As a graduate student at a professional writers’ conference, standing in a buffet line that I hadn’t paid to be in, next to real adults who had real jobs and real conference registrations that included lunch, I already felt out of place. I picked gingerly at the food on the table, trying not to draw attention to myself. A thirty-something woman filling her plate beside me glanced in my direction and, perhaps sensing my discomfort, attempted some small talk. “Joey, from Ohio?” she said, looking down at my nametag. “You go by Joey, huh?” I laughed, and shrugged, and stirred the salad, and said something about my real name being Joseph and how Joey is kind of, well, you know, what people have always called me, and then we exchanged niceties about our respective schools, and I handed her the salad tongs and walked away to find the kids’ table.
I have been answering questions like that my entire adult life—friends and strangers alike wondering aloud at my choice to go by Joey. I think I understand their confusion. Joe Cool, Joe College, Joe America, Joe Six-pack, Joe the Plumber—there’s a certain blue-collar sexiness about Joe. But Joey College? Joey Six pack? G. I. Joey? Throw a y on the end, and what happens? That everyman sex appeal disappears and you’re left with nothing but your average Joey—cute, curly-headed, and cartoony.
Most of the Joeys I knew growing up, I knew from television. Think Joey Gladstone of Full House, Joey Tribbiani from Friends, Joey Russo in Blossom (whoa!). I understood early on that Joey was a name for little kids, or at least, for kidlike people. Even the infamous Joey Buttafuoco, paramour of the Long Island Lolita and talk of every tabloid magazine from the early 1990s, seemed to give off an aura of harmless imbecility. Joeys were, as a rule, simple-minded baby faces that no one took seriously.
Consider the perpetually prepubescent Joey of New Kids on the Block who joined the band just before his thirteenth birthday, taking his place beside neighborhood friends Donny and Danny, and brothers Jordan and Jonathan. According to People magazine, Joey signed on to sing the high notes “like Michael Jackson”—a fact that added to his childish persona.
I was in the fourth grade when I first saw the ‘fab five’ silk-screened onto backpacks and Trapper Keepers at school—glossy, fresh faces of budding maleness that made the girls around me swoon. They talked and dreamed and giggled about Jordan’s sideburns, Donny’s Dimples, Danny’s arms, Jonathan’s hair, and maybe one or two even crushed on little Joey’s smooth skin, but when I looked at those photos, all I saw was the way the flash caught the peach fuzz on Joey’s cheek and suspended it there, permanently.
I may have felt self-conscious about my slightly childish name in elementary school, but as I was still an actual child, my name invited little attention. Those with more peculiar names were not so lucky. I remember Wilford, the runny-nosed boy in the corner of my first grade classroom forever pulling up the backside of his trousers; and Ella, the daughter of Russian immigrants whose real name was Elvira, though she made sure few people knew it; and Turaj, the Arab-American with the hyphenated last name who road my bus and eventually started calling himself T.J. I imagine these classmates wore their names like bruises, covering them up, explaining them away, wishing people would ask about something else.
But even kids with less unusual names weren’t safe. At the very first roll call of the year, when every teacher stumbles through a list of unfamiliar names, flattening out vowels that should be rounded and digging up consonants that should stay buried, all our names become the potential subject of public mutilation, scrutiny, and often ridicule. Emily, Andrew, and Christy don’t usually have to worry, but Emil, Andréa, and Kirsten must forever be correcting, spelling out, and pronouncing. Morgan and Pat must constantly remind people, “I’m a he,” and every Rick and Virginia in the English-speaking world must surely put up with a ceaseless litany of explicit playground taunts. Joey never earned me that kind of trouble as a kid, except maybe once, almost, when I accidentally got a flier for Miss Teen USA in the mail addressed to “Jocy” Franklin, inviting me to enter the contest, and for a moment, standing on the porch with the flier in hand, I feared my older brothers might find it and parade it around the house, the neighborhood, our school. I crumpled up the flier and buried it in the bottom of the garbage can, and prayed against further junk mail typos.
In high school I met a Joe that changed everything. He was a member of the speech and debate team and Model UN. He wore a black-belt in Tai-Kwan-Do and took enough AP credits to start college as a sophomore. His jazz piano solos routinely brought audiences to tears, and every morning during advanced physics class, he finished most of the New York Times crossword by himself. What’s worse, I never heard him say a mean thing about anyone. He didn’t drink. He didn’t seem to care about impressing girls or playing the usual sports, and despite his participation in so many activities that would have meant social suicide for almost anyone else, he was surrounded by friends, including me. He was a Joe to the core, all class and cool, and I knew he was absolutely un-hate-able, and so I hated him for it. At least, a dark, jealous part of me must have. That would explain why, one inexplicable night, I dreamt of meeting him in the hallway of our school and blowing him away with a shotgun, a solitary blast from the hip. I woke up breathing heavy, sweating with relief that I hadn’t actually just killed the only perfect boy I’d ever known.
