipherable to me as a mutual fund prospectus, my bets are solely based on a horse’s nickname. And with this method I have been quite successful in losing money. In fact, the last horse I bet on not only came in last it fell behind the trailing starter truck.
Maybe it’s the nicknames that lead me to financial ruin. Here is a partial list of failed picks:
- FURLONG FURLOUGH
- CANT’OR TROT
- FOLLOW THE LEADER
- FADING FAST
- TRUST ME NOT
Roses may be red and racehorses give me the blues, but what about the mob? I think its members are required to have nicknames. In the mob movie Ghost Dog there is Handsome Frank, Joe Rags, Sammy the Snake and Big Eggs. In real life there are mobsters nicknamed after body parts:
- VINNY “THE CHIN” GIAGNANTE
- “JIMMY BLUE EYES” VINCE ALTO
- HARRY “THE HUNCHBACK” RICCOBENE
Then there are those named after animals:
- SAMMY “THE BULL” GRAVANO
- IGNAZIO “THE WOLF” LUPO
- JOHNNY “THE FOX” TORRIO
Since food is such an integral part of the Italian experience, I’m a little surprised you don’t see names like:
- TOMMY “ENDLESS PASTA” RISTAGANO
- PAULIE “HOUSE WINE” SACCO
- VINCENZO “TABLE FOR TWO” TRAVANO
There is a website where you can get a mob nickname. All you have to do is enter your first and last name, social security and bank pin number. I gave it a shot and the generator assigned King Gorilla. I did not much care for it so I plugged in my fake internet name, Melvin Plat. The result was much better: Cold Canadian.
Italian Mobsters maybe a dangerous lot, but they at least know how to have fun. I think that’s why the mafia gang in Ghost Dog was intrigued by the name of Louie’s hired gun. They wanted to know why Ghost Dog? Then one of them went on a tangent about the nicknames of hip hop artists.
I could understand the attraction. Like the mafia, hip hop artist need break-out names to get noticed. Just look at the Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J. Both have the same last name of Smith. Jay-Z would have never built an empire with Shawn Carter. Chuck D’s Carlton Ridenhour sounds more comfortable at the country club. Flavor Flav would have made a fine defense attorney as William Drayton Jr. Queen Latifah as Dana Owens sounds like an office mate. Salt and Peppa would be setting up neighborhood block parties if they kept Sandra Denton and Cheryl James. About the only hip hop artist that may have a cooler given name is Snoop Doggy Dog, aka Cordazar Calvin Broadus Jr.
I punched my name and Melvin’s into a hip hop name generator. This time I got the better draw:
- ME: PROFFESOR B
- MELVIN: KID (BEEEEEEEEP)
Jazz musicians are no stranger to nicknames. Fresh on the scene of a new sound there was Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke, Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie. Then there were those who picked a more royal title: Duke Ellington, Count Basie and King Oliver. Even the leader of them all, Louis Armstrong, went by two nicknames: Satchmo and Pops.
As jazz started to become more established in the 50’s and 60’s, the players tended to keep their real names. There was Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson and Clifford Brown, all great musicians, but with names that could misidentify them as insurance salesmen.
I wonder if the genesis of something new allows people the freedom to reinvent themselves. On the western landscape there were those who dropped their real names as soon as the cleared St. Louis: Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and General George “Frozen” Custer. Then there were the people already there: Sitting Bull, Black Hawk, Crazy Horse and Geronimo. But what happens after it is all settled? For example, take a look at the law.
There isn’t much space to reinvent yourself when you have one hand on the bible and the other in the air. I don’t think any prior Supreme Court Justices had nicknames like:
- DAVID “SOFT SHOE” SOUTER
- ANTHONY “DAGGER EYES” SCALIA
- SANDRA “STROMBOLI” O’CONNOR*
* Her mob name.
One branch of government that welcomes nicknames is counter intelligence. But where most people pick nicknames to get noticed, most spies take them to obscure.
James Bond may have the most famous nickname in 007. But did you know that his famous drink also merits the same secrecy. The martini, shaken not stirred is better known in Her Majesty’s Secret Service as 90 proof.
Then there is Bond’s boss who goes by the initial M. It didn’t matter who played the role throughout the years whether it was Bernard Lee or Robert Brown. It didn’t even matter when M switched sexes and was played by Dame Judy Dench. And it certainly won’t matter in future installments when M is played by the letter N.
