Name Droppers

Every year hundreds of Miami's titularly challenged discover that a new name can mean a new you

After growing up in a series of chilly, drab-sounding places like Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Sioux City, Iowa, and Manchester, Massachusetts, a drab-sounding woman named Joann Kozlin settled in exciting South Florida.

In 1994 she got into the swing of things by declaring bankruptcy in Broward County. She took up singing after a near-fatal car wreck, underwent breast augmentation surgery, moved to Miami Beach, and discovered politics (of a somewhat attenuated bandwidth: Being a big fan of B- and C-complex vitamins, she lobbied against federal regulation of their over-the-counter sales). Then this past May 15, Joann Kozlin walked into the Flagler Street courthouse and filled out a four-page no-brainer called Florida Family Law Form 12.982, Petition/Request for Name Change.

Processing the form would take a few days and require a quick hearing before a circuit court judge, but there was little chance of denial. For all practical purposes, Joann Kozlin wasn't Joann Kozlin when she walked back outside and down the steps past the hot dog vendors. She was now Tira Misu.

"I actually expected the judge to give me a hard time," says the 32-year-old president of Sexess Entertainment (a sole proprietorship devoted to making Tira Misu a household word), as she fluffs a detonation of hair. "Usually when people change their name, they're criminals."

Someone, she explains, stole her purse in a nightclub recently and wrote a lot of bad checks, pretending to be Joann Kozlin. The mixup landed her in jail for a few days. So the name change was partly armor against further legal hassles, partly self-promotion. In addition to her singing career, she works part-time as an exotic bikini dancer at the Rio Verde Restaurant in northwest Miami. "Tira Misu is delicious," she notes. "I want to be known as something rich and sweet!"

While she shows off her new Florida driver's license, Tira Misu's singing voice issues from a CD player in the background. It's a naughty contralto flitting through a thicket of synthesizers and electric pianos and echo chambers ("Sex and Love drive my hormones to the sky, leave me breathless, I can't deny!/Boys want Sex and girls need Love, can you guess which one I'm thinking of?"). She points past a framed portrait of Madonna on the west wall of her cluttered Miami Beach efficiency. Beyond the breakfast table on the balcony lie the mansions of Star Island. "That's where I'm going to live next," she says. "Count on it!"

Approximately 800 people a year go to court in Miami to change their names. This number doesn't include the thousands of newly married women who take on their husbands' surnames, a routine procedure that requires no judicial review. Nor does it include many criminals. In the last six months only one applicant, Fitzgerald D. Guignard, was a convicted felon. (Now he's Mark Shabazz.) And Tira Misu is the sole example of someone adopting what could be viewed as an exotic stage name.

Some name changes require little explanation. Vladimir Mark Tchekanov, an FAU junior from St. Petersburg (the one on the Gulf of Finland, not the one on the Gulf of Mexico) wanted to be known as Mark Vlad Clay, and now he is. Jimmy Lloyd Parrott became James R. Parrish. America Cao, one of several victims of immigrant gratitude gone wild, officially switched to Amy. Todd Jared Gross reshuffled himself into Jared Todd Gross. Pebbles Jaleesa Lopez got rid of her cartoonish first name. Charnchai Luppanachokdee is now Charles Sim. The unfortunately named Louis Rodolfo Diaz (a woman) changed to Chantal Louise Diaz. A toddler who got shortchanged at birth ("Flores," his birth certificate reads in its entirety) got a full billing: Eduardo Jose Alvarez. David Lee Lathron changed his last name to Farr after discovering halfway through life that he was adopted in 1957. His wife Charlene Joyce Lathron changed her name too.

Name changers often have subtle motives, and there turns out to be more to their stories than court records suggest.

"I love my son," says Cesar De La Terga. Great, but why saddle him with a name like Hanoi De La Terga? "I didn't," the father contends. "Not exactly." He explains: "Twenty-two years ago when my son was born in Cuba, he was the only male baby in a military hospital. On that date the government was expecting the visit of Pham Van Dong, the prime minister of North Vietnam. Somebody said, 'Let's call this kid something related to Vietnam!' If you know anything about the political situation in Cuba, you can understand how it was not so easy for me to refuse what they were trying to do. I always told my son that if he wanted to change his name, it wouldn't hurt my feelings. But he liked his name fine until we came here one and a half years ago. Hanoi, it's not liked so much here in the United States."

