What's in a (last) name?

THE other day I drove to a gas station. ``What'll it be?'' the attendant asked. ``Fill it, please,'' I said. I handed him my credit card. When he presented the charge slip for my signature, I scrawled ``Barbara R. Sands'' and passed it back. As I was closing the window, I heard him say, ``Have a nice day, Barbara.'' ``BARBARA?'' Why is a total stranger half my age calling me by my first name? My mother taught me to use first names only for those much younger than I or for those who've given permission. She said older people deserve to be called Mr., Mrs., or Miss. I agree.

Recently I went to a beauty salon to make an appointment. The receptionist said, ``Be right with you,'' and turned to a 70-ish woman seated in the corner. ``We'll shampoo you now, MARGARET.'' The elderly woman struggled to her feet and walked slowly to the back of the shop. She didn't object to the familiarity, but I did. And I defiantly made my appointment in the name of MRS. Sands.

First names are more elusive than last names. My dental hygienist is named Debbie. Or is it Linda? Cheryl? I don't know. She's been cleaning my teeth at proper intervals for the last two years. I know her face but can't remember her name. Last names have so much more variety; if I knew hers, I'd probably remember the first one, too.

The dentist, of course, is ``Dr. COOPER.'' No one addresses him by his first name, yet all patients of all ages are called from the waiting room: ``Ready for you now, BOB.'' ``Dr. Cooper will see you now, ANNE.''

I took an adult education class at a local college. At the first session, the leader looked around and said, ``My name is Dave.'' (The monosyllable floated over my head and disappeared.) ``Will you introduce yourselves, please?'' By turns, we spoke. ``My name's Ed.'' ``I'm Dorothy.'' ``Jim.'' I was next. I said clearly, ``My name is Barbara SANDS.'' Dave grinned and said, ``I see you like to be a little more formal.'' I looked him in the eye and answered, ``Well, if class had to be canceled, at least you could look me up in the telephone book.'' Everyone laughed - but I was the only person who admitted to a last name.

Officialdom still requires first and last names, and a middle initial, but computers play a different game, and we are increasingly identified by numbers and codes. I remember a day when I returned four pairs of socks to a men's shop for a refund. The clerk asked what was wrong. I told him my husband didn't like them. He said ``OK'' and filled out a refund slip. ``What's your social security number?'' he asked. I stared. ``I'm only returning four pairs of socks, for heaven's sake!'' He stammered something about needing this information, but I interrupted him. ``Did I ask you for your social security number when I bought these socks?'' This time he stared at me. Then he handed me the refund money without a word.

The mailbox is another testing ground for the last-name problem. Yesterday, there were bills correctly addressed to Philip H. Sands. Twin catalogs were marked for Philip R. Lands and for Barbara Philipsands. An advertisement to Mr. and Mrs. Barbara Sands actually made me laugh. But four pieces bore neither name nor number; they were just marked CURRENT RESIDENT.

It's not merely last names that are at risk these days. Total identities are fading fast. I'm thinking of starting a revolution.

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