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Personal Essays

Painting by John Gould & Henry C. Richter

To Will a Mockingbird

Fashions come and go, but names tend to stick around forever, even hippie ones.

In my therapist’s waiting room, I absently picked up a copy of People magazine. On the cover was the Infant Celebrity Who Stole My Name (“Nicole’s New Baby! Meet Sparrow, the baby boy who has made mom Nicole Richie, dad Joel Madden, and big sister Harlow one big happy family.”) Is it possible that Joel or Nicole read Yes, You ARE a Revolutionary!, my 2002 self-help book for revolutionaries, and decided, “Let’s call him Sparrow!”? Did they see one of my rousing, minimalist poetry readings at the Nuyorican Café?

I’m used to being the only Sparrow in the room, but life was not always thus. At the Rainbow Gathering at the Lewis and Clark National Forest in 1976, a young woman told me: “You’re the fifth Sparrow I’ve met today!” Sparrow was once a cliché hippie moniker, like Sunshine and Zeke. (For some reason, four of the first hippies I met were named Zeke.)

At that time, my name was new. I received it in the spring of 1975, due to confusion at work. Another Michael was hired at Mother Earth, a natural foods store in Gainesville, Fla., where I bagged raisins, almonds, and lecithin. Someone would call out “Michael!”, and we both would materialize. My boss, Doug Bonebrake, suggested that I become “Mike,” and I panicked. I went to Jennifer the Princess of Love, a woman who always wore purple and slept in backyards. “I need a name,” I said. “You be Sparrow; you look like a sparrow,” Jennifer said. Years later, she told me, “I thought I was naming you just for one day!”

Other friends of mine bore the names of animals: Rabbit, Coyote, Red Fox; the latter was no relation to the ribald comedian. In 1978, I returned to New York City, and was mortified. Punk was the new counterculture, and everyone I met had names like Sean Cassette, Poly Styrene, and Richard Hell. “Sparrow” was as out of style as embroidered denim.

In 1978, I returned to New York City. Punk was the new counterculture, and everyone I met had names like Sean Cassette, Poly Styrene, and Richard Hell.So I renounced my adopted name, only to discover that my writing suffered. The poems I wrote had a bland, cautious tone, like college term papers. I found myself using words like “pellucid” and “impartial.” Unconsciously, I feared I would besmirch my family name. Whereas, who really minds tarnishing a small, plump passerine bird?

So after four months, I resumed being Sparrow, despite the name’s embarrassing cuteness. My poetry professor, Ted Berrigan, told me: “Sparrow is a terrible name,” for example.

The decision to be the Last Sparrow on Earth was fateful to my life. I chose loyalty, and the ephemeral hippie ideal, over fashion.

But I’m exaggerating. Other Sparrows existed, peripheral to the greater society ruled by Bobs, Margarets, and Dicks. One of the characters in the shrewd comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For” by Alison Bechdel was named Sparrow—a shy, bookish woman. I still have an article from the Daily News on August 10, 1995, the day after Jerry Garcia died:

Another fan, Sparrow, left his job at a computer magazine at news of Garcia’s death. “They were outlaws and they always glorified that—it’s part of the American fabric,” he said.

Once I saw The Mighty Sparrow at the Beacon Theatre on W. 75th St. As his name suggests, he’s a world-class musician—at least on the level of Tony Bennett. But because his genre is calypso, few know him outside the West Indies.

Sometime in the mid-90s, I noticed a change in name-fashion. I date the transition from the group Digable Planets, whose first album appeared in 1993. Here were hip rappers with names like Butterfly and Doodlebug. Starting in 1997, every young person I introduce myself to observed, “That’s a cool name!”

The Hippie Revival will never quite occur, I predict. Something about jackets with fringes is just too nauseating. But internally, everyone has forgiven hippies. Their dreamy idleness seems innocent compared to today’s school shootings and nonstop Twitter-babble.

“Sparrow” is a bit wimpy, even I admit. Nicole Richie and Joel Madden recognized this flaw by contriving the elaborate name Sparrow James Midnight Madden. (What are the odds the kid will eventually call himself James?) But Sparrow is not pretentious. And it’s loaded with literary connotations. For my birthday, my friend Shalom gave me a Metro Card he had just bought, which unaccountably bore this quotation on its back: “… there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, it is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.” That’s from Hamlet.

So welcome, baby Sparrow! To paraphrase Che Guevara, may there be two, three, many Sparrows!