Hanoi De La Terga, a surveyor for a local construction firm, officially adopted his father's name on May 9. He's now Cesar De La Terga, Jr. "I also have a daughter named Kenya," the elder Cesar adds. "But that's another story."

On the face of it, John Stuart Maxwell Blood was pulling a blatant ethnic switcheroo when he became Jason Stuart Eisenberg on February 14. In fact, sounding Jewish was an indirect benefit. Eisenburg's father was an Irish Catholic from Philadelphia, his mother a German Jew. As a tribute to his mother's side of the family, he decided to adopt her maiden name in 1985 (a brother retains Blood). Both Eisenburg and the court lost the 1985 name-change paperwork, so he had to go through the process again this spring to get a passport.

"The last name of Blood isn't all that socially acceptable," points out Eisenburg, who works in marketing on Miami Beach. "And in my field having a Jewish last name doesn't hurt. They ask you your name and you tell them and it's like, 'Hmm, okay, he's one of us.'"

Juan Antonio Marques arrived in Miami on February 2, 1967. The first thing he did was to get a job in a factory. The second was to enroll in an English-language night course at a local high school. Act three was changing his name to John Anthony Marques. On March 6 of this year he went back to Juan Antonio. "At the beginning, when I came to this country, I was stupid enough to change my name to an American name," says Marques. "But time passed by and at this age -- I'm 64 now -- I felt like I was losing my roots. I went back to my natural name. I am still very proud to be an American, part of a democratic society where you can express your own opinions and feelings, your heart. But Juan Antonio is what I was, and it's what I am. It just took me a long time to realize this."

Form 12.982 doesn't directly ask the applicant to state why he or she wants a new name, but some people volunteer an explanation anyway. When Ramon Chester Gonzalez became Raymond Chester Bulit 36 years after moving here from Cuba, he had his lawyer write: "Petitioner desires to adopt an Americanized version of his given name and would also like to adopt his mother's maiden name, and therefore, likes to legalize that name."

Even more to the point was Jean Primi de Vicente, born 26 years ago in Mexico and originally named J. Primitivo de Vicente: "The petitioner desires to have his name changed because he dislikes his current name." This past April 9, attorney Doug Stratton presented the following explanation for another change, in the chambers of Judge Lawrence A. Schwartz: "Barbara DiBenedetto, beginning in the year 1980, entered into a long course of psychiatric and psychological counseling with the goal being a sex-change operation and, as part and parcel of this process, legally petitioned for a change of name from Richard DiBenedetto to Barbara DiBenedetto. The planned operation has been abandoned, and your Petitioner has been living as Richard DiBenedetto."

Name changes, the linguistic equivalent of body piercing or tattooing, are neither cheap nor painless. The filing fee for the necessary documents in Dade County is $171. Gum up the works with a lawyer, as most applicants do, and the cost goes up by as much as $350. Only one person in the last six months (Miss Misu) availed herself of the one-page Affidavit/Certificate of Indigence, thereby pulling off the whole operation for free.

"I disrespect the court for making me pay for this," fumes the former Leon Westley Ivery, now Hamza Khalid. "I had to go get the forms, deal with the arrogance of the clerks down there, sit there and listen to their comments about what a nice name I had and why would I want to change it. As far as I'm concerned, this is a change-my-name-back situation. I don't think it was right for me to carry a European name all my life. They didn't take Kunta Kinte in a court and tell him did he want to be called Toby. Hey, you beat the shit out of my ancestors and called them Johnsons and Iverys. I think the government should be paying me a name-change fee.

"I've used the name Hamza since 1973 when I became a Muslim, but it's just since I got into Dade County that I thought about making it legal. I've never encountered such racism and prejudice. I'd be standing there in the elevator and they're talking about African Americans like they were dogs.

