My father attended a reasonably well known and prestigious undergraduate institution populated by a broad mixture of students ranging from people on full scholarship working their way through school, like him, to wealthy members of the elite classes in the United States. Rich or poor, all students had to attend classes and jump through some of the unique hoops devised by their institution to torture them. Many unlikely friendships developed; even as wealthy students gravitated towards each other to make the connections they would use to continue profiting from the poor over the course of their lives, occasionally rich and poor found something in common and developed friendships of their own.
Such it was with my father, a poor military brat who was the first in his family to go to college, and Alexander Snodgrass the Third[1. This name has been slightly modified to protect the guilty.], a member of a wealthy and infamous dynasty that made its money in industries like steel or coal or something utterly unfathomable. Snodgrass attended college primarily because he wasn’t sure what else to do with himself, and he encountered my father in a math class and apparently decided he’d be a good person to start associating with.
One evening, my father and his friend were walking in a less savory part of the city when they were stopped by a police officer. While the city had a number of colleges and universities and it was usually safe to assume that wandering young people were affiliated with an educational institution, evidently this police officer felt conscientious about his work, or possibly deeply committed. The officer asked them what they were doing and they explained that they were walking from some event or another to their homes near the university.
For the record, the officer wanted to take their names, and he turned to my father first.
‘What’s your name, son,’ he asked.
My father gave his name, and the officer’s demeanor abruptly changed. My father, as we know, has a common, fairly ordinary sort of name and apparently the cop thought my father was attempting to give a false name to get out of being named in the report. The cop got aggressive, my father maintained it was his name, and eventually he fished out his identification to prove it. After a careful inspection, the police officer was mollified, and turned to my father’s companion to get his name.
‘Alexander William Whitcomb Warrumple Pith Snodgrass the Third,’ he said, in an unruffled tone, the sort of tone that comes from people used to getting their way and used to being accepted wherever they go. The sort of tone that rules boardrooms in banks and Fortune 500 companies across the United States, and brooks no nonsense from anyone. My father hadn’t heard Alexander’s full name before and boggled at the sheer length and pomposity of it, as did the policeman, for a moment, before he exploded in rage.
‘You think this is funny,’ he demanded to know. ‘You college kids think this is funny?’
‘No sir,’ my father hastened to assure him, ‘not in the least.’
Alexander remained quiet as the officer raged and frothed, and finally the officer demanded his identification.
‘I don’t have one,’ he said, quietly.
‘How do you drive,’ the cop challenged, no doubt licking his lips at the thought of the potential for tickets.
‘Why, I call my driver,’ he said.
The cop proceeded to interrogate him about every possible form of identification he might have, and finally, Alexander said ‘what on earth would I need identification for? I’m a Snodgrass.’
This proved to be the last straw, and Alexander was bundled into the police car and hustled downtown, leaving my father tasked with calling Alexander’s father to rescue him from the vagaries of lockup on a Friday night. Eventually his eccentric brother arrived to bail him out, and the same brouhaha over identification developed, as no one had identification to prove he was Alexander Snodgrass, and of course his brother didn’t have identification, and eventually the family lawyer had to be called in to sort the matter out, at which point the police realised they’d made a grave mistake, and hastened to release him before he got any ideas about lawsuits.
Evidently none the worse for his time in pokey, Snodgrass eventually surfaced on campus and reported on his experiences with a sense of some bemusement, even noting that he met an off-track bookie he intended to start patronising. He was, evidently, the sort of character who could come out on top of any situation, a rare combination of sheer luck and rolling waves of privilege that acted like a shield to prevent any sort of inconvenience. According to my father, Snodgrass was the kind of person who could stroll onto a battlefield and come out wondering why there was dust on his shoes, without having taken any notice at all of the events around him, traits which might perhaps explain much of the motivations and practices behind the current economic situation in the United States, given that people like Alexander Snodgrass are the ones who rise to positions of influence and power.
As someone with a peculiar name myself, I cannot help but feel a small pang of sympathy for him, except that what he went through on one night in college because a police officer didn’t know who he was, I endure every single time I’m in a situation where I have to give my name, from ordering airline tickets to making a doctor’s appointment.