Even in the real world of international espionage, nicknames are as ubiquitous as gum under pizza restaurant table. In fact, the George W. Bush Administration staked its justification to going to war with Iraq based mostly on information from a source that went by the nickname Curveball.
His real name was Rafid Ahmed Alwan al Janabi, but at the time the CIA didn’t even know that much. All they knew was Curveball was an Iraqi defector in the hands of German intelligence.
Like all good informants Curveball was a pathological liar. The reason? He wanted to topple the Iraqi regime. Therefore, everything he said to German intelligence was embellished. He said he graduated first in his class from Baghdad University with a degree in chemical engineering. He claimed he worked with the infamous microbiologist, Rihad Rashid Taha, aka “Dr. Germ.” He boasted he knew the location of chemical weapons depots. But German intelligence started to become suspicious when Curveball claimed he once shot par at Pebble Beach Golf Course.
The Germans wrote down everything Curveball had to say, but passed along their doubt when they handed the report to their US counterparts. No matter. The Bush Administration and Curveball were pointed in the same direction.
As much as nicknames can be used to send countries to war, they can also help topple presidents.
In the early 70’s Deep Throat was not only the name of a controversial pornographic film, it was also the nickname for an informant who leaked classified information to Bob Woodward at the Washington Post.
Many years later we know that person to be Mark Felt, an FBI Associate Director. Because of his high profile position, Felt could not run afoul of the Nixon Administration. So, he went undercover with cloak and dagger methods. If Woodward wanted to meet, he would place a red flag in a potted plant on his balcony. Then Deep Throat would mark up Woodward’s New York Times by circling numbers and words of the pages on when to meet and whether to bring Chinese food. From there Woodward would meet his source in an underground parking lot and receive damaging information that would lead to the resignation of a sitting president.
Not only can nicknames help bring down a politician; it can help save someone’s life.
When Frank Zamperini’s B-24 fell from the sky in Lauren Hillenbrand’s biography Unbroken, he and the surviving pilot, Russell Phillips, were eventually picked up by the Japanese and sent to a POW camp just outside of Tokyo.
Life in the WWII prison camp was stark, harsh and brutal. Prisoners had to use nicknames of the guards to avoid talking about them directly. Some nicknames were Turdbird, Flange Face, Liver Lip and Weasel.
Then there was a corporal named Mutsuhiro Wantanbe, a guard more vicious than all the others. With Wantanbe the POW’s had to be especially careful for he was known to sneak up in hopes of catching anyone talking about him. That’s why he was referred to as The Bird for no harm could come from such a harmless nickname.
Although innocuous, Bird highlights a process that most of us are unable to control. Most nicknames are not self-anointed but given.
Born in Memphis, TN in the hot month of July, 1895, there wasn’t anything remarkable about George Barnes. His father worked for an insurance company and provided a comfortable life for his son, even sending him off to college at Mississippi A&M to study agriculture.
George did not fare well in academics. His highest grade was a C- in physical hygiene. He quit before he was about to be kicked out and drifted back to Memphis where he was able to convince a socialite by the name of Geneva Ramsey to marry him.
Marital bliss was not to be in the cards. After failed attempts at selling used cars (even goats), Barnes convinced his father to let him intern at his insurance company. It was a match made for disaster and Barnes soon turned to bootlegging for a living.
Barnes’ new profession did not sit well with his new wife. He really couldn’t say, “Honey, I’m off to the woods to pick up some moonshine. Do you need anything?” His father was also none too happy with his son’s wayward path and no longer offered him insurance at the family rate.
With a disappointed father and an irate wife, Barnes soon packed up and headed west to Kansas City where he could follow his true calling. Unfortunately, Barnes was a horrible criminal and soon found himself behind bars.
After a stint at Leavenworth, Barnes found time to marry a gal by the name of Cleo Brooks, aka Kathryn Thorne. Brooks was not only smitten by her husband’s good looks, she was absolutely in love with his profession. For a wedding gift she even gave him an automatic weapon and also a brand new nickname.
From that day forward Machine Gun Kelly would go on to lead numerous bank robberies and one extremely botched kidnapping that would send him straight to Alcatraz.
By all accounts Barnes was a model prisoner. He was affable and good natured with the guards and other inmates. He wrote letters of apology to his victims. Ironically, for a man with such a larcenous nickname, he never shot anyone with his wedding gift.
