“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” – Marshall McLuhan
No one knew the city better than taxi driver Nicaragua Mars. Because of his multi-syllabic name, his friends just called him Nic. However, for purposes of this story we will call him Nicaragua, because it’s a much cooler name. A bit geopolitical, though. A bit like being named Kazakhstan or Mozambique, I suppose. In fact, I did know a guy named Mozambique Byrd who ran a rent-a-pet shop. Whatever.
Anyway, no one knew the city better than Nicaragua Mars. Wait, come to think of it, calling him Nicaragua would take up too much ink and would take too long to read, so we’ll just call him Nic, as do his friends. But, as you’ve probably guessed, that’s not even his real name, Nicaragua Mars – no way! Sounds made up. Which it is.
Before he officially changed it, Nicaragua Mars’s real name, believe it or not, was Real Name. It was pronounced: Real Name. Weird, huh? You see, his parents were jerks. Having the last name, “Name,” they thought it would be cute to give each of their children first names that made meaningful phrases when paired with their peculiar last name. You know, like when people with the last name Christmas name their little girl Mary. Or when the Falactic parents name their daughter Anna. Or when a couple with the name Cadabra call their daughter Abra. Or when a child is named Deep by a mom and dad whose last name is Doodoo. Or, when the Gulch parents call their daughter Dry. Or when couples named Head name one of their children Crack. Or when a family with the name Attitude calls their cute little girl Insufferable. And so on. You get the picture. The “Name” parents were jerks.
Naturally, everyone in Nic’s family later officially changed their stupid given name to something more suitable. For instance, Nic’s younger brother, Fake Name, wanted to change his name to Fats Domino, but the judge said that that was a well-known name and therefore he could not allow it. Fats Domino was a 1950s piano player named Antoine who had many hits including “Ain’t That a Shame,” and I guess it was. His biggest hit was called Blueberry Hill, which coincidentally was the name of Fake Name’s first grade teacher.
Being denied the name Fats Domino, Fake Name then asked the court to change his name to Chubby Checker. The judge disallowed that name on the same grounds. Chubby Checker was the fake name of the 1960s rock ‘n roll singer, Ernest Evans, who popularized the dance known as the Twist. “C’mon baby, let’s do the twist.” The song revolutionized dancing since it was the first time couples danced without touching each other. Not such a good idea. Chubby Checker got the idea for his fake name from the wife of TV personality Dick Clark. Dick Clark’s real name was Dick Wagstaff. You can understand why he changed it. Dick Clark became famous for hosting the TV show American Bandstand (on which both Fats Domino and Chubby Checker performed) and for announcing the lowering of the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve each year.
Anyway, Fake Name finally settled on changing his name to Obese Backgammon, which he reasoned was close enough to Fats Domino and Chubby Checker. The judge said that was fine.
Everyone now called Fake, Obese. He wasn’t, it was just his name. He was a bit overweight though, you might even say pudgy. In fact, Obese had considered adopting the name Fudgy Pudgy, but he thought it unappealing because it was so rhymey, and also because it is the name of a Japanese cartoon character. No, Fake Name wasn’t fat enough to warrant his chosen moniker; he just liked the sound of it – Obese Backgammon.
Unlike his brother Obese, Nicaragua (I mean Nic) was a bit on the thin side. Skinny, in fact. Real Name, that is, Nic, liked to stay thin because he thought it was an advantage for a taxi driver to be lithe. By the way, Nic did not like to be called a “cab” driver. It reminded him of Cab Calloway, a famous 1930s scat singer who wore natty clothes and whose orchestra played at the Cotton Club working with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie. Calloway’s most famous song was “Minnie the Moocher,” which reminded Nic of Minnie Mouse, and of fares who ran off without paying. Being called a “cab driver” made Nic feel dizzy (but not gillespie). Nic liked “taxi driver.” You see, Nic believed that the term “taxi” meant a person who paid taxes. In his mind there was the “taxer” and the “taxi.” The taxer charged the taxes, and the taxi paid the taxes.