"Hamza is the prophet Mohammed's uncle. Khalid means immortal and forever. Since I changed my name I've encountered better acceptance, better respect. People are curious. The name says, You don't define me, I define me. Names are important. If they weren't, we wouldn't have them. Names express your history and geography, your personality, your character and your demeanor. If you don't think your name is important, forget it for a week. They have to put you on TV and ask who is this guy we found on the street? A man without the knowledge of his roots is a dead man."

Khalid, a 49-year-old businessman and a Nation of Islam adherent, notes that he's not surprised that the largest identifiable group of name changelings in Dade County comprises American-born blacks adopting Arabic or African appellations. "Back in the Seventies people didn't just go around picking names," he asserts. "Now they do. For some it's a fad, but for a lot of people it's not a fad at all. The young people have a new consciousness. And we are not doing this to say thumbs up America's ass. The mere fact that people can change their names says that if black Americans want to get to know themselves, explore their deeper identities, then America will help them do it."

Four miles from the Flagler Street courthouse, Coco Ivonne Lindao opens the door of her midtown Miami Beach apartment and extends a hand. Discussing her own name change, she echoes Khalid: "A name is a very powerful thing. It's been there since you were born. Sometimes it's the only thing that's been with you since you were born." She allows she didn't mind the expense of the filing fee so much as the fact that name-change records are public documents. She suggests the court should think up some way to make the process a bit more private.

Lindao, a 23-year-old belly dancer and model, has long chestnut hair, cocoa-colored skin, and full lips. She has a voice like water on stones, and listening to it brings on the odd sensation of falling into her eyes, which are large caramel-color pools set slightly off center. A silver bellybutton ring glints from between her black halter top and her long flowing skirt. In short, Lindao is a woman of such distracting beauty that every quotidian ugliness around her -- the Hawaii Five-0 rerun on TV, the dance and karate trophies on a nearby shelf -- seems a sudden insult.

"It's funny," I remark, after sitting on the couch with Coco Ivonne Lindao, formerly Ivan Humberto Lindao, for about twenty minutes. "When I knocked on your door, I was almost expecting a man."

She smiles and pulls a long lock of hair behind one ear. "I thought you realized," she says. "I am a boy."

Now my mind's eye conjures the image of another cocoa-color beauty, Koko Kight. She's standing in her father's marijuana field on the hot July afternoon when the authorities show up to burn the crop. And ranging westward I see my old pal Billy Icenoggle, onetime saddle-bronc champ, playing bumper pool in the Blue Moon Saloon outside Ennis, Montana. There's Doggy Swarnes and Wuzzy Suggs, both residents of Willacoochee, Georgia, and the redoubtable Ruby Tart, a plump gas station vendeuse who sits forever on a folding chair in my memory, fanning herself like a geisha and, periodically and with great stoicism, crushing flies between her mammoth thighs. I see Mr. Pinky Person III standing in the hot parking lot of Metro Ford on NW Seventh Avenue in Miami, trying to sell me a truck, and Fred Garlick, a boyhood chum, and Conrad Lamm, the gentlest of all bartenders, quoting something in Latin behind the scarred counter at Tobacco Road. And the question is, Why don't more people change their names?

"No way," avers Scarlett Blizard. "I love my name. I didn't at first, but then I saw Gone with the Wind." Blizard, who puts the accent on the last syllable, explains that her family moved down from Canada before the Civil War and settled in Georgia. An uncle has given up trying to get people to pronounce the name properly, and now puts the accent on syllable one. "Sounds like I should be a trashy novelist, right?" asks Blizard, who works as a flight attendant. "At work they call me the Red Storm."

"It was very difficult for Jack as a child," confesses Dr. Ruth Frankenstein, a licensed clinical social worker here in Miami. She herself didn't grow up with the name but married Jack Frankenstein before she got her Ph.D. "I'm immune to it, I guess. We get a lot of crank calls." From kids? "Not necessarily. I'm hanging up now." Click.

When asked if it's ever a problem having two of the same name, Alfonso Alfonso replies: "Problem? Well, no. Why should it be a problem?" Why did his father name him that? "I don't have the faintest idea. I was very very little when he did it, way too little to remember."

"Yes," admits Jesus Christ, who lives on NW 68th Street. "That's really my name. I'm tryin' to get some sleep right now, okay? It's Sunday, man. Call me another time."

