“Hans.” Scarcely have I encountered a four letter word that’s provoked such varied responses from my peers. As an adult, their reactions to my name have ranged from mild curiosity to genuine interest. As a child, however, their reactions weren’t nearly so favorable. From any given new acquaintance, I could expect everything from incredulous looks to gut-busting laughter.
“ Haha, Haaans?! Like the bad guy in ‘Die Hard?’” Many classmates would say.
“Yes, fucking idiot. Like the bad guy in ‘Die Hard.’”
My common cut-back may have been harsh, but it paled in comparison to what came next. Once these kids got a whiff of my irritation, they all wanted a crack at my name. I heard a thousand different word plays. Among the favorites were “Hans-Solo” and “Hans Ketchup,” “Hans Her Way,” and “Hans Down.” There were even ones that involved my last name – Fellmann. The most devastating of these for a pointlessly homophobic youth such as myself, would have no doubt been “Hans Feels Men.” Fortunately for me, its creator was named, “Nick Beanus.”
Despite my name being everybody’s free-for-all throughout my childhood, I at least had the distinction of being the only poor fuck with the name “Hans.” Most times, I carried the thing around our little cow town like a genital wart – something that could indeed be teased about, but as far as I knew was unique to the adolescent ranks of Shitspeck, California.
After surviving high school, I wanted to get away from the imbeciles who’d ridiculed me for so long. Thus, I spent the summer in Europe, where finding someone with the name “Hans” was as easy as finding said genital wart – not that I would know really, just a guess.
When I returned home that September, I was eager to get back out there and travel. I quickly realized, however, that traipsing around the planet, getting drunk and screwing anything that moved required capital. As I was just in Junior College and in no position to get a real job, I turned to part-time work to fund my summer blow-ups. It was then that I heard about an opening for a food delivery driver at an Italian joint in my hometown called “Lucca’s.”
I showed up at the place one Monday around closing time. I inquired about the position and the manager – a Brazilian dude with greasy black hair and the mouth of a catfish named Federico – gave me the rundown and told me I could start the following day. It was money in the bag. I shook his hand and made for the door.
“Wait,” he said. “Whuss yo’ name?”
Now that I’d been to Europe and thought my name was hot shit, I dropped it with style. I curled my lip, shot my chin up n’ let ‘er rip.
I was hoping for at least a casual inquiry as to why an American had such a name. Instead, I got a bucket of laughter to the face.
“Ha-ha-ha, Hans?! Yo’ name iz, Hans?!”
Those sour memories from the schoolyard started swelling in my brain. I almost spouted off with my go-to response, but was somehow able to refrain.
“Yes,” I said. “What of it?”
“Ha-ha, nuthin’. It’s juss that I’m surprise. Before I come here, I don’ know any Hans. Now I gonna be workin’ wit two!”
My bowels almost released into my boxers. I collected my jaw from the floor, cracked it into place and spoke.
“What do you mean ‘two’?’”
“Juss what I said, TWO! Anutha guy name Hans, he work here too!”
I was flabbergasted. Not only was there a second “Hans” in my town, but he was working at the very same restaurant where I’d just been hired! It’s funny saying this, but I was almost jealous. The presence of another with the same shit-smear across his nametag took from my dirty prestige. It was like someone had just knifed out an old battle scar of mine, and was now parading around the room with it to his mouth, poking his tongue through the middle and making fart noises.
I “humph’d” under my breath. Federico heard me and chuckled.
“Don’ werry,” he said. “He’s nat like you. This guy really special, ha-ha.”
“Really special?” I thought. “What does the hell does that mean?”
I’d have asked him but it didn’t matter. I’d be meeting my doppelganger in the flesh and there was no substitute for that. I tipped my new boss two and slipped out the front. My mind was burning with
I pulled up at Lucca’s the next afternoon with crack in my veins. I didn’t even punch my new timecard. I just went straight to the back tables where I found Federico. He was leaning cross-legged against a booth-panel, chatting up a waitress. I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around.
“So where is this guy?” I asked.
“Who?” he said.
“The other Hans!”
“Oh, ha-ha. He come in at five.”
I looked at my watch. It was two o’clock.
“Damn it,” I thought. “Three more hours.”
To kill time, I started working in earnest. I folded five stacks of boxes, took three deliveries, and made two runs to the grocery store. Once five rolled around, I could barely contain myself. I stood out back, scratching my elbow to cranberries and waiting for this fucker to show up. At around 5:20 I began thinking Federico had bullshitted me. Right then, he spoke from the doorway.
“You gonna fold some more boxes?” he asked.
I rolled my eyes and turned around. As I made for the door, I heard something in the distance. It was a man’s voice but it sounded unnatural … almost like someone had run an electric wire through it and was frying it to static. The seconds clicked off and the voice grew louder. I turned my head and Federico pointed.
“Here come yo’ frien’,” he said.
I watched as a man in spandex shorts pedaled up into the parking lot. He was perched on a stilted unicycle with a megaphone to his lips, shouting nonsense at the clouds. Around his neck hung a square placard painted with red, white and blue letters. They read “HANS OLAFSON FOR PRESIDENT.”
“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me,” I said.
Federico unhinged his lips and chuckled through his big teeth. I just stood there staring as my name-twin approached. He got about two feet from me on his unicycle then hopped off. It swiveled to the ground with a resounding “PLOP!” He picked it up with one hand and offered me the other. I was reluctant to, but I shook it.
“Err, nice ta’ meet’cha,” he said. “I’m Hans.”
“I gathered that,” I said, eyeing his placard.
It took a bit but homeboy caught my drift. He dimpled one side of his mouth, raised the opposite eyebrow and spluttered.
“Prrr, yes, yes,” he said. “Well, I’m running for president.”
“Picked up on that too.”
Now he was really confused. I figured then was a good a time as any to hit him with the news.
“Name’s Haaans,” I said.
A spring came loose in his brain. He glared at me with his owly eyes and slowly retracted his head. I tried to discontinue shaking but he gripped my hand tighter. Just when I thought his hair might catch fire, he released.
“Oh,” he quacked. “Well, I gotta work.”
With that, he slipped past us and into the restaurant. Federico and I upturned our hands and howled.
In the months after meeting Hans, I got to know the guy pretty well. He was a fantastically bizarre character full of idiosyncrasies that could spook your mind down a rat hole. My favorite of these involved his journal. He carried it folded in half underneath his sweaty armpit wherever he went. One day I got curious about the thing and asked him to show me it. He chewed the wall of his cheek in consideration and stared at me. After what seemed like minutes, he popped it from his armpit and unfolded it across a nearby table. In it were scores of esoteric phrases and acronyms stacked on top of one another in crooked patterns. He pointed to a line of letters that looked like barbed wire drawn across the page.
“Mmmmm, know what this means?” he asked.
I cupped my chin with one hand and my scalp with the other and tried to twist my brain into processing the letters. All I managed to do was tweak my neck and hurt my eyes.
“Fuck no!” I said. “What?!”
Hans stood back proudly and raised an index finger. With the tone of a sage, he enlightened me.
“Don’t turn ketchup into peanut butter or the angry dogs will start flying over your ass cheeks in the swamp.”
“A-hoosity whu whu whu?!” I said.
He didn’t bother to elucidate further. He simply collected his journal, tucked it under his pit n’ split. A moment later, Federico came over and sat down in front of me. He could see in my face that I needed answers.
“Rememba when I tol’ you Hans was 'special'?” he said.
“Well, I meant "special" like he crazy.”
“Yeah, he used ta’ be in a mental hospita’ but they let him out on medication. Now he work here so he even betta.”
I couldn’t fathom how Hans had been before. However, I soon learned the severity of his current state. What I once thought were quirks, revealed themselves to be deep disturbances. For instance, his journal didn’t just contain odd entries of his own crafting, but messages he believed had been sent to him by God via “107.7 The Bone” – a local rock radio station. To add to that, he thought extraterrestrials were trying to control his mind. The megaphone he often screamed at the skies with (though multifunctional) was primarily a defense against them. His deepest disturbance concerned his father – a Norwegian fisherman who’d moved to the states when Hans was a child. I never found out exactly what it was, but whenever he mentioned the man his brow would furrow down past his eyes and he’d start punching his knees violently and hissing something about his life being “a total disorganization” because of him.
Despite his madness, there was one realm where Hans could perform smoothly. I first became aware of it one night not long after we’d met one another. I was standing in back waiting for Federico to count out the tips I’d earned. Suddenly, the phone rang and Hans leapt up and grabbed it. I was expecting Federico to rip it from his hand and take the call. Instead, he winked at me and drew my attention to Hans with a jerk of his head. I watched as the blips and twitches melted from the man’s composure. He stood up straight, craned his neck and in a voice any businessman would be proud to own, said:
“Hello, Lucca’s Italian Eatery, Hans speaking. Will that be takeout or delivery?”
Every orifice in my body widened in astonishment. This lasted till the call ended. Once the phone hit the cradle, Hans shrunk back down to his fidgety self. He skewered the delivery slip then wandered off towards the stockroom.
“This why I hire him,” Federico said.
Although Hans was disturbed in his marrow, he’d never struck me as the dangerous type. In fact, I’d gathered that he was quite kind. I can recall at least three occasions where I watched him from the doorway as he milled around the back parking lot petting stray cats and feeding pigeons. Sure there were rumors floating around Lucca’s that he had an odd crush on some young girl. But even if they were true, that didn’t make him a bad guy.
One afternoon, about six months after having been hired, I came into the restaurant to pick up my paycheck. I didn’t see Federico (or any other staff member) up front so I headed to the back. When I pushed open the swinging doors I saw a sight that made me flinch. There, in his cream colored work slacks, stood Hans with both hands behind his back and his head slouched forward. Around him were two police officers – one male, one female – leaning into his face and shouting. The female officer had even put her hand to the wall so she could press in on Hans’ space and reduce his will to that of a carpet stain. The entire staff watched from the sidelines as the scene unfolded. I went up to Federico asked him what was going on.
“Hans went on his unicycle las’ night to that litta’ girl’s house. He was outside her window fa’ tweny minutes yelling sumthin’ with his megaphone like he loved her. Then she wake her parents up and they call police. He ride off before they catch him tho.”
“Jesus, are they gonna arrest him?”
“Don’t think so. They juss gonna scare him a litta’ so he don’t do it again.”
Federico was right. A few minutes later the cops took off, leaving Hans with a harsh warning.
“If you ever go near that little girl again,” the female officer had said. “I’m gonna personally hunt you down and imprison you for the rest of your damn life!”
Hans reacted to the threat like it was a spider dangling in front of his face. He smacked its invisible presence away from the tip of his nose then scampered off. The officers left without saying another word. None of us knew how to interact with Hans after that.
Over the next month, Hans’ behavior grew stranger. He started having full-on conversations with nonentities and pacing up and down the back halls of the restaurant. All of us tried to ignore it as much as we could. When he lost his ability to take calls, something had to be done. I tried to talk to him one day to see if I could bring him out of his funk. He mumbled something about homosexuality being “unnatural” then started cursing his father. I didn’t know what to make of this. I changed the subject.
“Tell me how you got your name, Hans,” I said.
I watched as the incongruous mass of mental gears slowed behind his eyes. A drop of peace suffused his weathered face and he spoke with relative clarity.
“Well, I’m Norwegian. And uh Hans is my uncle’s name.”
“Oh that’s cool. Do you see him ever?”
“Yeah but uh he died. I used to visit him in Norway. We’d go fishing together.”
“Hmmm, I like Norway. It’s a beautiful place. I was there not too long ago.”
“Yeah we’re from Bergen. I like seeing all the fjords.”
“Me too. The waterfalls and the villages nearby are also nice …”
At that point our conversation started to dissipate. I’d have brought up Norwegian troll mythology but I didn’t want to go there. Instead, I let the silence bake. I was hoping Hans would pose a few questions of his own.
Thirty seconds went by. A minute. Finally he spoke.
“Err, your name is Hans.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Well how …?”
“… did I get that name? My Dad. His great-grandparents were German. And even though he doesn’t speak a lick of German or have any real connection to Germany, I think he gave me the name cuz my mother is Mexican and has a huge family, and he didn’t want me to forget that not all my ancestors swilled mescal and wore loincloths, ha-ha.”
My racially self-deprecating joke sailed right over Hans’ head and crashed against the wall behind him. He dimpled both ends of his smirk and looked off to one side. Just then the phone rang. He shot up, grabbed it, and with cool professionalism, said:
“Hello, Lucca’s Italian Eatery, Hans speaking. Will that be takeout or delivery?”
I took this as a sign that things were back to “normal.” I walked over, patted Hans on the shoulder and wished him a goodnight. He gave me a funny grin from behind the receiver. I returned it as best I could then went off and punched my timecard.
The next day I rolled to Lucca’s at five. I clocked in, took a leak, and then went to the back to find Hans. I wanted to ask him if he’d ever been to Geirangerfjord – my favorite spot in Norway. I ran into Federico instead. He was sitting at a booth with a few waitresses and speaking to them in a low voice. I gathered something had happened, so I asked what was up. He turned around and looked at me. There was a disappointment in his eyes that I couldn’t place. I thought back to the previous night and tried to remember if I’d screwed up any deliveries. When I was sure I hadn’t, I asked again.
“What is it?”
He took a deep breath and folded his hands.
“Hans got arrested las’ night.”
My first thought was that he’d been stalking that girl again. I voiced this and Federico shook his head.
“Not that,” he said.
I racked my brain to think of what else it could be. When nothing came to me, I asked. As the words “What happened then?” left my mouth, the room sunk into a pit. Federico looked away and let it crawl from his lips.
“Hans murder his fatha’ in his sleep.”
“JESUS!” I shouted. “HOW?!”
“Wit a pillow to his face. I guess they living togetha’ or sumthin’ and had a fight las’ night. Then Hans wait till his fatha’ go to sleep and he kill him.”
Even though it was his father who’d been murdered, I felt terrible for Hans. He’d never said it outright, but I knew something unforgivable must have happened to him in his life, and I suspected it was his father who’d been responsible. I felt sick to my stomach. I asked Federico if I could have the day off and he told me I could. I clocked out and went to the back lot where my car was parked. It was a cloudy day, not unlike the one I’d met Hans. I looked up at the sky and wondered where he might be.
Prolly back in a mental institution, I thought.
Suddenly, I felt a little better. Hans may have been without his megaphone and unicycle, but he’d surely have his notebook, and hopefully, a few people around who understood him.
After his father’s murder, I never saw Hans again. I’d heard he’d been locked up, but where and for how long I never found out. Though my memories of him are fading, I still think of him sometimes. Mostly it’s when I tell someone my name and they get all curious. They ask me where it’s from and how I got it, tell me it’s unique to the US and that so am I. But I smile bigger than I used to. Not out of pride or arrogance but because I’m thinking:
“Homey … you ain’t met ‘The Other Hans.’”
Note: I reserve the right to occasionally alter the character names, descriptions, and/or event details in my posts for the purposes of identity protection and “fluidity of story.” If this puts a kink in your panties, read someone else’s blog, homey.