Bill Gets Hit By a Bus

Where I grew up in Southern California, we didn’t call them bodegas, packies, party stores, markets, delis, or deps. We called them liquor stores. The one closest to my house in North Hollywood was on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Burbank Boulevard. When I was younger, the liquor store’s chief draw was candy and video games. When I was older, about fifteen, the proprietor’s adult nephew would leave me cash rolled in tight bills hidden on the sidewalk out front, and in turn I would leave him baggies of marijuana behind the Bazooka Joe display inside the store.

The quickest route to the liquor store was to climb over the six-foot wall in my back yard, drop onto a ledge, and then hang drop about nine feet down to the subterranean parking structure of the massive apartment complex behind my house. Then go through the sunken parking lot, which jogged through a narrow passageway to its sister parking lot, and eventually to the far north end of this hundred-unit monstrosity. From there, walk halfway up an outdoor stairwell, and climb over another wall to a much more modest apartment complex. Cut through the small, street-level parking lot behind this complex onto the strange, jungle-like yard of a house on Laurel Canyon that was probably over an acre in size. This could have been the only actual house on that stretch of Laurel Canyon. It was all dirt driveway and jungle, with smallish living quarters toward the back of the lot, and a natural shortcut on the way to the liquor store. After all this hopping, dropping, and cutting through, you finally emerged onto Laurel Canyon proper, and were halfway to your destination.

I had a friend named Bill, and I don’t remember much about him. If I hadn’t been there when he got hit by a bus, I might not even remember him today. I must have known him  from Walter Reed Junior High, but I have almost no memory of him before or after getting hit by the bus. We were at the liquor store because we took the bus home from school together down Laurel Canyon. I disembarked at the Laurel and Burbank stop, and normally Bill would have stayed on the bus for a few more stops. But on this fateful day Bill got off at my stop to play video games. The plan was for him to jump on the next bus that would come twenty or thirty minutes later and not be too late getting home himself. The video game we played was a Donkey Kong knockoff called Crazy Kong.

crazykongMy memories are notoriously unreliable, especially from the smoke-filled teenage years, but what follows is the best of my limited recollection. Bill and I both loved hard rock and heavy metal, and we had been listening to Live Evil by Black Sabbath on his boom box. And yes, teenagers – myself included – would regularly  bring boom boxes to school in the 1980’s. (I realize only a handful of pieces into Police Horse, Black Sabbath already plays a major part in two of them.)

Time got away from us, and I was in the middle of playing Crazy Kong when Bill noticed the next bus arriving. He grabbed his boom box and bolted out of the liquor store, jay-ran across Laurel Canyon IN FRONT OF THE FUCKING BUS trying to catch it, and the bus hit him. I didn’t witness Bill getting hit, but I feel like I did. Just prior, I heard him panic when we both saw and heard the bus coming, I saw him grab his things and bolt out of the door, then I heard screeching and crashing and screaming from the street. So in my mind I can picture the gruesome collision, although there was no way I could have actually seen it.

In an uncharacteristically unselfish move I abandoned my game mid-play, ran outside, and saw Bill across the street laying down in front of the bus. I freaked out of course; I thought he was dead. But when I made it across the street I was relieved to see he was alive and probably not dying. An ambulance came quickly and took Bill to the hospital, while I collected his damaged boom box and his school backpack for safe keeping.

The radio was smashed to pieces, but Black Sabbath’s Live Evil cassette was miraculously unharmed. I played it on my own boom box at home, and Children of the Sea sounded as smoking hot as ever. I chalked it up to the Evil Overlord’s grand plan: The Metal could never be destroyed. I told this BlackSabbath-LiveEvil-Frontstory for months, convinced that demonic forces preserved the infamously occultish band’s unholy offering. Years later, I came to realize that audio cassettes were quite durable; the best way to break one was to play it ten thousand times or leave it on the dashboard of a hot car. Other than that, those white or tan plastic pieces of music were pretty well indestructible.

