As the ranks of the Herberts dwindle, the time has come to pronounce a requiem, extending the heartfelt sympathies of this Herbert to the other Herberts still wandering, bereft and ridiculed, doomed to represent stodginess in a hostile world of Bruces, Neils and unruly Jacobs. Other Herberts, I feel your name.
Everybody knows that babies’ names come in adorable flocks. Since most people have names, the question of why they have the names when they have those names suggests a market for deeper consideration. Sharon is in, then Sharon is out; Ben is out, then Ben is in-you understand the drill. Some years ago, near the end of the Summer of Love, an epidemic of Amandas swept through young mothers. Amanda was the sexy heroine of Tom Robbins’ novel Another Roadside Attraction , a best-selling paperback in college bookstores across the land. My daughter’s preschool was lousy with Amandas.
I bear the name Herbert (alas; more to follow). As time goes by and I live long enough, I am among the brave, diminishing few. When I hear of another Herbert, I’m confident that he was born before 1932. Accompanying the Depression over which Herbert Hoover presided was another Prohibition-forbidden to name your son after the inept, tomato-cheeked engineer in the White House. Few Adolfs and Benitos were born in Germany and Italy after 1945.
The name Herbert still occurs now and then in the African-American community, as in Herbert Muhammad and Herbert X, perhaps for the sake of retro irony, representing devil-may-care insouciance, elegance, rebelliousness, mischievousness, a je ne sais quoi swagger in wraparound sunglasses. Doesn’t seem to work that way for me. Not that this Herbert-myself, personally-goes in for computer dating or personals advertisements, but I suspect an all-out Dirk or even a middle-of-the-road Bruce would get better responses from all the lovely Amandas out there.
The abbreviation, Herb, survives in television and low-budget movies as a jokey label, pasted on the square and stolid guy who loses the girl. “Herbie” is a quick laugh, somebody to be squashed without remorse, or given to squashing himself. That’s a cheap shot, purveyors. Please feed your laugh tracks elsewhere.
Occasionally, inconsiderate folks-such as highway patrol persons-choose to pronounce my name with the trained sarcasm they learn in I’m-in-control-around-here school, as in the phrase, “Where’s the fire, Herbert?” In answer, I like to explain the origins of my name: It comes from the classical Teutonic, meaning “flower of the army,” dude. (The ticket can cost upward of $200, plus an educational stint in driving school.)
Now it’s time for a confession, not an alibi. The reason for my name is that, in the Jewish tradition, children are to honor the dear departed by carrying on their names. My grandmother, Hilda, died while my mother was carrying. It wasn’t in the cards for me to be named Hilda; my parents were thoughtful in that way. But at least they could pay tribute to my grandmother by giving me the initial H. Thank you again, Mom, for hardening my spirit by giving me something to struggle against. Asleep, I might consider myself a football star and a great lover, but in the cold light of morning I was limited to boring Nobel Prize aspirations.
Some years ago, when I published an autobiographical novel, Fathers , I heard not only from other men with my last name but also from several with the same first name. It’s a great nation we have here, full of astonishments. I decided to spend some of my unexpected windfall from the book by subsidizing a Herbert Gold Convention, all of us meeting at a convenient venue, such as the restaurant on my corner, but a wiser head prevailed. My wife, Melissa-nearly a unique name at that time, now no longer-felt there were better things to do with the money. We had three children before divorcing.
So I never met the other Herbert Golds, although once a packet of Haitian paintings, directed to me care of a friend in San Francisco, were delivered to an H. Gold who was some sort of fruit and vegetable scientist in Berkeley, and I was delivered a barrel of experimental Central American bananas. By the time I returned from Haiti, my woman friend was upset about carrying around in her open convertible a cargo of bananas so ripe that they were quarreling among themselves. The two Herbert Golds made the exchange of shipments with no additional harm-except to my relationship with the young woman, who had responded to the summons from Pan Am. It took a few years before Pan Am’s karma led to bankruptcy for the airline.
Now most of the Herberts are gone. Do you know any but me? I thought not.
But the time of the Herberts will come again. Jason and Nicholas will wear out their welcomes; Deborah and Sharon have already done so. Sufficiently sanitized by our American skill at burying history, the long-awaited re-
release of Herbert! The Family Classic will delight audiences nationwide. Perhaps I’ll only hear of the revival when my heirs are about to yank my feeding tube.
But someday, somehow, as surely as the earth turns around the sun (except in Utah), President Hoover will be forgiven or, at least, sufficiently forgotten that Herbert can rise out of mire, like the Phoenix and Enron. Herbert will be the name of a killer tango dancer or Wimbledon ace.
We can pray that soon Dirk and Mick will be discarded on the dust heap of history, while Herberts will take their rightful places as generators of pitty-pats in the hearts of lonely dreamers everywhere. A blind date arranged via hotsex.com with a lad called Herb will set the lovely Amanda’s heart aflutter as she boots up and taps in, “Dinner at, like, my place?”
In the meantime, to the other Herberts still out there, I offer fraternal compassion. I feel your pain, especially since it’s also mine. But this, too-including “Herbie”-will pass. We were brought into the world with love and optimism just before a time of turmoil and apples sold on street corners, and there must have been a reason. In the crucible of Herb, we’ll tough it out.
Hilda, according to family legend, was an easygoing woman. I inherited little but her H.
Herbert Gold’s books, Haiti, Best Nightmare on Earth, The Age of Happy Problems and The Magic Will, have recently been reissued by Transaction Publishers with new material.