Bob I Am

Instant Replay

I remember Lou Alcindor. When I was young, I had a hand-held radio style device by Mattel, called Instant Replay. You put a disc in its side and highlights played from different athletes’ lives. It came with a handful of discs from all the major sports. I loved that thing, and I remember hearing highlights from Lou Alcindor’s early days, his pre-Karem Abdul-Jabbar days.

It played a disc featuring Cassius Clay.

This was the same year LeRoi Jones changed his name. About fifteen years after Malcom Little changed his the first time, and three years after he switched it a second to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.  

And, of course, I remember listening to

Personally, I remember Robert, but that was a long time ago. Some family still call me that, and that is fine because it would be weird if they didn’t. So when someone calls me that I assume they are family. Or someone from the neighborhood on the Island. But sometimes someone I don’t know will call me Robert for some fracked up reason since they’re not family and I introduce myself as Bob. I don’t get that. If someone told me their name was Bill, I can’t imagine saying. Well, William, it is nice to meet you. That’s rude. He said his name was Bill.

I’m Bob.

Not Lou. Not Cassius. Not LeRoi. Not even Prince. Just Bob.

Names change. Sometimes for religious reasons, sometimes for marriage or divorce or some identity crisis. Sometimes someone wants to disappear into the masses. I wonder if Martin Sheen’s sister calls him Ramon. Certainly he is Martin now. But his daughter and two elder sons use Estevez while his third son uses Sheen. I read that John Denver’s adopted kids use Denver while his biological daughter Jessie Belle uses Deutschendorf, her father’s real last name. No offense meant to Jessie, but I’d have gone with Denver.

Crazy, but President Gerald Ford’s real name was Leslie King, while Bill Clinton’s real last name is Blythe. The Fourth.

The first name recorded on a document is Kushim.

In elementary school, we learned to write by printing our names on those loose leaf sheets of paper that had lines to keep your penmanship straight, and dotted lines to know where the top of the lower-case letters should reach. My friend Chris Smith on Euclid Avenue didn’t have a problem. But I had to print it all out, and living where I did didn’t make it easier:

R O B E R T  S T E P H E N  K U N Z I N G E R

200 E A S T  L A K E  A V E N U E

M A S S A P E Q U A  P A R K, N E W  Y O R K

For God’s sake, I was seven.

I think I ran next door from the school to our house to plead with my mom to let me change my last name to a letter. “I can be K! I can be Z! Whatever!”

Last names didn’t really begin in the west until the later part of the Middle Ages, about the late 11th century, though the first known European last name is from my ancestral home, County Galway, Ireland, in 916. I do not believe O’Cleirigh is a relative, but since the subsequent variations include O’Cleary and O’Leary, they might be ancestors of my friend Will O’Leary. I shall ask Himself when I get the chance. Surnames, however, not surprisingly, are thousands of years older than that in China, used, logically, to separate people with the same first names. The last names typically were some variation of “son of” or “from the land of.”

I wish we still did that. I could be Bob of Deltaville. Or Bob of the Great River. Or Robert of Brooklyn. Not as melodic as Leonardo de Vinci or Francis of Assisi.

What I like about my name is if you google me, the first seven hundred entries are actually about me.  I Googled my friend Tom Williams once and I found a reference to him six hours later.

I spoke to a woman recently who told me I say my last name different every time I say it. Do you have any idea how self-conscious that made me? Now my tongue hurts from repeating the damn nine letters for an hour to see what she meant. Kunzinger KUNzinger KunZINGer. KunzingER. I had a Social Studies teacher in high school who when calling roll would say KUNNNNNNNZinger. I had a prof at college who would insert an “r” for no good reason at all and called me Kurnzinger. Other variations followed me through life, some not worth repeating. But I have come to like my last name. The people I know with the same name are people I’m insanely proud of, whom I enjoy being associated with.

I hope I never do anything to bring shame to the name. It is our identity, my link to Lohr en Mein, Germany, to Bay Ridge, to glassmakers and butchers, organ builders and accountants. Snow White

A stockbroker.

A photographer.

A student recently asked how I pronounce my name. I told her, “The same way it sounds.” “OH! She said, thank you Professor K.”

Robert lives on Long Island. Bob lives on a river and writes books. Bobby is hiking the trails on a retreat in western New York. We are a multiplicity of identities, a collage of personas. Sometimes Bob would like to take a train up to see Robert, tell him to take it easy, to not be in a rush to do anything. Sometimes I miss Bobby—his innocence and hope, his lack of inhibitions and his willingness to embarrass himself.

I spent the past five years finding my footing, making drastic changes—some by choice and others by circumstance, and the truth is you can change your name a thousand times and never change at all. Change must be deeper than the alphabet; integrity and self-worth are tied to actions, not labels.

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