Jessie James says he never met his father and isn't sure the elder James knew what he was doing when he named his son. His own sons are named Gable and Gary. "I know the whole story on the James Boys," James volunteers. "They were in the [Civil War], and the government took their land. When they got home they were all bent out of shape and took to robbin' and stuff. Myself, I never robbed a bank, never even considered it."

"I am from Sweden," says Torgny Billskoog. "I am 50 years old. I will not tell you what I do. Skoog is pronounced 'SKOG.' It means 'forest.' Bill is just Bill. Yeah, a lot of people comment on this name. They can't pronounce it and they can't spell it. I am considering changing it. It is annoying."

"Every time I make an appointment with a new doctor, it raises some eyebrows," reports Bernice Quack. "But let me tell you, it was a lot harder for my husband, Donald. I eventually got used to the name. The family is very proud of it, though I don't think they know exactly where it came from."

"The name is from Holland, but I'm from Venezuela," explains Igor Van Der Biest. "People ask about it all the time! They say it's a very pretty name. For some reason they think I have lots of money. I don't, though. I work hard at insurance and exports." Is he aware that the name sounds sort of ominous and spooky? "No. That's interesting."

"It's good for my business," contends Pinky Person III, an award-winning car salesman. "But if I was married and had a son, I wouldn't name him Pinky Person IV. I think that's enough of it. I think the fourth would be a little ridiculous." Person adds that his grandfather, the first Pinky, also worked for a car dealership, this one in Macon, Georgia. Oddly, its owner was named Pink Person.

Leonard Bernstein, though still listed in the white pages, died seven years ago. A cousin recalls that the deceased Bernstein worked in New York City as a longshoreman before moving to Miami, and that he once met the legendary composer. "The lesser-known Mr. Bernstein accosted the famous Mr. Bernstein and shook his hand," the cousin recounts. "He says, 'I know who you are.' They talked for a little bit. It was very cordial."

"I'm 52 years old and I've heard it pronounced correctly maybe four times, and one of those was a professor, so that doesn't count, does it?" sighs the wife of Ulysses S. Boring, pronounced Boring.

"Let's face it, croissants are everywhere now, even at Burger King, so no big deal," says Ingeborg Croissant, a self-described war bride from Germany who married a Frenchman. "If people can't pronounce it, I just say forget it, call me Mrs. Bun. Why are you so interested in my name, anyway? This sounds fishy. What's your name? Rowe? Now this sounds very fishy."

The legendary name Dolores Fuertes de Barriga (literal translation: strong pains in the stomach) has been floating around Miami for years. Tracking down a real person to attach to the name is an exercise in frustration, though. "It was a real name," insists Chiqui Boswell Fuertes, who believes she's a distant relative of Dolores's. "In Puerto Rico and Cuba there were many complex names like that. Look at that newspaper columnist who has the highest IQ of anyone alive: Her name is Marilyn Vos Savant, right? So it's not so surprising."

Picture the insomniac business traveler who checks into his or her Miami motel room and finds the air-conditioned chamber bereft of the usual Gideon's Bible. What to read besides the room service menu? Behold, the lowly phone book!

Wherein we find the famous (Richard A. Nixon, Jimmie Carter, Julio Cesar, Winston J. Churchill, Ezra Ben-Hur, James Bond, Muhammad Ali, Edgar Poe III A a bona fide descendant of the horror-story writer A and Manuel Noriega, number unlisted ever since the U.S. invasion of Panama); the pitiable (Errol Odor, Marianne Dragonette, Brandy Alexander, Glen Crisco, M. Goose, Sandy Arroyo, Robert Anguish, Glenda Crisis, Rolf Frankfurter, Carmen Banal, Sonia and Hector Bologna, Max Blank, William Bozo, J. Amigodelaquintana, and Libertad Cuba); the covertly or obtusely erotic (Debbie Bimbo, Nancy Babe, Mr. Mark Goodbar, Barbara Amazon, Linda Bacchus, Sam Bone, Daisy Condom, Peter Venus, Karen Virgin, Larry and Harry Cherry, and Yolanda Cutie A "I'm five-six, Cuban of French ancestry, brown hair, brown eyes. I'm not like fat or anything"); the slightly scary (Muggeridge Crow, Serch Crapp, Lucy Bully, Benjamin Canabal, and Larry Cruel); the lovable (Tequita Bean, Sir Baxter Bear, Pooh Bryant, Bunny Bugs, and Jack Frost); the unlikely (Art Apogee, Ace Armstrong, Lil Nipper, Waldo Velvet, Charlie Angel, and Sidney Advocate, attorney at law); and the unclassifiable (Gle Ego, Zoltan Vamos).