Soon after starting college I began to introduce myself as Joe, and though I thought I would feel the change like some kind of revelation, I mostly felt phony. I’d never been a Joe, never thought of myself as a Joe, and here I was parading around as if I were one. Chances are, the difference was too subtle for others to notice, but I still felt like I was wearing a hairpiece, trying to pull a fast one on the new people in my life. And the switch just ended up confusing them. As soon as they got to know me and my old circle of friends, and heard them call me Joey, they would inevitably ask, “Which is it, Joey or Joe?” I wish there had been an easier answer.
These are the dilemmas parents worry about when naming their children, or at least the dilemmas they should worry about. Both times that my wife and I set out to name a baby we knew we had to admit all our own hang ups. We could never have a Corey because, well, I knew this guy named Corey and he was a jerk; and we could never have a David because she used to date a guy named David; and Jack was out of the question because, according to her, Jack was a dirty-old-man name; and we could never have a Tucker because, well, think about it. And frankly, Joe was off the list because then our son would be Joe Jr., and Hollywood had ruined that name years ago. I was so arrested by the idea of choosing someone else’s name—the power, responsibility, and finality of it all—that our oldest boy almost went home from the hospital “Baby Franklin.” We ended up picking Callan, a name my wife liked, and I didn’t hate.
Most parents, thankfully, find protection in popularity, comfort in conformity. There will always be thousands of Jacobs, Michaels, Emilys, and Sarahs. But even with the volumes of available baby-naming literature that offers definitions, etymologies, suggestions, and cautionary tales of baby-naming disaster, a remarkable number of children end up with names like Kobe and Paris. A family in New Zealand actually named their daughter “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii,” and would have gotten away with it too, if a judge hadn’t forced them to change it.
Such names suggest that some parents worry more about what a name will mean for them than what it will mean for their child—the girl who has to explain that her parents were big fans of a spoiled reality television star, or the boy who has to tell people he’s named after a professional athlete who was himself named after a type of Japanese beef, or the girl who had to wait until she was nine years old for a New Zealand family court to rule that her name constituted child abuse.
My own parents named me after Joseph, the biblical prophet, a visionary head-turner that saved all Egypt from famine—a feat that required him to talk his way out of slavery, prison, and the greedy fingers of a powerful, seductive woman. Not a bad namesake, if a little hard to live up to. And not at all uncommon either. Joseph has been in the top one hundred baby names since the dawn of baby name statistics. Never at the very top, but always in the pack—in other words, a safe, comfortable choice for my parents—at least until they started calling me Joey.
The name is Hebrew, and depending on which baby name directory you check, it means “Jehovah gives increase,” or “God will uplift.” A Jewish friend tells me the Hebrew short form is “Yossi.” But I think that when he signed official kingdom documents, Joseph of Egypt avoiding writing Yossi,” though I can imagine the Pharaoh asking him one day, “Yosef? Your name, it sounds so formal. What does your wife call you at home?” If anyone could call back to earth “he whom God will uplift,” it would have been his wife, who must have called him Yossi when no one else was around. Still, Joseph seems so unequivocally, heroically good, and the name so loaded with a particular confidence that I’m not sure a Joey can emulate.
Perhaps my childish name has given me a head start on the Christian mandate to “become as a little child.” The New Testament is full of Josephs who deferred their own interests for God’s Kingdom. The young Joseph of Nazareth, descendent of King David, and rightful heir to the throne of Israel, chose to shrug the Mosaic mandate concerning unfaithful wives and, shouldering the weight of the Nazareth rumor mill, wedded the expectant Virgin Mary. Another Joseph from farther south in Arimathea risked political life and limb by stealing away “in secret,” to “boldly” beg Pilate for the body of Jesus. That Joseph took Jesus’ body to his own freshly hewn tomb and laid Jesus to rest.
Then there is Joseph, the little brother of Jesus. Disciple. Friend. Confidant? I imagine quiet discussions in the evening away from the hungry throng, little brother Joseph listening quietly as big brother Jesus talked of his forty days in the wilderness, of the look on their mother’s face when the water in those barrels became wine, of the whip he made and the way the money changers scattered in the temple. It may have taken Joseph a long time to accept his brother’s public identity, and what that identity meant for his own aspirations. I wonder if Peter, James, and John called him “Yossi” when they came to visit, and I wonder if the nickname made little Joseph bristle. One day when they were children, their mother, Mary, may have walked out of the house to find the two brothers wrestling in the grass. She would have called to them, stood them up, and as she brushed the dirt from their clothes, little Yossi may have pointed at his older brother and said, “He started it.” And Mary would have looked at her young child and said, “Yossi, Yossi,” shaking her head because they both knew that Jesus never “started it.”
All diminutive names are childish. But often they are also intimate—brief and telling names passed between lovers, brothers, and childhood friends. Perhaps when a person chooses to hang on to a name like Billy or Mikey they choose to hang on to a bit of childhood, a bit of innocence, and reject a certain amount of the formality and posturing that so clogs the adult world. Children, after all, will tell you their deepest secrets, their darkest fears, their greatest joys. They’ll talk to strangers in line at the grocery store, dip their graham cracker in their friend’s milk, run down the hall naked waving their towels behind them. Everyone is uncle, aunt, cousin. Everyone is huggable. Befriendable. When I asked my mother how the family had decided to call me Joey instead of Joseph, she laughed and said, “Who could look at a little baby like you and call him Joseph?” and she said the name with a deep, affected seriousness.