Nic’s brother Fake – I mean Obese – scoffed at this idea and told Nic that the term taxi actually was a plural of the word tax. You could say taxes or taxi. “I paid my taxes,” or, “I paid my taxi.” Except it was pronounced tax-eye. I paid my tax-eye. That’s what Obese thought. But Nic’s sister, Maya Name, who had changed her name to Plain Jane, told Nic that the word “taxi” was a derivation of the verb, “to tax,” meaning to strain. So, the term “taxi” actually meant to strain, or to put pressure on something or someone. Maya – I mean Plain – figured that was what taxi driving was all about: taxing people. Straining them very hard. That’s what the driver did – he taxed, or strained, the people in his cab. Have you ever taken a ride in a taxi? Taxing, wasn’t it?
But Real – sorry, Nic – did not buy these interpretations. Nic was proud to pay taxes, and hence he liked to be called a taxi driver. He figured a taxi driver meant a driver who paid taxes. There was the taxer driver, and there was the taxi driver. Nic was a taxi driver. He didn’t charge taxes, he paid them. Nic was proud of paying taxes because a couple years ago his sister Plain had a fire at her apartment and the local fire fighters put it out without charge. Nic tried to pay them, but the fire fighters insisted that he keep his money since the fire fighters were paid by taxes. Ever since that epiphany, Nic bragged about paying taxes. For example, each time he read or heard about a local fire that was put out by fire fighters, Nic bragged about it for days. “I paid for that,” he’d say. He was the “taxi.”
Meanwhile, down at the taxi station, Nic’s boss was a tall, lanky Chinese man named Brake Fluid. Everyone who worked there remarked that it was terribly odd that the boss’s name corresponded so well with the aura of the taxi garage. They marveled at how often this seemed to happen – that a person’s name fit with his or her occupation. You know, like a paleontologist named Stegasaurus, or a car mechanic named Wrench, or a doctor named Langerhans, or a chiropractor named Quack, an electrician named Shock, a sociologist named Group, a psychologist named Nutz, a potato farmer named Spud, a fire fighter named Hose, a teacher named Chalk, a plumber named Flush, or a lawyer named Attache or Sleazeball. Weird coincidences, for sure. But Maya – sorry again, I mean Plain – understood all this because she had experienced such characters in her past. For example, she had an eighth grade teacher named Miss Taken, a dentist named Incisor Gap, an accountant named Decimal Avogadro, a piano teacher named Tuner D. Keyes, and a pet mouse named Squeak. Ironic, no?
Anyway, as I was saying, no one knew the city better than Real Name, err, I mean Nicaragua Mars. That is, Nic. Although, truth be told, Nic was not an especially good driver. In fact, he was a terrible driver. Absolutely awful. Even dangerous. It was a miracle that he had a driver’s license. In fact, he didn’t have a driver’s license. Well, not a real one. He had a fake driver’s license that he bought from a guy in an alley. Although it was drawn with a crayon on a wrinkled brown paper bag, it was good enough to get him a job as a taxi driver. But actually, the line drawing of Nic was a pretty good likeness.
Nic was a horrific driver who could barely keep his taxi from going sideways. In fact, he did drive sideways. Still, Nic was the top driver in the taxi garage (It’s funny how that goes – the worst drivers are professional drivers). What Nic was best at, though, was knowing his way around the city. No one knew the city better. Well, no one except a few people who had lived in the city for a long time. Oh, and some city officials. Oh yeah, and a few of the construction workers who worked in different places throughout the city. Oh wait, and an old lady who sat on the city commission for several years until they finally said “uncle” and she got up. Oh, yeah, I just remembered, and an idiot savant who happened to live in the same city as Nic. He was amazing, this savant, a young man named Orangutan Marshmallow who could tell you any address in the city if you just told him the color and weight of the house. He could also tell you the circumference of every bald man’s head in the city. Orangutan could play the piano with his nose without a piano. He could calculate the square roots of small electric appliances. He was able to remove his toes and still play This Little Piggy. He was amazing. He was one of only one idiot savant in the city. Orangutan knew the city better than Nic, but nearly no one else did. And, how was that, you ask, that Nic knew the city so well? I’m so glad you asked! It’s like this….
