Changers will learn what's in a name

August 19, 1994|By Jennifer Steinhauer | Jennifer Steinhauer,New York Times News Service

Upon reflection, it is easy to understand why Hassan Romieh changed his name to George Washington America.

He was, after all, born in George Washington University Hospital in the District of Columbia. Furthermore, and showing proper historical reverence, he was a presidential candidate in 1980 and 1992. (What? Never head of him?)

"It was always my dream to change my name to George Washington," says Mr. America, 52, who runs his own publishing company, American Publishing and Media. He is one of 300 or so people who petition the New York Civil Court each year for a name change, roughly the same number for the last 10 years.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about history. In fact, for many New Yorkers, formally changing their names allows them to cut away from a nation or a husband left behind long ago, or to fully embrace a new religion or place in the world.

Most people who apply for a name change want to re-identify themselves religiously, culturally and occasionally biologically, says John McCann, an associate court clerk at the New York City Civil Court.

Many have converted and want their names to reflect new religious ties. A few are men who have become women, and some are women who have become men. Others want to reclaim ethnic names their ancestors shortened earlier this century.

There are divorced women who want to resume their maiden names, children who never knew their fathers who want to rid themselves of his surname, or even his memory. "I am an incest survivor," wrote one woman on an application. "I never want my father to find me."

And so, while many of the name changes are mundane the stories behind the changes, which are alluded to in a few short phrases on the application, are tales of family dramas, broken marriages and years of mispronunciations.

"Since I am going into real estate, it will be easier to have a quick simple name like Marc," says the former Mordechai Plotsker, 20.

On the application, anyone seeking a name change must state a reason. When it is religious, the application will say something like "Petitioner is a believer of the religion Al-Islam and is to take a religious name of faith." This is how the many Maries become Nabeelahs.

"Over the last two years or so, there has been a big increase in people changing to Muslim names," Mr. McCann says.

Mr. McCann has also spotted a trend in which people return to the ethnic, and often long, names their ancestors chopped off somewhere down the line. Lilika Trakea has gone back to Angeliki Demetrakea, Christopher Torres emerged from court as Angel Amador Santiago.

Court clerks think that many of those who parade through, sometimes personally, often through a lawyer, are setting themselves up for disappointment.

"Anybody who is not happy with their present circumstances thinks a new name will change their lives and they will be happy forever," says Clark Vogel, a clerk in the Brooklyn Court.

Each application must give basic biographical information, and attest that the petitioner was never convicted of a crime, or "been adjudicated bankrupt."

They throw on a birth certificate, a $50 filing fee, then wait the eight weeks or so it takes the judge to sign off on it. Once that happens, a person who has changed her name must publish that fact in a newspaper; most opt for the New York Law Journal.

There are rules.

Single names are out. (Too bad for John Michael Benz, who wanted to become simply "Mista.") As are numerals. ("We had one lady who wanted to become 99," Mr. McCann says. "You know, like on the show 'Get Smart.' Obviously, we rejected her.") And you can't add titles, like Mikal Mikol, who wanted to be legally known as Lady Mikal Mikol, tried to do.

A judge must be convinced that a person is not changing a name with the intent to cover felonious tracks, or to deceive the Internal Revenue Service.

And that leads to explanations like this, on the application written by the mother who was applying for a name change for her 2-year-old: "Said infant is single and has never been married. Said infant has never been convicted of a crime. Said infant's occupation is infant."

There are few legends found in the piles, and the best-remembered is Mr. America.

Despite his long ambition to identify with the father of his country, Mr. America admits he gave less thought to his last name -- adding "America" at the last minute, he says.

He adds: "This way my wife can be called Mrs. America without having to go to Atlantic City."

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