When I was growing up, before I got married and took my wife’s name, my last name was Polak. (It feels funny to type that. It’s been so many years.) It’s Polish and pronounced “poh-lahk.” The more traditional spelling for that pronunciation is “Polack.” As you might or might not know, Polack is a derogatory term for someone of Polish descent. The most common slander is “dumb Polack.” It’s no different than calling someone a kike or nigger. The only difference is that those pejoratives had better press agents.
Because of the terrible weight that word carries, my uncles all changed the pronunciation to “Pollack,” as in the painter Jackson Pollack. One of my uncles went so far as to actually change the spelling to Pollack so there would be no mistaking. But my father was a proud fool. He said the name was good enough for his father, good enough for him, so it’ll be good enough for us. I went through elementary school, junior high and high school being called by my last name. Nobody ever used my first name. Mr. Colburn, my 5th grade teacher, never once called me by my first name. I can remember when I was about 11 years old I came into an understanding of what that word meant. I could feel my ears burning when someone on the other side of the playground would yell, “Hey, POLACK!,” and I had to turn and answer because that was me. I was the Polack. You’d think you’d get used to it after a year or two. Or five. But you don’t. A boy named Sue had it easier.
When I left home at 19 and joined the Coast Guard, the first thing I did was abandon the pronunciation. Thereafter, no one ever knew me as “Polack.” I was “Pollack.” When I got to New York City, I was often mistaken for being Jewish, which was fine with me. When I go back to Cleveland and see someone from the old days and am called “Polack,” it’s kind of jarring.
When it came time to get married, I had no feeling for the name whatsoever so I took my wife’s name. It’s probably the only thing I’ve done that pleased my father-in-law. We were visiting my brother and sister-in-law back in Cleveland and when I informed them of my decision, my sister-in-law told me I was a renaissance man. My brother called me a big pussy.
At our wedding, when the priest introduced the new, happy couple as “Mr. and Mrs. Cxx,” you could hear an audible a gasp from the audience. Many of our guests had not been informed and they thought the priest committed a terrible gaffe. I also remember sitting at our dining room table on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and practicing my new signature. I wrote it over and over wondering, “When did I become a girl?” I realize that women have been doing this for generations, but If I had known how complicated it was I might not have done it. New passport. New social security card. Driver’s license. Credit card. Bank accounts. Utility bills. The list is endless. And how should I refer to my old name? I’m not a maiden, so it isn’t my “maiden” name. They need to invent a new word.
My brother and I have a theory that when our grandfather immigrated to America from Warsaw and passed through Ellis Island, some wise guy government cog with a rubber stamp couldn’t make heads or tails of his last name — too many C’s, Z’s, Y’s and K’s — and simply said, “You’re a Polack so that’s your name.” It might or might not be true. We’ll never know for sure. He and I are the end of the lineage and since he didn’t have a son and I dumped it, the name, as it relates to our family tree, is dead. An irrelevant loss to the world.
Incidentally, when my niece was born, she was given my sister-in-law’s last name. NOW who’s the pussy?