Nic’s other brother, not Fake Name (I mean, Obese Backgammon) but Nic’s other brother, his older brother, was named Alias Name, but officially changed his name to Contemporary Man. He wanted to change his name to Modern Man, but another person had already taken that name. Anyway, Contemporary was driving Nic to the airport one day when they were involved in a serious car accident (bad driving ran in the family). Nic suffered a severe head injury, but the weird thing was that his brain injury caused him to become a memory genius in visual-spatial perception. He now had a detailed map of the whole city in his head. The surgeons tried to remove it, but it was stuck between Nic’s medulla oblongata (which, coincidentally was the name of the chief surgeon) and his ventromedial hippocampus (amazingly, the name of the nurse, though she was usually just called Vennie), so they had to leave it in. Talking fast caused it to flap, which gave Nic a headache. The surgeons also found that the map was simply impossible to re-fold correctly no matter how they tried. One of the surgeons, Dr. Piers Yorskin from Neither, Norway fainted after a valiant attempt to re-fold the map. The map apparently was jammed between Nic’s gray matter and his white matter in a region of the brain called the “doesn’t matter.” So, with a map of the city stuck firmly in his brain, Nic knew the city better than anyone. Well, except for those listed above. Well, okay, and a few others, too, I suppose. Whatever.
Nic’s life changed drastically when one day he picked up a fare at the airport, a Mr. Pickled Cucumber, a lawyer from Frozentoe, Saskatchewan, who wanted a ride to a mysterious hotel called the Pleaze Putit Inn. Pickled Cucumber had the weird habit of playing a didgeridoo, a primitive wind instrument that requires the player to vibrate his lips while blowing into a beeswax mouthpiece at the end of a long wooden pipe made by termites while simultaneously breathing in through his nose. By breathing in and blowing out simultaneously some didgeridoo players can play a steady note for half an hour or more. This, by the way, had a mysteriously relaxing effect on the termites.
Pickled got his didgeridoo while he was studying languages in Australia and discovered that the two languages, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, could be grouped together under the name Nyangatjatjara. You see, psycholinguistics was a hobby of Pickled’s. He purchased his didgeridoo from a Pitjantjatjara shaman who worshipped the Urulu rock formation. Out of respect, Pickled named his daughter Urulu Cucumber. Her middle name was SacredRock. Unfortunately, Pickled’s daughter had been stolen by kangaroos and was badly injured riding in a marsupial pocket. Urulu Cucumber was now in a vegetative state. By the way, the term kangaroo derives from a Guugu Yimidhirr word “ganguruu,” which, contrary to popular belief, does not mean “I don’t understand you.” Incidentally, the didgeridoo is known as a “yirdaki” among the Yolngu aboriginal people of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, as a “paampu” among the Pintupi tribe of Central Australia, and is named “ngarrriralkpwina” on the island of Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. But, to simplify things we’ll just call this weird musical device a “didgeridoo.”
Pickled Cucumber played the didgeridoo because it was prescribed by his sleep therapist, Dr. Needle Gozinya, to treat a severe case of sleep apnea. You see, Pickled could not sleep and breathe at the same time. Well, that is, unless he played the didgeridoo. He found it more convenient and interesting than wearing a C-PAP.