The next time I saw Bill he was hopping around on crutches in a full-leg cast, and I returned his Black Sabbath tape, backpack, and broken boom box. His mom thanked me for being a good friend. Of course I felt guilty for leading him off the bus in the first place, but – you know – not crippling, soul-sucking guilt. He must not have gone to my high school because I had no further memory of him. I don’t know his last name, and I’m not in contact with him on social media. I wonder what his version of this story is? Does he even remember who was there with him, or what tape was in his boom box?

It’s a common expression, getting hit by a bus. Someone at work told me the other day “If you get hit by a bus, we’re screwed.” I thought “YOU’RE screwed? I’m the one who will be screwed!” I assured my colleague no one would be screwed, because I document every fucking thing I do and how all my systems work, but still, we describe losing someone quickly as getting hit by a bus. Like Bill, poor old Bill with the indestructible Black Sabbath cassette.

The Night the Lights Went Out in Davis

Thank God for friends.

Wednesday, the 18th of January, was a tough one. The day started out great, waking up in the Marin Lodge in San Rafael. Not for nothing, this is a very decent little place to stay in Marin at $93.00 a night. Likewise, our IAUG NorCal meeting at the Marin Center went off perfectly, with David Lover doing his David Lover thing, Avaya’s VP of Global Finance gave us a killer, personal presentation on their financial situation the very day before their Chapter 11 filing went public (and he did keep his lip zipped on that, for the record!), we had awesome industry analysts like Phil Edholm and Blair Pleasant speak to the group, and I gave away a PlayStation 4 to my friend Tony!fullsizerender

It was a great meeting, with lots of friends and colleagues from around the state; we had a near-record turnout. However, it was storming, and I mean coming down in buckets. I knew it would be a bear getting back to Sacramento from Marin, but I didn’t know how big a bear it would turn out to be.

It was the type of storm where you really don’t want to drive any faster than about 55 or 60 on the freeway, and there wasn’t much traffic until I hit the predictable crawl on Highway 37 before Sears Point. After that it wasn’t too bad, and 80 east from Vallejo was a breeze. I had to pee, and I felt like a little coffee might ensure alertness for the rest of the trip (despite its guarantee that I’d have to pee again before long), so I pulled into a McDonald’s. I got soaked between the car and the restaurant, even though I parked right in front of the door. Relieved and coffeed up, I was sailing away again on a strangely sparse I-80. By the time I passed Dixon, things were still looking good. True, I’ve been on the road for about two hours already due to the setback on the 37, but with luck I’d be home in time for dinner at 5:30.

That’s when things got weird. Sometimes when I’m driving on a longish trip, even if I know where I’m going I have the Google map app running so I can see what the traffic situation is, and my ETA. But suddenly Google told me to get off the highway at Pedrick road.

Strange that Google would take me off a free-flowing highway onto a country road, but I figured it knows better than me, so I got off. It was raining in torrents now, and this road led me a good couple miles south – perpendicular to the highway – but I soldiered on, navigating around semi-flooded areas and moving deeper into darkness. Finally Google had me hang a left, and then eventually back toward the highway, presumably, by way of Mace Road. All I can think is that Google knew the highway was about to come to a standstill, so it saved me a few minutes by navigating me around the worst of it. I soon came to regret this detour.

Before long the coffee has taken its toll, so I pull off up a levee-top and it’s storming so badly that, well, sorry Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, but sadly it was more than rain that soaked your car that night. Then I realized I had pulled off up in an area that I’d now have to back down in this storm, and that was a bit perilous, but I survived.

Eventually I found myself within a half-mile of returning to the highway, and I’m at an utter standstill. There is a half-mile line of cars inching – and I mean INCHING – toward the highway, when Amy texts me that the power has been out at home for several hours. It’s getting to be 6:30 at night, I’m probably a couple of hours from getting home judging by the storm and the state of the freeway, I’m hungry, cranky, tired, and I know the coffee will force me to pee again eventually. After twenty minutes and only moving a couple hundred yards I start thinking about who I know in Davis I can stop in on. It takes me a minute, but I realize: Sergio, Reyna, and Tres Hermanas!

