The first time I heard of a “Coffee name” was when my Irish friend Diarmuid used one while picking up a take-out pizza. When I asked him why he told the cashier his name was David he said no one in America could understand the way he pronounced his real name, so he used a name that people could grasp, a coffee name. “Feckin’ eejits,” he punctuated it. The idea intrigued me. Here was the chance to change my name; to change who I was, if only for a complete stranger.
Bill, that’s my name. It’s simple, compact and entirely common, none of the traits I want to project. People with more exotic names use Bill for their coffee name. It’s been in my family for generations, although technically it’s William. But, my mother shortened it to the more common nick-name. She may have lopped off some of the letters but the number of syllables remained the same; “Bee-uhl” that’s how it’s pronounced in the south. Like something you might hear at a pig-calling contest.
To be completely honest, this was not the first time I thought of changing my name. Many men who come out of the closet jettison their nick-names and trot out their fancy, stylish full names to go with their new fancy, stylish selves. Jeff will become Geoffrey, Stu becomes Stewart and Bob becomes Robert or the spicy, salsa version: R-r-r-r-oberto!
But I wanted something more than William. I wanted a name that projected the real me, you know? When I told my friend Diarmuid this, his suggestion was “How about Precious?”
The Irish have a dark sense of humor.
I was pondering this while standing in line at a popular lunch spot one day. The “sandwich engineer” was asking for a name to go with the order. Here was my chance to come up with a new name and try it out. I mentally flipped through a rolodex of names when the young attractive man behind the counter asked me “Can I have your number?” Flustered, I looked at Diarmuid and then turned back to the young man. “I mean name, can I have your name?,” he corrected himself, equally flustered. “It’s David,” I stammered. “Feckin’ eejit,” my friend muttered.
I began to think that maybe people became their names and not the other way around. Maybe Jeff was always Geoffrey and Stu was always Stewart, just waiting for the right time in their life to percolate into their real names. But William seemed too formal and aloof and if I was going to choose a completely foreign name I might as well change my sex, which was my mother’s initial fear when I first told her I was gay.
And then I met Paul; dependable, handsome Paul. Two months into our relationship he left for a business trip that interrupted our affair. “I miss my Willy,” he said to me on the phone. Willy. I knew then that this was the name I’d hear for the rest of my life. That’s when it hit me, the key to finding my name was not changing it for a stranger, but for someone I loved.