Is That Your Real Name?

“Is that your real name?” I‘ve heard that question, oh, several hundred times I guess. The first time, the phrase was not in question form: “That’s not your real name; that’s your nickname. Richard is your real name.” This came from Mrs. McLean on the first day of first grade, and it pissed me off. It was my first encounter with fill-in-the-form bureaucracy. (How many times have you been asked for your middle name on a government or company form?) I had been writing S-l-a-i-d on all my drawings and finger paintings for about a year now, and I’d never been called Richard a day in my life. I didn’t know how to spell Richard, and I didn’t want to know. I knew what a nickname was, and I knew that Slaid was my real name.

Ever since then, perhaps because of that incident, I always feel pretentious when people ask me that question. If I say yes, I feel I’m being slightly deceptive. If I say it’s my middle name, people ask me what my first name is (ruder people ask again what my real name is). When I say Richard they think, “Ah he’s so pretentious, taking that weird middle name just to be different.” I’ve always been tempted at this point to respond that my first name is “Englebert” or “Cornelius.” If I say my real name is Richard Slaid Cleaves, I sound rather pompous. (This reminds me of an E.B. White essay about how when you answer the phone and the caller asks for you, you can’t avoid saying something awkward.) I still use all of these responses because none is any worse or better that the rest. Lately I’ve discovered a tricky non answer that usually satisfies: It’s an old family name.

Before I was born, young Craig and Jenny decided on a boy’s name and a girl’s name for me. But in the throes of childbirth, my mother decided I should be named after her father, who had died when she was nineteen. His name was Richard Slaid Tincher. (His mother was born Tommye Slaid and died when Richard was a baby.) My father was pacing the waiting room at this time (this was before fathers were allowed in the birth room), and thus had no say in the matter. His response when the excitement died down was reportedly, “I’m not having a son named Dick.” So, you see, this blessing and curse of a name is the result of my stubborn parents working out a fair compromise. My parents told me this story only a few years ago. I have quite a few cousins with Slaid as a middle name, and in the emerging generation we have a Tommye Slaid and a first-name Slaid. I don’t think ‘Slaid’ will ever be a hip name like Ian or Travis, but maybe in the future people will recognize it a little easier instead of saying, “What? Slate? Slave?” (My wife’s grandmother called me ‘snake’ for two years.)

My junior high school years were stressful enough without this odd name, so, in the summer of ’77 I became Richard. I was enrolled in a summer class at a different school. I thought this would be a good time to make the transition. My buddy Rod Picott was in the class, but everyone else was a stranger. I could start fresh. On the first day of class I realized how cool the name Slaid is when it turned out there were three Richard’s in the class of 12 kids. I became one of two “Rick’s” (again, no one wants to be Dick these days). It was so confusing. I only answered people half the time when they called out, “Rick!” Rod would nudge me occasionally or whisper, “Slaid,” to get my attention, always being careful not to blow my cover. But Mom blew my cover wide open by the end of the summer, despite her effort to get used to calling me by my new real name. Of course I learned that my real name is Slaid. That’s what people call me.

The opposite happened when I went to work for Sears a few summers later. The corporate personnel evaluation forms left no space on the application for my real name. I remember a test where one question was, “What do you like better, people or books?” I wanted to answer, “I like books about humans better than people who try to categorize and dehumanize,” but this was no essay question. I blackened the ‘books’ oval and they put me in the warehouse. I remember sitting down across the desk of a manager with my forms:
“Okay, Richard. Can I call you Dick?”
“Well, I’ve always gone by my middle name, which is Slaid.”
“Okay, Dick. You like to work hard?” He never looked up from my paperwork. I needed a job, and I didn’t want to make waves on my first day. So I was Rich Cleaves, warehouse clerk, for about 8 months. I’ve learned to be more insistent now. Only the IRS knows me as Richard S. Cleaves. And I’m not about to go up against that bureaucracy.

So, I live with this odd name and all its adulterations and misspellings. When I won the spelling bee in 4th grade the paper got me as “Salid Cleavers.” I showed up for a gig and the name on the marquee was “Clyde Slade.” I just went along with it. Opening up for Jimmie Dale Gilmore last month, I was introduced by the promoter as “Claid Sleaves.” (That’s what an old girlfriend’s mother always called me.) Standing in that infuriating Service Merchandise line, I heard the clerk call out, “Slah-eed Clee-ahh-viss” (expecting someone of Arab descent, I guess). A lot of people call me “Cleve” or “Clive” until they get the hang of “Slaid.”

Lots of people say, “Great name for a singer.” But I know better. Other than providing this little conversation piece it’s been a hassle and I don’t recommend it. But I know better than to change it—after all, it’s my real name.