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We’ve been going to Tres on K Street for I don’t know how many years.  Dad and Vonnie became pretty good friends with Sergio – El Uno Hermano -, Reyna and their family, and had us all over for meals several times. (They were probably the last non-family to visit Dad before he died.) I don’t know how Sergio and Reyna do it. They have three kids, they run a business together, they see movies and watch all the good TV shows, they go to concerts and clubs and on vacations. Their life exhausts me. Since they opened their own Tres Hermanas in Davis we see them less, but it’s always a treat when we do.

I figured even if Sergio or Reyna weren’t there (but they’re always there!), I’d rather spend a couple of hours at their restaurant than sitting on the stormy highway. The longer I stayed in Davis, I reasoned the better chance I’d have for traffic clearing up and the power coming on in my house.

“How do I get to Tres Hermanas from here?” I asked Siri. She guided me out of traffic, through a neighborhood, and into Davis proper. I was feeling good until I noticed that all the traffic signals were dark, and lights were out sporadically in Davis’s homes and businesses. It started storming harder, and before long I was inching through downtown Davis as well. The going was slow, but Tres was up ahead on the left. At that point traffic came to a standstill again, as I saw sirens up ahead – right outside the restaurant. I start scanning for parking spots, because it’s the kind of night that looks like I’m just not parking anywhere.

As I crawl closer to Tres, I can see there are about three police cars and a fire truck, but I’m not sure why. They’re talking to someone, rain lashing down on all of them, on the side of the road. Finally I’m alongside the restaurant and I’m crushed: it’s dark inside, they’re closed. But wait, something’s happening in there. People are moving around with their cell phone flashlights. The power is out, but are they open for business? I’ve also noticed there are some other restaurants around, so if worse comes to worse I’ll wait out the storm in a pizza place or something.

Miracle of miracles, a parking spot opens up right in front of me, right along side the restaurant! I park and head over to Tres to see what’s up. The door is unlocked and the hostess stops me. “Are you meeting someone?” She doesn’t want to let me in, not sure why – maybe because the power is out? I ask if Sergio or Reyna are there, and she perks up. “Oh sure, right over there!” Sergio and Reyna greet me with hugs, sit me at the bar, bring me chips, salsa, and beer, and ask me what I want to eat. I could cry I’m so happy. The power is out in the restaurant, they have half a house, and they’re still cooking. Still taking care of customers.

I tell them I don’t need anything to eat, I don’t want them to tax the dark kitchen any more than necessary. Chips, salsa, and beer are just fine. They’re not having it, so I get tacos, rice and beans.

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Sergio tending bar in near total darkness

I eat in the dark at the bar, with Sergio or Reyna stopping by every so often to take a pull of tequila and chat for a minute. I asked Sergio about the police cars out front, and he told me someone had been hit by a car, but his understanding was they were OK. This night was like descending into Dante’s Inferno! Still, I was safe, warm, fed, and despite the near-tragedy out front, I couldn’t be happier.

After a half hour or so, the lights turn on and everyone cheers. I enjoy the rest of my meal and a second beer in the warm glow of blessed electricity. Sergio introduces me to Sal and the group at the table behind me. Sal, who is in celebrating a birthday,  was a customer Sergio became friendly with. They had some adventures together and went on a hike to Yosemite’s Half Dome. Sergio had been out partying pretty late the night before their trip, and by the time they hiked several hours to get to the rails that lead hikers up the Half Dome face, Sergio was wiped. It got spiritual and introspective. He realized he needed to change his life. He was partying too much, and needed to focus more on his family and his inner self. Sergio was lagging behind the other hikers, wiped out physically and mentally. Sal respected Sergio’s desire for solitude, but wouldn’t leave him behind. By the time they reached the rails, Sal literally pushed Sergio by the ass to get him moving up to the top of the mountain. Their group watched the sunrise from atop Half Dome as planned, and Sergio says he came off the mountain a changed man. For Sal’s birthday, Sergio was going to present Sal with a large, framed Half Dome photograph the Sergio had taken when he was younger (he is an accomplished photographer and photography teacher). Sal didn’t know he was getting a gift from Sergio, and I was sworn to secrecy. Sergio told me this story between sips of tequila as he was serving the restaurant, keeping an eye on his and Reyna’s kids running around, and it hit me square in the feels. He introduces me to Sal and I can tell the warmth and friendship of that gentleman are sincere. I was also invited to Yosemite before the end of the night.