In the taxi, Pickled Cucumber and Nicaragua Mars started chatting, particularly about the low humming sound that was coming from the back seat. It turned out that it wasn’t snoring, as Nic had assumed. No, it was Pickled Cucumber vibrating his lips and exhaling on the beeswax mouthpiece of his didgeridoo while breathing in through his nose. Pickled loved music. He told Nic about his favorite musician, Frank Zappa, who was an eccentric genius who named his four children Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen, and for whom many scientific discoveries had been named including the 3834 Zappafrank asteroid, the Phialella zappa jellyfish, and the Zappa Confluentus bacterium.
As a child, Frank Zappa had sinus problems which his doctor treated by inserting a pellet of radium into each of little Frank’s nostrils. As a result, Zappa’s lyrics and album covers often contain nasal images, Pickled explained, and he told Nic that Zappa was close friends with musician Van Vliet who had changed his name to Captain Beefheart, and who with the Magic Band, whose members included Drumbo and Zoot Horn Rollo, released a popular album called Trout Mask Replica. It is said that Van Vliet got his name from his uncle who referred to his penis as a big, fine beef heart whilst peeing in front of Van Vliet’s girlfriend Laurie. However, Van Vliet said on TV that his name derived from the fact that he had, “A beef in my heart against this society.”
Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa met at Antelope Valley High School, and while neither appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand,” Zappa was on the Steve Allen Show where, inexplicably he did not play guitar, but instead played the bicycle. By the way, comedian and talk-show host Steve Allen’s middle name was Valentine, which means strong and healthy, and also was the pen name of British author Archibald Thomas Pechey who wrote many songs, as did Steve Allen.
And, wouldn’t you know, wouldn’t you just guess, the two of them hit it off right away. I’m referring now to Nic and Pickled. They hit it off right away. Two peas in a pod. There was chemistry between them. Mostly carbon dioxide, I think. Perhaps a hint of salicylic acid methyl ester, also known as wintergreen, although that is quite superfluous to this story, I suppose. Interesting, though, that wintergreen would be developing between them, don’t you think?
Anyway, the two of them were getting along so well that Pickled Cucumber invited Nic to dinner that evening. Since Nic was free absolutely every night without exception, he readily and happily accepted. They went to a nice restaurant called Cannibal’s. The host said they had to wait for a table and asked for a name. Pickled immediately said “Pajama.” In the restaurant’s bar, Pickled explained.
It turns out that some years ago Pickled Cucumber grew tired of restaurant hosts asking him how to spell his name. It really annoyed him. Every time he had to wait for a table the restaurant host asked Pickled how to spell his name. He thought, “Why are they asking me how to spell my name? Are they going to send me a letter when the table is ready?” Pickled tried asking the hosts to write his name phonetically since they were going to be speaking it later, but the hosts did not know what the word “phonetically” meant. They just stared at him blankly, and then later whispered about him with their peers. So, Pickled decided to make up a name that would be easy to spell. He tried many different names, but to no avail. Each time he went to a restaurant, no matter what name he gave – even Smith, Johnson, Homer Simpson, Banana, Nose, The, Spaghetti, Choo- choo, Furniture, Boogeyman, Pinwheel, Spittoon, Crackerjack, Icepick, Whiplash, Doodle, or Smell – the host asked him how to spell it.
But wait, Pickled Cucumber excitedly told Nic, in fact there was one category of names he had stumbled upon that hosts did not ask him how to spell. Pickled had discovered that hosts will not ask you to spell your name if your name is a word that is embarrassing. Pickled discovered this by accident one day when he coincidentally found that his pants were on fire at the precise moment when a host asked for his name. “Shit,” he had yelled. The host wrote it down without asking for the spelling. After this serendipitous discovery, Pickled tried many similar names such as Wartface, Bigsucker, Sexkitten, Fart, Crotch Itch, Burping-Goat, Dingleberry, Vulva, and Nixon. They worked! Hosts were too embarrassed to ask how to spell them.
