When lines are long at the grocery store in my neighborhood, I head for the self-checkout lane. But I prefer the old-school people-powered checkout, particularly for one moment that comes right at the end: when bananas and coffee and chips have been scanned and bagged, and the broad ribbon of receipt shimmies out of the register. The checker turns to me clasping that printed chronicle of my purchases, congratulates me on how much I've saved, then looks down at the receipt and says, "Thank you, Mister...."
That's it: the hesitation -- and knowing that what comes next is just a guess at pronunciation, but one she's required to make.
"Soamie?" she says. "Is that close?"
Soom. Schum. Schaum. Somme. Swam. Sauna. I've heard them all and then some.
Each new variation brings a fleeting delight -- a momentary unhinging of self from biography and geography. It happens that my last name, "Saum," has been kicking around the Western Hemisphere for a couple centuries, since it was brought over by some German farmers. But it still causes trouble in this country. And in the 21st century, this name could mean anything, its bearer hail from any place on the globe.