Amy and I are texting, the power is still out at home, and I’m telling her only half-jokingly that sadly I live at Tres Hermanas now. I don’t think she’s amused, but she understands. Sergio clinks a glass and calls the restaurant to attention and tells everyone the Half Dome story he just told me. He presents Sal the photo and there’s not a dry eye in the house. Sal gives a speech and tells the restaurant about the first time he came to Tres Hermanas, and sat at the bar “right over there where Chip is sitting now,” as I raised my glass. More tears, more hugs, more drinks, and I am in no hurry to get home to my cold house.

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I stayed for a while longer, maybe two hours total, and made my way home. Traffic was still bad, and power was still out at home, but all joking aside, my heart is on Shepard Avenue with Amy, Henry, Josie and the dogs: Benny and Rosie. And of course Vincent, although he lives in Berkeley now. Power came back on in the middle of the night, and real life was waiting back at work the next day.

My crazy day started in Marin County seeing all my friends from the Avaya Users Group, with a pit stop visiting Sergio and Reyna, and ended back where I belong, on Shepard Avenue with my family.

It’s good to have friends like Sergio and Reyna. We don’t see each other much, and don’t have a ton of personal history, but they’re my kind of people. They are people who work and play very hard, love life, and love people. They may or may not know how meaningful it was to me that they took care of me that night. Their friendship and hospitality were precisely what I needed, and even these weeks later, I’m still very grateful for it.

 

Chips Ahoy

One of my early memories is a benign enounter with an older kid in front of my school. It happend after the bell, as students siphoned out of the school to get picked up by their parents, or as was more common in the 1970’s, to walk or ride a bike home.

I went to Pony Express elementary school, and I was in either kindergarten or first grade: a little fella. I was youngish for my grade with a late September birthday, but not freakishly so. I was young enough that I started the school year at one age, then quickly turned the age most of the other kids already were. Today in California a child is required to be five years old by September 1 in order to attend kindergarten. If they had the same rule back then I would not have started kindergarten with my friend Lance in 1974, but with my other friend Chris in 1975. Chris lived across the street and was only one grade below me in school, but one grade is a lot when you’re little. He seemed like such a baby, despite the fact that he drove quarter-midget cars in weekend races, while I only played with toy race cars.

1974nnnndanichipIn the last couple decades, there seems to have been an arms race to start one’s kid in kindergarten at an older and older age. But when I was little, parents tried to thrust their kids into kindergarten at the earliest opportunity; I had a number of friends with December birthdays who had started kindergarten at four years old, which is practically a criminal offense now. When we sent Vincent, with his August birthday, to kindergarten in 2000 he was one of the very youngest in his class, if not the youngest. There were kids turning seven the summer after kindergarten, which seemed weird to me, considering I – and later my daughter Josie – didn’t turn seven until I was already in second grade. A fellow parent at Josie’s preschool remarked to Amy once that it was so hard to know what to do with an April birthday when it came to the kindergarten decision. AN APRIL BIRTHDAY! It’s like saying it’s hard to know what to do when the traffic signal turns green.

Josie, being our youngest child and desperate to join her brothers as mature school-goers, was without question (in her mind) going to kindergarten at four years old in the fall of 2006 despite her late November birthday. She had a number of friends with fall birthdays, and Amy and I tried to rally the other parents to all send our girls off to kindergarten together. The plan actually kind of worked. Now we have to get our heads around the fact that in a couple years we’ll be sending Josie to college at seventeen, and she won’t even turn eighteen until months after that. Oy.

