Shoes, or What Not To Do When People Call You Names

As the bus doors opened, a tall man planted his feet wide in the threshold and stretched his long arms to the top corners of the jamb. He wore jean shorts and an old concert tee, and he had what looked like a cold sore on his lower lip. Our eyes locked as he leaned out toward me and my partner standing at the bus stop. A smirk pulled at his mouth, and he mumbled as he stepped onto the sidewalk and elbowed past me.

A minute later my partner asked if I’d heard what the guy said. I had. Despite the racket of the idling bus I’d heard him clearly. He said, in an almost genial tone, “How’s it going, faggot?”


The first time I remember hearing that word I was in church. Some dude wearing a cardigan was pulling felt characters of Jesus and sheep and wise men out of a Ziploc baggie, preparing for class. I remember street lights were on in the parking lot outside, which means I wasn’t in Sunday school but at Awana, what the Baptists called a youth group but was really just Sunday school on Wednesday nights with a game of dodgeball and a juice box thrown in.

I was sitting in a half-circle of school desks with the other young Christian boys aged 9 to 11. The classrooms in our church basement smelled musty year-round, but especially so in the humidity of that early September night in Michigan. To this day, a dank room reminds me of rubbery pancakes and eternal salvation.

The kid next to me told everyone to look at how I was sitting. Hands on desk, left ankle on right knee. He said, “Why are you sitting like a girl, faggot?”

The Cardigan stopped unpacking.

“I’m not,” I said. “My dad sits like this all the time.”

“Haha! Nathan’s daddy’s a queer!”

“That’s enough. Let’s get started. Nathan, both feet on the floor, please,” the Cardigan said, and then he launched into his lesson, probably the one about turning the other cheek. I spent the rest of that class studying my teacher and classmates, watching how they sat, staring at the floor because, for some reason, I thought their shoes would show me what unified them and set me apart.


Just like in the church basement, the moment with the tall man on the bus happened in a flash. He was smirking and then he was gone and then I was sitting in the back of the bus kicking myself for not confronting him.

I could have adopted my most winsome Southern drawl, slid an index finger down his sternum and said Why, honey, you interested? Or I could have unleashed a wild grin—each tooth a separate act of defiance—and quipped I’m great, asshole, how ’bout you?  I could have called him the epithet that popped into my head when I saw the scab on his lip. I could have punched him in his willfully-exposed torso or tripped him as he stepped past me or I could have simply said “Fuck off.”

But I didn’t.

Thirty-some years after I put my feet on the floor, after the tribulations of reconciling my sexuality with my religious upbringing, after the lonely years post-college believing the ridiculous notion that all gay men ended up sad and alone, after the exhilaration of meeting my partner, after almost 15 years of enjoying a happy loving relationship, a stranger called me a faggot and I looked down at his shoes.



Delano, Herbert Walker, and Hussein; or, The Stories Middle Names Tell

Don't be fooled by her humble expression. This woman is a troublemaker.
Don’t be fooled by her humble expression. This woman is a troublemaker.

Meet my 2nd great grandmother, Olivia. Or at least I think this is her. And I think that’s the name she went by. The truth is I’m not completely sure who she is or what she called herself. I do know that, despite her innocent look at the camera, she was a troublemaker. Confused? Let me explain.

One of my generous on-line relatives sent me this sweet picture of Olivia with a written note saying “This is a postcard picture addressed to Mr.  & Mrs.  N.  D.  James.  Someone wrote ‘Grandma’ on it. The question is who?” Mr. & Mrs. N. D. James are my great grandparents, which means at the very least I know that this woman is a relative. And despite the title of this entry, I know she was never President of the United States.

Back in the days of bonnets and awkward hand poses
Back in the days of bonnets and awkward hand poses

Later, I was given the picture above with a note on the back that said it was Hazel’s grandmother on the James side. Even with the hat obscuring her face, I’m certain the two pictures are of the same woman. Hazel is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. N. D. James, so, if the writer of the note is correct, then this is definitely Grandma Olivia.

Scioto County, Ohio, marriage records
Scioto County, Ohio, marriage records: “I certify that I have joined in marriage Isaiah James and Olivina James May 7th 1848.”

Grandma Olivia was sneaky about her name. As you can see from the marriage certificate above, she is listed as Olivina. This record states Olivina married a man named Isaiah.  But I know that isn’t true, since I have further documentation that an Olivina and Josiah James married on this very date in this very county. I have chalked this version of Olivia’s name up to carelessness of the recorder.

The 1899 Council Bluffs, Iowa, phone directory
The 1899 Council Bluffs, Iowa, phone directory: what do you think a City Scavenger does for a living?
The 1917 CB Phone directory
The 1917 Council Bluffs Phone directory

Researching her further revealed 6 more versions of her name: Olivielle, Lavina, Levinia, Olive, Olivinia, and, most ridiculously, Oliver. In the 1925 Iowa census records which list mother’s and father’s names of each person, I found even Olivia’s children weren’t sure what to call her. They either told the census taker that their mother’s name was Olivia or Levina.

These phone directories to the left show Olivia’s whimsy. The fact that she could list her name in the city directory and still be recognized leads me to believe that Olivia Levina were her first and middle names and that she was known by both of them.  Or perhaps she didn’t speak very clearly. I know from numerous census records that she couldn’t read or write; maybe not having to spell it herself made her more comfortable with having an ambiguous identity. Or maybe she was just sneaky.

You can imagine finding her records after her husband passed was difficult. I never knew how her name would be spelled or which name she would give. I would never have been sure I had the right woman if I hadn’t found the phone directories linking those two names to the same person.

I’ve since learned that in Olivia’s time, going by one’s middle name was very common. At a time when parents often chose the names of their relatives for their children, middle names were used to distinguish people in the household. (No made-up names like Hashtag or Krimson Tyde for them!) I’ve talked about Eliza Ruffe. Eliza happens to be named after her mother. I found her listed as Jane or Janey on several censuses throughout her life. I’m sure this was to help the family distinguish her from her mother Eliza and her sister, Elizabeth.

Sometimes the middle name stuck around after adulthood, and sometimes the middle name was adopted after the person had grown up. I have a great aunt who was listed as Mary C. Romine for twenty years of documentation. Then, she just dropped off the records after she moved out of her parent’s house. I couldn’t find anything on her, but I noticed this woman named Delia Kindred was about the same age as her and lived down the street from Mary’s parents. I discovered a Delia Romine married a John Kindred in that small Missouri town. Later, I found Mary’s birth certificate. The “C.” stood for Cordelia.

As is the case with mine, middle names also came from the maiden names of the women in the family. They can be important keys to unlock the harder-to-find maiden names.

Knowing a relative’s middle name is important. I’ve used them to narrow down searches for ancestors with common names (as in the difference between John Smith and John Mortimer Basterton Smith). I’ve used them as hints at the family names further back in my family tree (I would bet that Basterton is a family name). I’ve even used them to pick back up on a relative’s paper trail after they seemed to have fallen off the face of the planet (I’d totally search for Morty Smith, if this were my relative).

But it’s also important to not assume a middle name or initial used once in a record is correct. Take a look at my great-grandfather Noah James in the phone directory pictures above and you’ll see why.

Some items I came across while researching that may come in handy in the future:
I needed to know what a city scavenger was. Look up Scaleraker.
More awkward poses captured in photography. (CAUTION: Don’t click if you don’t want to see pictures of dead people.)
Turns out former Presidents middle names explained a lot about where their people came from. Look at the family trees here, here, and here.