Outside of names like Adolf and Bubba, and maybe Candy, names and their connotations aren’t really that static, even if I’m afraid they are. Take some Josephs from more recent history. In the first half of the last century Joseph Stalin raked across the Russian countryside, communizing and cajoling his way to an infamy crowned by the murder, imprisonment, and oppression of millions of his own people. And on the other side of the Atlantic, Senator Joe McCarthy personified red-scare paranoia in the United States—a reaction based in part on fears generated by men like Stalin.
In the 1950s and 1960s, New York mobster Joey Gallo, immortalized in the eponymous Bob Dylan Song, tried to take over the Columbo mob family and was thanked for his efforts by two gunmen during a birthday celebration in Little Italy.
And I don’t know what to do with Joseph Paul Franklin, a man with a name so close to my own that it startled me the first time I saw it. A racist serial killer with an affinity for sniper gear and Nazism, Franklin went on a three-year killing spree from Miami to Cincinnati to Salt Lake City, targeting interracial couples and civil rights leaders. The rampage did not end until more than twenty were dead and Franklin was finally arrested on October 28th, 1980, just under two weeks before I was born.
In the twelve days between his arrest and the day of my birth, the Washington Post ran five articles on Joseph Franklin, and the New York Times ran twelve. The Associated Press put out no less than twenty-four news wires on the killer that were picked up by who knows how many local and regional papers. Joseph Franklin was extradited to Salt Lake City on November 6th where, if convicted and sentenced to death, he would have been shot by a firing squad. On November 10th, the day I was born, the day my parents made my name official, newspapers across the country ran stories about the unfolding events of Joseph Franklin’s atrocities. For at least some people the name Joseph Franklin must bring up the worst of memories—gunfire, the ringing of a phone, the cottony air in a funeral home, the void in a room you can’t ever get used to.
What’s interesting is this—Franklin’s real name is James Clayton Vaughn, and changing it appears to have been a crucial part of the preparation for his killing spree. He took his new name from founding father Benjamin Franklin and Nazi propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels, but he inverted the first and middle names. What was it about Joseph that he felt would do him justice, that he felt would erase some part of his past and help him step into his new, violent future?
My attempts to change my name from Joey to Joe never went anywhere. I eventually resigned myself to the diminutive form, imagined I was embracing it as a bald man embraces his hair loss (something else I’ve had to deal with). If bald could be beautiful, then Joey could be a respectable, adult-ish name that I could pass along to strangers at a conference without glancing down to make sure my tie wasn’t stained with macaroni and cheese.
Joe Plicka, a fiction writer and friend of mine who also went by Joey most of his childhood, had better luck than I did shaking the nickname. Born Joseph Benjamin Plicka, he was the fifth Joseph in a line trailing back to the peasant fields of Moravia. His mother never called him Joey, never wanted to call him Joey, and certainly never expected him to go off to his first day of Kindergarten and come home with a new name, but that is exactly what happened. Two other Josephs stood ahead of him in the alphabet, and when his name was called that first day, his befuddled teacher suggested he try something else, for her sake. Apparently, though he has no recollection of the decision, he said, “Call me Joey,” and the name stuck. Like me he grew up in the shadow of the goofy, bumbling sitcom Joeys and squirmed every time he heard the name Joey Buttafuoco on the news. Like me he saw college as an opportunity to reinvent himself, and like me the first few times he introduced himself as Joe, it felt awkward.
But unlike me, Joe Plicka managed to make the name fit and the change apparently made quite a difference. The way he explains it, switching to Joe gave him instant social capital that he spent on changing his own preconceived notion of who he was. He started reading serious books, and chasing seriously good-looking women. He picked up a guitar and joined a band. In short, he became an independent adult, done with the childishness of his name and the mindset that came with it.
Joe is more than a decade out of high school, and has been married for nearly five years to Emily, who has only known him as a “Joe,” but occasionally at home she calls him by his old nickname, and she’s amused when old friends call on the phone for “Joey.” Their first child was a girl, but two years ago they had a boy—a curly headed fireplug with a sprouting cleft chin and a wry, calculating smile. They named him Joseph. Joseph the sixth. And though Joe almost always calls his son by his full name, Emily is in love with Joey—“just while he’s a little boy,” she says. Someday their little Joey will stand at the edge of adulthood and will have to decide what to do about his name and all it potentially stands for. But will that moment be any different than it is for the Billys and Jimmys and Mikeys in the world standing on the edge of the same decision? Certainly it won’t be on par with the problems of kids named Cornelius or Chastity or Talula Does the Hula, but part of me likes to think there’s something unique about the Joey dilemma, even if that something is the way the name occasionally makes me feel like my shirt is tucked into my underwear.