We weren’t participating in the arms race, but plenty were. Malcom Gladwell wrote about the relative age effect when it came to hockey players and their birthdays, and as parents we witnessed it throughout our kids’ educations. Certainly some kids aren’t ready for kindergarten at five and do better by waiting a year. But there were a couple of decades where the decision to hold one’s kid back a year was simply, if unconsciously, a desire to ensure one’s offspring was one of the big, cool, kids and not some booger-eating itchy-butt baby who couldn’t tie his shoes. (But the secret is the booger-eaters catch up!)

The memory that brought me here was of one of those big, cool kids. His identity is lost to posterity, but in my mind he was the ultimate older, cooler kid, like 2-kelly-leakKelly Leak of The Bad News Bears. All long hair, steely green eyes, motorcycles and cigarettes. He was a total stranger. After school one day, when I was either four or five or six years old, this kid out of the blue walks past me and says “Is your name Chip?” I stuttered “Y-yeah…” The dude yells “CHIPS AHOY!!!,” laughs and ambles away. He couldn’t have been older than ten, but I’m pretty certain he jumped on his motorcycle, got Tatum O’Neal to jump on behind him, lit a cigarette and rode away, still yelling “Chips Ahoy!!!!!”

I didn’t know who he was then, I don’t remember ever seeing him again, I don’t know how he knew my name or why he got such a kick out of it. I didn’t even know if he was making fun me. All I knew was he was older, cooler, and he definitely didn’t start kindergarten any younger than seven.

Tower of Song

161017_r28842_rd-320x240-1476123699Like the rest of the the civilized world, I was distraught and horrified by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, after both a terrible and – I don’t like to say this out loud – wonderful 2016.

The worst thing about 2016 was that my dad finally succumbed to his cancer. He was seventy-seven, but I really hoped he’d be around for another decade or so. 2016 also packed a terrible punch for the loss of so many talented personalities. Some that hit me hard besides Leonard Cohen were David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Pat Conroy, Carrie Fisher, and Craig Sager.

Other than losing my dad, it was a really good year for my family and me. Professionally things were great, capped by my giving a presentation on telecom program management at the Avaya ENGAGE conference in Orlando. But in true 2016 fashion, just days later, Orlando went nuclear: singer Christina Grimmie was murdered at her own concert, toddler L2016-06-07-004ane Graves was eaten by an alligator at a Disney resort, and Omar Mateen massacred 49 people at the Pulse nightclub. This all happened in Orlando just days after I and thousands of others had an amazing time at our conference, which also featured a killer private concert by Nate Ruess. It was hard to hold onto my wonderful memories of Orlando when the nation was rightly mourning their multiple tragedies.

Also in 2016 our family took an incredible trip to Europe, likely the only one we’ll be able to afford to bring the kids on (and just two of the three kids at that). The family is made up of human beings, who all have ups and downs like me, but for the most part we’re all healthy and moving in a forward direction. I made some serious changes to my diet, joined and kept a commitment to a gym, and made some other positive personal changes.

But when Leonard Cohen died at eighty-two, just one day before the election that ushered in the repugnant and frightening Donald Trump, I was shaken. Cohen’s passing wasn’t announced until November 10, two days after the election, while millions of us were still wondering if we were sharing a collective nightmare from which we’d soon wake up. And now Cohen gone? Talk about salt on the wound. But at eighty-two, suffering from cancer and general age-related maladies, it’s hard to say he was taken too soon. Just a couple weeks prior to his death he released his last studio album, a fine collection of original material called You Want It Darker.

I came to Cohen late, not until the early 2000’s or so. I’ll always treasure the memory of seeing him in San Jose 2009 with my cousin David Gandy: Cohen seventy-five, me forty, both born on September 21. He was so gracious and so good. It was a concert I will never forget.

Leonard Cohen: novelist, poet, painter, illustrator, monk, musician, singer, philosopher. He left us as our hopes and dreams left us, the day before the ignorant, insane, or evil in America elected a dark spirit to guide our coming days. Cohen’s Tower of Song from 1988 is one of his classics, and upon his passing I pretensiously decided to add a verse.

