The Smith Curse
October 7, 2005
I became aware of The Smith Curse while my seventh-grade English teacher was explaining the origins of surnames and was using kids in class as examples. He’d point to Timmy Wilkinson and say, “Wilkinson, the son of Wilkin,” then to Becky Johnson he’d say, “Johnson, son of John,” then he gave a few other examples before getting to me.”Smith, a worker of metals, like a silversmith or blacksmith.”The room full of seventh-graders exploded into laughter. Why? Because this was a small Christian school in the Mississippi Delta, and the classroom of li’l racists – many of whose families had been double-dipping in the gene pool – thought that the word “black” was about the funniest thing they’d ever heard. “Blacksmith! BLACKsmith! Black-black-blacksmith” they taunted me during recess, forgetting the initial reference to silver. I often wonder where those kids are today. Especially lately I’ve been tempted to track a few of them down, see if they weathered Katrina successfully, and find out how their latest cross-burning went.When I moved from the South I left the whole “blacksmith” thing behind me, only to eventually find that The Curse of Smith transcended both geographical and cultural boundaries. Lucky me.I didn’t notice this until early adulthood, when I called up to order a pizza.”I’d like a large pepperoni with pineapple, anchovies and cashews, please.””What’s the last name?””Smith.”(pause)”Sure it is,” the pizza dispatcher would say. “We’ll get that RIGHT UP for you, sir.”When I’d show up to pick up my pizza, they didn’t have it, thinking I was a prank caller. This scenario has played itself out consistently throughout my life. I haven’t been able to eat pizza since I was 19. And I blame the Smith Curse.And how about trying to check into a hotel:”Could I have a room for two, heavy smoking?””We do have one available, sir. Last name?””Smith.”The clerk then looks up with one eyebrow raised, then slowly returns to filling out the form.”Smith, is it?” he snickers. “OK, then, Mr. SMITH, you’re in room 17A. Enjoy your stay, Mr. SMITH.”And so on.And as if the Smith Curse weren’t enough, my parents had to go and name me Barry. The Barry Curse was revealed to me way back in kindergarten. In those days, when Valentine’s Day rolled around, you taped a little paper bag to the front of your desk so that your cards could be efficiently distributed. Everybody in class got a card, whether you wanted them to be your Valentine or not. When I brought my bag of cards home and spread them out on the floor, I saw that more than half of them read, “To: Berry.” You can’t blame a kindergartner for making this mistake, especially if you are a kindergartner yourself, but even then I could tell that most of them were written by the parents.Misspelling a name isn’t really worth getting all worked up over, except that the most popular way to misspell Barry is Berry, and the obvious references to the tiny things that grow on bushes has never failed to set me off. Oh, sure, the junior high “Barry Manilow” jokes hurt, but cheesy pop singer doesn’t hold a candle to tiny fruit.Despite my ambitious re-education campaign (perhaps you’ve seen the billboards) I am still victim to the Barry Curse. Coffee shops are the worst, because not only do they write “Berry” on my cup that’s about to be filled with my grande soy chai latte, but then I have to sit there with said cup in front of me the entire time. I’m tempted to ask the high school student behind the counter, who has obviously never even heard of Barry Manilow, just why they think anyone on the planet would be named “Berry,” as in straw, boisen or dingle?I’m tempted, but I let it go. It’s just par for The Curse. If they want to write Berry, then so be it. I mean, what am I gonna do? Give them my last name?
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