26 November 2004
I got my truck window smashed by some hungry junkie the morning before Thanksgiving, and had to stay in Brooklyn instead of traveling down to Virginia. The Chinese mechanic made the kind of small talk that mechanics make when they plan on overcharging you. Cutting him off, I glanced at his nametag and said, “Ken, right?” (sometimes the quickest exit is an introduction.)
“Kenny.” He smiled and pumped my hand.
“…U.,” I replied.
“U.! That’s Chinese name!” he pointed out.
“Oh yes. Wong, Li, U.… Chinese name!”
“Well, I don’t know what my parents were thinking,” I said uncomfortably. He smiled.
I actually have many names. At the Katharine Gibbs School of New York, the students call me either “Professor” or “Teach.” I prefer Teach: it reminds me of the time I played the character Teach in David Mamet’s play American Buffalo. This was in college, when I was around the age my students are now.
Since then, I’ve played a lot of roles for a lot of people. To those of you reading this e-mail, I have variously been a teacher, a student, a boss, an employee, the guy down the hall, the guy around the corner, a friend, a friend of a friend, a lover, a friend of a lover’s, a lover of acquaintances and coincidences, a fellow cinephile, a co-conspirator, a pain in the ass, a union organizer, a documentary maker, a cousin, a son, and/or a brother.
To this one man with a thick accent who keeps calling me, I’m Chong Wu. He or someone
like him calls once every one or two weeks: “YEAH- CHONG WU?” I would go along with
it, but I’m pretty sure a detailed knowledge of Cantonese would be involved.
To everyone else, I’m just another immature American dude in his early thirties. Tick…
Tock... Tick… Tock…
One of my favorite comedies is “American Splendor,” in which underground cartoonist
Harvey Pekar is portrayed by actor Paul Giamatti (with intermittent appearances by Harvey
Pekar himself). Harvey is a bald, hoarse, slumping ne’er-do-well, a groove I find myself
running in more and more every year. But I can’t decide whether I empathize more with
Harvey Pekar, or with the version of Harvey Pekar that Paul Giamatti creates, or with the
versions of Harvey Pekar that grace the pages of the American Splendor omnibus I left
behind in Chicago. (Or, do I really resemble a working-class stiff from Cleveland at all?)
At the Donut House on Court Street, the skinny, pale counter man with the squared-off
hair calls me “Mister.”
“I’ll have the corned beef hash and eggs over easy. Rye toast.”
“Here ya go, Mister.”
“Uh- can I get a piece of cherry pie?” I croak. My voice is driving me nuts lately.
He cuts a slice. He shakes his head. “Oh. Sorry, mister.”
“It’s okay,” I say reassuringly. I’m not sure what’s wrong.
“You wanted some blueberry? I'm sorry.”
“No, Cherry. Cherry would be great.” I smile. “I mean, blueberry would be fine, but cherry’s my favorite.”
He places a fresh knife, fork, and paper napkin in front of me. I chew the pie
appreciatively. “Want some more coffee, Mister?” (The answer’s always yes, and I feel like
he knows this, but he asks anyway.)
“Thanks a lot, Mister,” he says as I put on my cap and coat. There’s a twinkle in his eyes
behind his Buddy Holly glasses. If that's the best life can do for me, I'll take it. I like coffee and pie and people who are know who they are.
Last night, I ate a piece of pumpkin pie and drank some wine and thought about my
names. My mother always calls me U.-u-EL, with three syllables. My dad calls me U..
Some of my friends from the 90’s call me U.-uel, with two syllables. (I like that one.
Sounds like “Samuel.”) There are those who call me U.my.
But who is Chong Wu? Who IS Harvey Pekar? What’s in a name?
I want to send out Christmas cards this year. If anyone wants a Christmas card, or a
“Seasonal Holiday card,” e-mail me your mailing address.
I will sign the card with whatever name you wish.