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all
I’m standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah, they don’t let a woman kill you, not in the Tower of Song

Now, you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices in the Tower of Song

I see you standing on the other side
I don’t know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We’ll never, we’ll never have to lose it again

Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song

Yeah, my friends are gone and my hair is gray
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

I went to the Tower to sing one last song
They met me at the gate and said “Come along”
I said “Show me to my room, I’m tired, I’m eighty-two”
They said “Room, what room? This whole Tower’s for you”  –C.P.

Mac Sabbath

16265618_10154362487986588_9218050968312380673_nTo say Mac Sabbath was a trip would be a gross understatement. The forefathers of Fast Food Metal came to Harlow’s earlier this week, and I can’t remember when I’ve had such a good time. It’s a schtick, a crazy gimmick, but wasn’t Black Sabbath kind of a similar thing back in the day? I’ve loved Black Sabbath since I was 12 years old. To hear a killer cover band in a small club, dressed as McDonald’s characters, changing the lyrics from Sweet Leaf to Sweet Beef, and Iron Man to Frying Pan, all with amps cranked to eleven, was pure joy.

It had been a very long time since I was at a real hard rock, metal, or punk show, and I loved every second of it. My friends Jeff and Scott and I started the night off with Mexican food, beer, and margaritas at Tres Hermanas, and once we confirmed the car was parked in a ticket free zone, it was only a few blocks walk to Harlow’s, which is an amazing place to see a show in Sacramento. We wormed our way right up front and center, and I couldn’t have been happier. Sure, I don’t know the Mac’s version of the lyrics (and apparently Ronald Osbourne doesn’t either, as he flipped lyric sheets in a booklet and kept glancing down during the numbers), but the music to Children of the Grave, Sweet Leaf, War Pigs, and Electric Funeral among others was enough to kick my ass six ways to Sunday. When the mosh pit started during Paranoid at the end of the night, I was as happy as a pig in shit. My only concern was for my glasses. (I have to remember to bring Croakies or hand them off to someone in the crowd. Prescription glasses are never cheaper than two hundred bucks, and I do not want to lose them.)

16387310_10154362487901588_1411331443573761512_nThere’s always that one old school punk rock guy who’s strong as an ox, and storms in with fists and elbows flying. He’s got something to prove. I love the pit, but I’m not really into punching people in the face. I can take the bumps and bruises and give them out when needed, but I don’t want to  make an emergency trip to the dentist. (After a Fungo Mungo show I had a defined imprint of a Doc Marten sole on my chest for days.)

Although I’m closer to fifty than forty, I didn’t get hurt, and the adrenaline kept me flying for a good couple days. I’m grateful to have some younger friends like Jeff and Scott, who are typically down for any show, any time. And I’m grateful for freaks like Mac Sabbath, who are dealing with a ton of props, makeup, and costumes – in addition to the normal mountain of band touring gear – for what can’t be much (any?) money as they sludge through the highways and byways of this great land, bringing their crazy funhouse to the masses.

Police Horse, Part I

image1Welcome to Police Horse. I’m a person in Sacramento, California named Chip Powell.  Chip is not the name they gave me when I was born, but it is more or less my real name now.

My dad was named Tracy O. Powell, II. Dad was Mom’s third husband, but Mom was Dad’s first wife. My folks were only married about six or seven years, and I was their only kid. Dad had been named after his own father, Tracy O. Powell, a urologist from Los Angeles by way of Oklahoma and Arkansas. His family always called my dad “Tops,” an acronym for Tracy O Powell the Second, although he despised the nickname. Dad always introduced himself as Tracy, and later went professionally by either Tracy Powell, Tracy O. Powell, or Tracy O. Powell, II.  Never Tops. I never heard the name Tops unless the rare relative from that side of the family came to visit. Dad preferred his real name.