It’s not just 1930’s bank robbers who ended up with unwanted nicknames. Even international rock stars sometimes fall under this trap. Take U2’s Paul Hewson. With the infinite possibilities, why would anybody want the nickname Bono? It is one consonant change from Bozo.
The nickname was given to Hewson in high school when a group of friends lifted Bonavox from the name of a neighborhood hearing aid shop. Hewson said Bono Vox was the dumbest name ever given to a singer since Englebert Humperdink. When he was told the name was Latin for good voice, he softened to the idea. Still, his friends violated the first rule when picking a nickname. Never use a dead language.
Bono believed if he was going to be stuck with this nickname, his right hand man would also suffer. And so David Evans was anointed The Edge for his sharp facial features, inventive musical style and peculiar habit of placing full pints of Guinness near the ends of coffee tables.
Jazz saxophonist, Julian Adderley, was wise to retool his childhood nickname before embarking on a musical career. Cannibal was given to him by friends because of his voracious appetite. The nickname may have worked in the streets of Jacksonville, FL, but in the smoky clubs of New York, he didn’t want people to think it was unsafe to sit in the front row. Therefore, Cannibal turned into a Cannonball and a great musical legacy began.
Nicknames can jest. Nicknames can hide. Sometimes through a singular event they arrive.
Joseph Jefferson Jackson was born into humble beginnings on July 16th, 1887. Impoverished, his father soon gave up a life as a share-cropper and took a job at the local cotton mill in Greenville, SC. It was dangerous work. Jackson’s older brother became maimed after getting caught in the mill’s machinery. Jackson was given safer work so he could play on the mill’s baseball team.
Even at 13 Jackson was the best player on the team. He tried his hand at pitching but he threw so hard, he broke the catcher’s arm. It didn’t matter if the manager had to move him into the outfield to prevent further injury to the team. Jackson’s bat did most of the talking.
With a swing that could drive a ball like a bullet, it didn’t take long for Jackson to move to the semi-pro team, The Greenville Spinners. And it was during the second game of a double header against the Anderson Electricians that Jackson did away with his brand new cleats for the hard leather caused his feet to blister.
Although he played the remainder of the game in his bare feet, it did not prevent him from smacking a ball deep into the outfield for a standing triple.
As Jackson stood on third base with aching feet, he heard an opposing fan in the bleachers shout, “You shoeless son of a gun.”
Thus, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was born.
It takes a pretty good nickname to replace the real one. In show business, in war, in baseball, nicknames can flourish, but in the day-to-day, they tend to stay as a backup unless you were Lance.
Lance was a baseball player on our college team. He was a pretty nice guy. He also had a cool nickname, Ice, which he got because his favorite super hero was Ice Man from the Marvel Comics.
There were also two security watchmen who split the overnight shifts on our small campus.
One of the security guards went by the name Denver. I don’t know if it was real or a nickname. I do know it fit him. He was in his early 70’s and probably weighed as much. He had a slight Tennessee accent. He was as friendly as a green light. Everybody liked him. One time Ice asked if Denver would protect him if a riot broke out.
Denver only revealed a wry smile: “Shoot! With the amount of money they are paying me, you’re on your own.”
The other security guard was the complete opposite of Denver. He was in his mid 30’s and as big as a Colorado boulder. He was also as friendly as one. He never said a word. Mostly, he spent his time in the darken hallways or empty parking lots, his immense figure like a desperado in a spaghetti western against an endless landscape.
As time went by it became a constant source of conversation to see if anybody had ever talked to him. Some said hello, but he never responded.
Still the conversations continued but it was starting to become annoying without having a name. The Non-Denver didn’t cut it. A nickname was needed and everyone knew who was up to the task.
Since there was only one thing anybody knew about this man was his appearance, Ice didn’t have much to go on. Still, he dug in. He wasn’t going the easy route to pick a nickname to highlight the mystery guard’s immense size. Instead he honed in on the burly sideburns that ran down his jowls. To Ice the Non-Denver was now Pork Chop.
The nickname was perfect. It became so prevalent, it moved from nightly conversations into the light of day. Some of the guys even started greeting him as Pork Chop.
Then something started to happen. The man, who simmered just below surly, began responding. He started to say hello. He sometimes broke into conversation even though he kept the thousand yard stare.
For a man who started working as a moving statue, in the end he became one of the crowd. It only took a simple nickname to bring him out of the shadows.
Funny, what a nickname can do.