So, there the three of us were, sitting around a table inside a cozy tavern, chatting amiably about nothing in particular and knocking back a round of beers. Vincent van Gogh, Martin Scorsese and I. Respectively, a powerful and visionary visual artist, a commanding director of moving images, and a plebeian with, by definition, an awfully light résumé. What the heck was I doing at that table, you ask? And where, by the way, were the table and tavern?
In my dreams. That’s the answer to question number two. As for the first query, I was seated with greats solely because we all had something in common: A lot of people did not know how to pronounce our surnames.
We’d made more than enough small talk. Turning onto a substantive route, I said to the gent on my left: “Marty, it must drive you nuts that almost everyone thinks your last name is Score-Say-Zee. I wonder how in the world that messed-up notion ever caught on.”
“Neil,” Marty said to me, “I’ve gotten used to it. But it sure would be nice if they’d get things straight. I mean, we’re talking about my name, for crying out loud.” I nodded understandingly.
“Vincent,” I next said, rotating my head slightly to my right, “How do you deal with this? People call you Van-Go, or maybe Van-Gokh. Doesn’t anyone ever do better than that?”
“I gave up on this a long time ago, Neil. My family and my fellow Dutchmen, they know how to say my name. Just about everyone else, fuhgeddaboudit.”
“Guys,” I said. “I hear ya’. I’m not as hung up on the name thing as I used to be. But it still churns me when people say Shee-Nin or Shy-Nin or Shee-In-In. C’mon, I know the spelling is a guarantee to throw almost anyone off, but still . . . ”
Scheinin. That’s my last name. A confusing array of letters. But with a simple two-syllable pronunciation: Shay-nin. To make things easy, maybe I’ll legally change the spelling to exactly that, hyphen and all.
I looked leftward once again. “Marty, the only reason that I know how to say your name properly is because years ago I heard you pronounce it on the Charlie Rose interview show. ‘Score-Seh-See’, you said. And ever since then I’ve been careful to say it that way whenever I gab about your movies.”
“Thanks, Neil,” Marty said. “Finally someone pronounced it right.” And I speedily hoisted my right hand to catch the high-five that he threw at me.
“Vincent,” I then said, gazing in the master colorist’s direction. “Yours is very very tricky. And no doubt I’m not gonna be able to duplicate the from-the-back-of-the-throat nuances of the Dutch language. But, good sir, I’m going to give it my best shot. Vun-Khuhkh. Am I right? Am I in the ballpark?”
“Neil, that’s darn well close enough,” he replied, clapping his hands. “That’s the nearest anyone outside of Holland has come in decades.” He smiled broadly as his eyes examined all the planes of my face. Was he toying with the idea of painting my portrait?
The name situation settled, Vincent, Marty and I began to talk of deeper matters. The meaning of art, for instance, and its value to the human spirit. But almost immediately Vun-Khuhkh and Score-Seh-See left me in their wake. Little could I add to their understandings and suppositions. I was more than happy, though, to listen and hopefully to learn, and to toss in a lame comment now and then.
I eventually shouted over Vincent’s and Marty’s lively conversation. “Waitress, three more Guinnesses please.” A few minutes later the dark brews arrived. We downed them greedily.
The hour was advancing, as it always does. “Gentlemen,” I finally said, gesturing to the waitress to bring the bill. “It’s almost time for me to wake up. It’s been a pleasure. And the beers are on me.”
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(Photo of Martin Scorsese by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)
(Photo of a plebeian by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)