I stared at the G on my phone, fearing for my life. The complaints against Google’s new logo have been technical, visceral, and largely on target, focused on the sansing of the serifs of the old logo—which, as Sarah Larson said in an essay on the New Yorker’s website, was “reminiscent of literature, newspapers, printing”—into something that seems either overly practical or overly childish. But the critiques have been about the whole Sesame Street feel of the thing rather than just about the homogenized initial G, a circulus interruptus, as if Sergey Brin had been drawing a Pac-Man and ran out of ink. Google, one of the world’s most powerful companies, doesn’t seem to have worried about making that G uncool. But its new G is of tremendous concern to me. Because when you’re named Gary, well, being a G is all you have.
To watch television or movies as a Gary is to know pain. When writers can’t think of a joke, when they want to quickly convey character—or chinless lack thereof—they reach to my punchline first name for the bad blind date, the sad sack, the noodge. Garys rarely even rise to the level of real characters, in our culture, but when they do, they don’t lose their essential pathetic Garyness—from SpongeBob’s stinky pet snail to Jason Segel’s Muppet fanboy to the ultimate Gary, the culmination and essence of all our appearances on television and film, Tony Hale’s comically cringing bagman in Veep. Gary Shteyngart, in his memoir Little Failure, notes a decline in middle-school unpopularity that coincided with him going by a name besides Gary. The better alternative: “Gnu,” after Gary Gnu, the television character that haunted all of us in the early Eighties.
Every year, I check in on the decline of Gary in the Social Security Administration’s baby name database. How I long for 1954, in the unrecognized cool Fifties of Marlon Brando and Miles Davis, when Gary peaked as the ninth most popular boy’s name in America. In 1954, we had Gary Cooper—originally Frank, before his agent from Gary, Indiana suggested a more unique name—just two years after his showdown at High Noon. Cary Grant, our elegant near anagram, was about To Catch a Thief.
Oh, how we have fallen, to 560th place, with only 490 unlucky babies named Gary in 2014. In the supermarket of names, Gary is a box of day-old donuts on the grab bag table, sitting among the names favored by rising immigrants groups, fearless parents, and people who should be prosecuted for Naming Under the Influence. We are six behind Talon, which I don’t even think is a name. We are nine behind Issac, which I am certain is misspelled. We are forty-three behind Princeton, which won’t look good on your boy’s application to Dartmouth. And we are four behind Boston, which should only be the first name of a rotisserie chicken chain and whose infliction upon innocent newborns I can attribute only to flummoxed, fertile Massholes who already named their first son Thomas (#54) and second son Brady (#195).
But Gary, as much of a punchline as it has become, as dying as it is, always had one advantage over our brothers in a fraternity of duds, Larry and Barry. We had the G.
I first encountered the coolness of G in 1990. In the comfortable North Shore of Milwaukee, I took a high school gym class offering flag football and soccer. Or that was the plan. “Grip,” our lovably gruff teacher, asked everyone on the first day of class to raise his hand if he wanted to play soccer, making it quite clear that anyone who did so was also volunteering the fact that he was a practicing homosexual. To balance out, I suspect, the resulting all-football-all-the-time teams, I was assigned for the whole semester to a team with three talented African-American classmates. They were kind, encouraging guys, confident on the field. They didn’t seem too put out by the fact that I was slow, uncoordinated, and somehow both fat and undersized.
That class remains the team-sport high point of my life. Because our team almost always won. Because what I failed to offer in football skills, I made up for in rodenty blocking, highly accurate counting to Five Mississippi, and anything that did not involve touching (or being near) a ball. Because every other game, our quarterback could trick the opponents by throwing a four-yard, undroppably gentle pass to the chubby slow kid who did not belong on the field—and there were times, I believe, when I did not drop it.
Also because two of my teammates called me “G.”
I silently reveled in the nickname. I didn’t, though, understand its origins. Yes, two years before that gym class, N.W.A. had released “Straight Outta Compton,” the subject of this summer’s surprise hit movie. Gangster Rap—and the LA tradition of shortening a friendly greeting of “gangsta” to “G”—must have penetrated even Milwaukee. But at that time I was placing all my coolness chips on being really knowledgeable and really enthusiastic about the Who.
By the time I went to college in 1991, G had exploded, with Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and especially with Snoop Dogg, who thought the letter so nice he used it twice. Inevitably, as white dorks do in the face of a more powerful cultural force, some friends started semi-ironically calling me “G” or “G-Dogg.” Thankfully, this never got out of hand (or out of doors), because most people would think a house cat a more likely G-Dogg than me. But I think my friends had pity on me. I was already so bookishly unhip. I was already so romantically resistable. Could that package really withstand also being named Gary?
Since that time, the coolest letter of the alphabet has risen, in my unscientific observation. George Clooney: Who can beat him? Gisele. Gwyneth and her Goop. Do you think God would go by “God” if the letter G sucked? As a good Wisconsin boy, I can’t help but give some of the credit for G’s popularity to the Green Bay Packers. The Pack’s 64-year-old G logo spread far in the Brett Favre–Aaron Rodgers era, our simple, football-shaped letter infinitely superior to the Titans’ flamey, starry mess or the squinty C of the loser Bears.
And so, whenever faced with genuine self-doubt, questions about what my life would have been like without my unlovable name—Would my first novel have succeeded had I been F. Scott Sernovitz? Could a Gary Faulkner have won the Nobel Prize?—I always had my secret talisman, my membership in the G squad.
Et tu, Google?
Maybe I should have expected it. Apple is the cool guy. Google is the king of the nerds. But I fear for my letter. The two new Gs, overnight the world’s most visible examples of the letter, abandoned the textured, literate Gs of the company’s former logo. The logo’s new, irresponsibly unstylish capital G looks like a six-year-old mesmerized by a cartoon, with a flat expressionless lip on top of a double chin hanging in hypnotized stupidity. That second G—or g—looks like it wants to be the Google’s third-straight o, distinguished only by an incongruous snorkel dutifully and halfheartedly pasted to its cheek.
I am resigned. I accept that I am not cool for innumerable reasons beside the first letter of my name. (My only reaction to the Weeknd is frustration at the missing e in his name.) But I am going to miss my one-letter connection to cool.
We are coming home, Larry and Barry. What made us ever think we were any better?