There's Flossie Bing and Mark Bong, several Yips and Yaps, a Yuck and a Yick. And indisputably last but not least, Vladimir Zzzyd, who really exists. While Coco Ivonne Lindao's yin and yang may be in perfect balance, the Miami phone book isn't. There are 21 Yangs, but only 2 Yins.

The white pages are full of mysteries and disappointments, too. No one is named Miami, though there's one Miani. The absence of a Davy Crockett is forgivable, but there's no Sonny Crockett, either, and no Jimmy Buffett. Directory assistance offers three Condos, but none of them actually lives in a condo. There's a Jacuzzi in Punta Gorda, but not one here.

Now the traveler loosens his tie and scratches his head, noting thirteen people with the last name of Billie, all at the same address, 37790 SW Eighth St. Incomprehensible! A typo! If he were a local, our businessman would understand that he is squinting at the numeric manifestation of an entire Miccosukee Indian family clan, and he would know that the address is a large swath of roadside swamp 40 miles west of downtown Miami.

Skipping ahead, he sees not a single Hitler, no Idi Amins or Caligulas, no Qaddafis or Pol Pots. No Norman Bates or Benedict Arnold. Not a single Fulgencio Batista.

There aren't any Fidel Castros listed either, though there used to be. "No one would put their name in there with that name," a BellSouth operator offers. "It would be dangerous." One of the Fidels, a Killian High School student born in the Dominican Republic, got fed up and changed his name to Christian in 1995. Another, a pro soccer player from Peru, has left town. The only surviving Fidel Castro in Florida, a Cuban-American truck driver, told the Miami Herald in 1994: "Some people, ideological extremists, have tried to pressure me into changing my name. But I like my name. That's what my parents named me. That's how people know me. That's who I am."

He still is, but he now has an unlisted Hialeah phone number. So does his brother -- Raul. There are 29 Fidel Castros in the United States, with the highest concentration -- 9 -- in Texas, where nobody gives a hoot about Caribbean politics.

And then, in the final analysis, there is Mr. Frogg: Kermitt T. Frogg, with two phone lines and a street address in Coral Gables. I drive over there and park under a palm tree. A woman steps out onto the porch to get the mail.

"Mrs. Frogg?"
"No."
"Is there really a Mr. Frogg? -- Kermitt T. Frogg?"
"No. Yes. It's a business alias, I guess. He lives back there."

Back there is a brown door with a peephole behind the main house, what real estate people call mother-in-law quarters.

"He's really into computers," she adds, turning to go inside.
Knock-knock-knock.
Silence. Rustle-scuffle.
"Who's there?" The voice is quiet, muffled.
"Sean Rowe."
"S-h-a-w-n?"
"No."
"R-o-e?"
"No." I spell it.
Pause.
"Why are you here?"
I explain.
"Why didn't you call first?"

A good question. The answer, Mr. Frogg, is that you can't hang up on someone who's pounding on your door. I wanted to ambush you in your underwear, if the truth be known. I say, "I was driving around in your neighborhood and thought I'd drop by."

The peephole seems to blink.
"Who's your supervisor?"
Jesus. "Jim Mullin, editor."
"I'll talk to him. I don't want to have a conversation with you."
Hmmm.

"Mr. Frogg, I'm kinda thirsty out here. You think I could just come in and have a glass of water?"

The door stood silent, the peephole dark. Oh well. It worked in the movies.
I like to imagine Mr. Frogg catching flies with his long tongue and surfing the Internet, running my name through all sorts of databases, pulling down my credit history, hunting for military records, divorce pleadings, my social security number, my address. It will be tough sledding, even for a skilled paranoiac. Sean Rowe, after all, is just a nom de plume.

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