When I was born, they named me after him: Tracy O. Powell, III. The O doesn’t stand for anything. My birth middle name is literally capital O, period, and it was the same for Dad. Even though Dad had a rocky, complicated relationship with his own father – the original Tracy O – he wanted to continue the tradition by naming me after himself.

The only problem was Mom already had a child named Tracy.

Mom got married at fifteen, and had daughters at sixteen (Tracy), eighteen (Kelly), and twenty (Nicki). She and her first husband divorced not long after that, and a few years later – after a second, brief, childless marriage – met my Dad, Tracy Powell. So here Mom was with a fourteen year old daughter named Tracy and a husband named Tracy – a husband who wanted to name his firstborn son after himself. After I was born in 1969, three of the six people in my house, HALF OF THE PEOPLE!, were named Tracy. There were going to be problems.

There’s no one left to ask – except maybe my sisters who were young teenagers at the time, as Mom died twenty years ago, and Dad just last year – but my recollection of the story is that they started calling me Chip not long after I was born, as in a chip off the old block: Dad being the old block, and I being that little fragment, the chip. It’s a thing. More importantly it cut down the number of people in the household one had to address as Tracy.

As I learned to talk, I couldn’t pronounce my sister Tracy’s name too well, and it came out as “Sissy,” which is a solid nickname for a girl. I still call her Sissy; I’m 47, she’s 62. So before long the Tracy ratio worked itself out organically. My dad was either Daddy or Tracy, depending on who was doing the talking; my sister was Sissy or Tracy, also depending on the speaker; and I was always Chip. Before long Sissy was married and out of the house, which further reduced the number of Tracys. (And Kelly not long after her. Both married as teenagers, like Mom, but in the 1970’s. They were the real chips off the old block.)

Dad must have thought, “OK, we’ll call him Chip for now, but surely he’ll eventually prefer his real name – Tracy – as I did.” But that didn’t happen. I hated my real name and never wanted to be called anything but my nickname. To me Tracy was a girl’s name, my sister’s name. It wasn’t MY name.

My real name was a closely guarded secret, but it would slip invariably on the first day of school or whenever a substitute teacher filled in. On the official school roster I was Tracy Powell, so that was the name an unfamiliar teacher would read off during roll call when she got down to the P’s. I would dread the reading of the names, sweating, heart pounding all the way through Scott Manfred, James Nakamura, and Shelley Orson. “TRACY POWELL” the teacher would say, certainly in a normal voice, but to me it sounded like screaming. My classmates would all turn in their desks, some simply staring at me slack-jawed, some openly laughing, but none indifferent. I would sheepishly raise my hand and croak “here,” and later I would have a conversation with the teacher to ensure this humiliation never happened again. My friends would tease me for the rest of the day, during recess and lunch, playing kickball, riding the bus home, but after the next couple days when the teacher got the message and read my name correctly, the spell would break, I would suffer no more taunts, and I could go back to being me again. That’s how my name, Chip Powell (no middle name, initial, or suffix), became a kind of talisman for me, an incantation, magical words. To see or hear my preferred, “rightful” name in print or spoken by a teacher or other official gave me great joy: it signaled victory.

Mom and Dad divorced when I was in first grade, and I think Dad was always a little hurt that I so openly wore his name like an albatross. It was never personal. I loved my dad, but I didn’t want the name. As a kid, it wasn’t important to me where it came from. Dad hated his own nickname, Tops, and only ever wanted to be called by his legal, birth name. He was safe in the land of teacher roll sheets, university records, and his professional life. His danger zone was the home front. The people who knew him, whom he was supposed to trust and feel safe around, didn’t respect him enough to call him by his real name, his preferred name. I was the opposite: family and friends called me what I wanted to be called: Chip. But to everyone else in the world, people who didn’t know me, I was Tracy Powell, a stranger. This says something about who my dad and I each became.

When I learned I needed a Social Security card in order to start my first job at sixteen, I decided to roll the dice and apply simply in the name of Chip Powell. Here’s what happened…

Continued in Part II