However, there was a weird side-effect that Pickled soon uncovered. On one occasion he had given the name Frankenstein – embarrassing enough to avoid the how to spell it question – and then later while waiting in the bar he heard over the loud speaker: “Frankenstein party of two, your table is ready.” Pickled Cucumber found that this caused a great deal of attention from other people waiting in the bar. They all stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the “Frankenstein” couple, drinks in hand, went to get their table. At that moment, Pickled quickly decided to walk with very stiff legs to give them something to tell the kids later. By the way, Pickled explained to Nic, if you want to try the Frankenstein name at a restaurant, I suggest that when the host is writing it down you meekly add “Doctor.” It’s a nice touch. Also, Pickled continued, be sure to keep a straight face. After you say that your name is Frankenstein the host will glance at you for a moment, not too long, but for a second will turn his or her eyes up to look at you – it’s at this moment that if you are smiling, the deal will be off. But if you have a serious face, then after just a quick look, the host will begin writing the name Frankenstein without asking how to spell it. It is at this moment that you should lean forward and quietly, but seriously, without smiling of course, add, “Doctor.”
Then, Pickled Cucumber said to Nic as he finally got to the crux of his explaining, after I discovered that they will announce “Shitz party of four, your table is ready,” or something like that, I decided to use names that went with the word “party.” Like Republican, for example; and as a bonus I found that the word Republican is embarrassing enough to avoid the how to spell question, too. So, Pickled continued, that is why I gave the name Pajama tonight.
Just then, as the two of them were sitting there chatting and sipping their drinks in the restaurant’s bar, they heard over the loud speaker: “Pajama party for two… Pajama party for two…” So, Pickled and Nic went in to eat. Naturally, the other people in the bar stared at them. Pickled walked with a joyous and happy stride, and made a big yawn for everyone to see.
At their table, the waitress told them they could choose “All you can eat,” but Nic said no thanks, he couldn’t eat all that he could eat. So, Nic just ordered coconut jumbo shrimp and mashed turnips. Pickled had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with coleslaw and pineapple pie. They chatted as they ate.
When Pickled learned of Nic’s great skill – knowing the city better than anyone (well, better than a lot of people, anyway) – he became very interested. As a lawyer, Pickled was always looking for easy ways to make money. If it was legal, that was a bonus. If not, well, loopholes abounded. If loopholes didn’t abound, then some whatnot could be finagled. If a whatnot could not be finagled, then perhaps a thingamajig could be boonswaggled. Or maybe a whatchamajigger could be insinuated. Or a doohickey could be fillydallied. You see, Pickled didn’t care about ethics at all. He simply didn’t think about that.
Hmm, Pickled thought, how can I use Nic’s skill, and make a lot of money, and give Nic only about ten percent or less? Okay, he said to Nic, why don’t we start a service that will tell people how to get from one place to another in the city? There are lots of people who can’t read maps. Most people don’t own a GPS, either. Whaddya think?
Nic was all for it. He had a map in his brain, after all, so he may as well sell it to others. A brain map should be shared. So, Pickled and Real Name, I mean Nic, went into business. They called their venture, Navibrain. They advertised in newspapers, restaurants, Laundromats, on telephone poles, kiosks, bulletin boards, and on the backs of homeless people and the fronts of prostitutes, sometimes with a sandwich board. They discovered that lots of people couldn’t read a map or use a GPS and needed to find their way around the city. They were doing great.
Then, one momentous day they got a call from a woman named Flapps Her-Arms. She had been born “Flappsinna Her,” but married a man named Missing Arms and then shortened her first name and hyphenated her last. Her brother, Broth Her, changed his name to Phantom Limb and took a job selling mirror boxes. Miss Flapps Her-Arms had called Navibrain because she wanted to know how to get from Point A to Point B. Nic knew about Point A (it was near the zoo, about a mile from Sinus Cavity at the intersection of Della Street and I’ve Done Her, Avenue?), but he had never heard of Point B. It wasn’t on his map. Pickled Cucumber told Nic to just make up something to tell Miss Flapps Her-Arms. So, he did. That is when Nic and Pickled discovered an amazing fact: it didn’t matter what they said to people. Sure, some people got mad and complained when they were given wrong directions, but Navibrain already had their credit card numbers. The few people who took time to ask for their money refunded were cheerfully told that it would be credited to their accounts right away. Several months later, the money was credited. Pickled and Nic kept the interest they had earned on the money.
