I am named after my father, thus making me a junior. I’ve met many other “juniors” over the years, it’s like a secret club, and we can always tell each other apart in a crowd. Something about the slumped shoulders of one bearing the weight of succession. But given the fact that I share a name (first, middle, and last) with my father, a problem arises. This problem is one that only plagues those in my particular predicament: How do you address individual people who share a name in a way that lets them know you’re speaking specifically to them?
And so, rather than refer to me as “Junior” like Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, my parents instead chose to call me Rob (and variations of it such as Robby, by which I was known for much of my childhood) and my father? He stuck with Bob. There’s something about the name Bob that makes me think of strength and character, but that may be a product of my upbringing.
As I’ve aged, I’ve gone from “Robby” to “Rob” or “Robert” in professional situations. Every so often, someone will call me Bob and I correct them.
“No.” I’ll say, “No, call me Rob. Bob is my father.”
This is in equal parts a declaration of respect for my father and an expression of the strange sense of fear that I could never live up to the name. For years, I’ve done this. I live in a small town now, much smaller than I ever did growing up, and while I have lived here only a few years short of a decade, it still seems like a foreign concept to me. This whole “everyone knows everyone else” business seems shady, at best, but I accept it.
The local supermarket employs high school students looking to make extra money and elderly men and women looking for a way out of the humdrum boredom of retirement. When I shop there, the students refer to me as sir, which I at first detested, but now feel a misplaced honor upon hearing it. The elderly women all call me Bob. I’ve corrected them many times.
“Please, call me Rob. Or Robert, a lot of people know me as Robert.” I’ve said to them. “It’s on my name tag at work.”
They smile and nod and when I next find myself checking out at this tiny corner market, the elderly women ask Bob how he’s doing and whether I’m walking and how about that cold bit of weather we’ve had lately, and I still take a moment to process that they’re speaking to me and not someone else named Bob standing behind me. Once that moment passes, I sigh and once again state that no, my name is not Bob, but I’m doing well and yes, I am walking and yes, that weather was mighty cold the other day. I do all of this, I swipe my debit card, and I take my leave.
The other day, as I was paying for my cereal and milk, my bread and butter, the silver haired and bespectacled woman behind the checkout counter once again addressed me as Bob.
“How are you today, Bob?” she asked.
“I’m good.” I said, “Let me ask you something.”
She stopped scanning groceries.
“Let me first say that I’m not angry or annoyed, just curious.” I said. She furrowed her brow. “That said, why is it, when I’ve said repeatedly to call me Rob or Robert, do you insist on calling me Bob? Again, I’m just curious.”
She thought for a moment, scanned the eggs, the bagels, the shampoo. Then she spoke.
“I guess it just suits you better than Rob or Robert.”
I was silent. She finished ringing up the remaining items, I swiped my debit card and completed the purchase, all while the teenager in the pimply face and baggy pants put my newly bought foodstuffs into their bags. It was one of those moments, a brief pause in time during which one reflects on life and their place in it, the way they are seen by others and, maybe more importantly, the way they see themselves. Was I that person? Did I deserve the name, the title, of Bob? Did I have the strength and character and strong will to pull off the task and yes even burden of such a title? These are all questions I silently asked myself while the acne-laced young man to my immediate right finished bagging my groceries.
“But if it means that much to you, I can call you Robert.” she said with a smile, which I gladly mirrored to her.
“No.” I said, “That’s fine.”
To my friends, family and co-workers, I will continue to be Rob or Robert. I ask this of them. But for the sake of the elderly employees at the local supermarket, I think I’ll cease my fight against the name Bob. I’ll try to embrace it, I’ll try to let it slide. For them.
But if you see me on the street or you call me on the phone, you’re better off calling me Rob. Or Robert.
If, for some reason, you’d like to listen to what I’ve spent the better part of the last hour listening to, here: