The Johns

Making a name for yourself doesn’t always turn out the way you hope it will

The Johns
An audio version of “The Johns” is featured in this episode ☝️ of the Without a hitch podcast

John is an enduring name. Data from the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs places John as the top boy’s name for 1954 and 1955; in 1956 and 1957 John came in second place, pipped at the post by Peter; it was number three in 1958 and 1959, with Peter in slot one and David in slot two. US social security data puts John as the third most popular boy’s name over the last 100 years.

My dad was born in 1956, and his parents named him John. He was the second oldest of four children: Donna, David, Donald and John. His parents had a real D theme going on – but apparently they were powerless to resist the popularity of John. So irresistible was the name John, that Dad went on to name his own son (my brother) John.

When I was growing up, I learned that nearly every one of Dad’s friends or acquaintances were called John. I found it hard to keep track of all the Johns, so I would remember them by what I understood as their primary occupation. There was pottery John, kayak John, avocado John and orchard John. Sometimes I wasn’t sure what they did with their time, so there was also lives-in-the-valley John. In retrospect, this makes them sound a lot like collectibles. Pottery John eventually became a real estate agent, but he’s still pottery John to me.

I would wonder, growing up: How do you make a name for yourself if you’re all called the same thing? Dad and the Johns demonstrated a pragmatic answer to this question: they just got to work doing one thing very well, until children like me put a label in front of their name to say what kind of John they were.

Since nearly everyone in Dad’s shearing gang was called John, they all went by their initials, including one guy who actually went by Jim, but had been born a John. When I was at university, Dad lived in Tauranga, and spent a lot of time with JT (avocado John). On university holidays I’d visit Tauranga and sometimes we’d park Dad’s house bus at JT’s for a while, and help him with fencing, landscaping or tending the avocados.

JT is a pretty casual guy. He loves his dogs, and lets them come and go as they please. He doesn’t bother himself too much with housework. Personally, I’m okay with untidiness, to a point – but once I see piles of dust tumbleweeds bunting against the skirting boards, I’m really going to need to get the vacuum out.

I cannot, however, look past any cleaning job that deals with smell. I have an enhanced sense of smell. Friends have theorised that this is because I have a capacious schnozz, a suggestion which I initially laughed down, but now suspect may be accurate.

Nothing hits me harder than a dirty fridge. I can detect food expiring mere seconds past the moment it’s at its best. But also: This is where you keep your food. The stuff you put in your mouth. It just seems to me that this should be appropriately clean. Not crazy clean. I’m not talking about sterilising every surface for a medical-grade, store-your-organs standard of cleanliness. Just… not gross. Clean to the naked eye. Some separation of the food groups. Shelves which don’t suck at the item you’re trying to pick up because they’re sticky underneath.

JT’s fridge, even by lax standards of fridge hygiene, was a horror. Packets containing food groups eluding classification were packed so tight they would leak into each other. The internal surfaces of the fridge were not white or clear, but brown, with patches of black. Old meat festered. Cheeses dried and fell apart, or melted into slush. Milk brewed itself into yoghurt. Yoghurt grew new organisms beyond the expected. Vegetables expired and broke down into their constituent elements – in a vain effort, perhaps, to build an ecosystem for the new vegetables piled on top. Because there was so much in the fridge, it was hard to tell what I might find at the back of the shelves. It was less a fridge than a biological event.

I didn’t want to make JT feel bad by asking about it. We were guests in his house, after all. But I also didn’t want to eat. Anything. From that fridge. One day, Dad and JT went out on an errand and I decided to surprise JT by dealing to this abomination. I rolled up my sleeves and started to take everything out of the fridge, but had to stop almost immediately to clean the kitchen first, since dishes and old cooking were stacked so densely on the bench there was no space for the fridge contents. Cleaning the kitchen was almost as epic an undertaking as the fridge.

Eventually I started to empty out the fridge contents, categorising the food into different biohazard groups:

  1. Not fresh, but seems okay; maybe keep
  2. A touch whiffy
  3. Hold your breath and run this outside
  4. WTF is this – get some gloves and donate to science

Once the food was out, I attacked the shelves and the internal walls of the fridge. The muck was particularly resistant to cleaning; it clung to the fridge, the only home it had known. I had to muscle my way back to the original surfaces with a brush. Some of the patches of black would leave pale yellow stains, once they finally relinquished the mould. I had to concede that for now, this was as good as I was going to get it.

It took me two days. This took the edge off the surprise a little bit, since when JT and Dad returned on the first day there was food everywhere and a half-dismantled fridge. JT smiled, and seemed chuffed that I was taking such an interest in his fridge, but also looked around a little furtively, probably trying to identify what delicious treats were now missing. I think he might have thought I was wasting perfectly good nosh.

I don’t know what became of the fridge when we left, but I can say with confidence that, aside from the moment it was first purchased, that was probably the cleanest that fridge had ever been or ever would be again. I ate the food from it, a little more at ease.

JT couldn’t really believe I’d gone to that effort for him and his fridge. For the rest of the week we were there, he kept coming back to it.

“You really pulled out all the stops with that fridge,” JT would say.

The legend of the grand fridge clean has persisted for years. Dad will catch up with JT and they’ll inevitably mention the fridge. When Dad and I are talking over the phone, he’ll ask, “Remember that fridge?” I wonder if, when Dad catches up with the other Johns (all the Johns connected to Dad know each other – it’s a John network), he retells the story of what I did for JT’s fridge.

I guess it’s nice to be remembered for doing a good cleaning job. But: I had hoped to be known for something a little more… momentous. Is this how the Johns will remember me? But I probably shouldn’t worry about making a name with the Johns. After all, I’m not a John. As many have told me, chortling, because it’s apparently a variant of my name: I’m a Dick.