That is when they stumbled upon the capitalist’s dream: they could make money by doing nothing. Pickled and Nic started a slew of other companies that claimed to do many different services, such as rust proof cars, clean furniture, change the oil on snowmobiles, fix roofs, run errands, water plants, water children, deliver sushi, eat sushi, wash airplanes, and so forth. But, in fact, they did nothing. They had no overhead whatsoever. They just collected the payments, put them in the bank to collect interest, and then gave the money back to customers who complained. They kept the interest. They found the best services to offer were those that customers had to wait a long time to find out if they worked, like rust-proofing cars.
Pickled and Nic made a lot of money. Sure, they made money on the interest they earned, but mostly they got rich off the apathetic customers who never asked to have their money refunded. People were forgetful, after all. Pickled Cucumber kept ninety percent and he gave Nicaragua Mars ten percent. They were making plenty.
It all came to an end one hot summer day. Nic’s younger brother, Obese, had discovered what was going on and wanted in on the deal. So, Obese started his own company – a dating service called Meet Your Soul Mate or Someone Vaguely Similar. Obese’s intention was to do nothing, just to collect money. He was able to obtain a free website called MYSMOSVS.com where people could pay by credit card. Obese found that a huge number of people were willing to sign up to meet their soul mates or someone vaguely similar. The business was a success. But then he met her – I mean Lullaby U. Dreamscape. And, the most wonderful thing happened. Not to Obese, but to Nic. They fell in love.
Lullaby and Nic were a perfect couple. That is, if by perfect you mean pretty good. They fell in love right away. Well, if by right away you mean fairly fast. Soon they got married and Lullaby changed her name to Venezuela Mars. However, unfortunately for Nic and Pickled Cucumber, Lullaby, I mean Venezuela, did not like the unethical nature of their businesses. Venezuela insisted that Nic give up doing nothing for a living. That’s what Venezuela Mars wanted, so that’s what Venezuela Mars got. You see, Nicaragua Mars, I mean Nic, was a good and obedient husband.
Well, the idea of starting an ethical business was so foreign and unsettling to Pickled Cucumber that he left town immediately and headed for the big city with his didgeridoo. When he got there he immediately landed a job engineering dirty tricks and spreading lies for a political party, which was quite fitting since schadenfreude and stealing money for the rich seemed to be Pickled’s main preoccupations; it was precisely what he was good at.
On the other hand, Nicaragua Mars thought that starting an ethical business seemed an excellent idea. Since Nic had encountered so many unusual names, he thought it would be a good idea to start a business that helped companies create names for their products. So, he did. He called his business The Really Good Name Company. As you would expect, he was excellent at it since he had a lot of experience with names.
Now, wouldn’t you just know it, Nic’s new business giving names to products was a big success. He was very good at creating names. Very good, indeed. His first job had been for a mattress company called Drowsy Knights that was putting out a new line of pillowtops. Nic named the company’s number one elite mattress after his wife’s original maiden name – the Lullaby Dreamscape. The officials at Drowsy Knights loved it, and Nic was a success, an ethical success.
By the way, a year after they met, Nicaragua and Venezuela Mars had a beautiful baby girl. She was adorable. She was the light of their lives. They found her not the least bit taxing. Fortunately, she had the looks of her mother and the brains of her father. Well, that is, without the map, of course. And, what do you suppose they named their precious little dear? Well, I’m certainly not going to give that away here. You will just have to imagine. But, I’ll tell you this, her name is a real doozy!
Bruce H. Hinrichs is a professor, artist, musician, and author of fiction and nonfiction. He lives in Minneapolis.