On a grey winter day in Michigan, I opened my locker and grabbed my sneakers for seventh-grade basketball practice. As Bobby Benke waited for me, he noticed a drawing I had done displayed prominently inside the locker door.
"Shaft, huh? It’s cool," he said. "You must really like the 70s."
"Dude, I can’t get enough of it," I replied.
After that, Bobby started to jokingly call me Shaft. Once he saw the depth of my obsession, it swiftly turned sincere and other people started calling me Shaft too. But the name didn’t truly become my identity until Sam Stewart muttered “Nice job out there Shaft” during a basketball game. Sam was arguably the coolest kid in school. He was also black. As an extremely lanky, dorky white kid, it should have felt strange. But it was like I had gotten his blessing to use this persona. By the end of seventh grade, 90% of my friends called me by my new nickname. With a little help, I even turned a Shaq basketball shirt into a Shaft badass shirt, which I wore anytime I exercised (its second incarnation is still in my possession). Only those who knew me well would refer to me as Shaft, like they had earned the honor. My genuine love and near obsession with blaxploitation films had spread throughout my middle school. Shaft and Bryan became one and the same.
By freshman year of high school, the nickname had all but disappeared. Only a few friends still referred to me as the beloved blaxploitation icon. It didn’t really bother me and became kind of an inside joke. Most of enormous East Kentwood High School weren’t aware of my former obsession, which had waned considerably at that point. But the name was still a part of me, and it was ready for a rebirth.
In the spring of ’97, my fellow freshman baseballers and I were set to order our warm-up jackets. We were told we could put our first name, last name, pretty much whatever we wanted on it. A couple buddies and I decided to be unique and put our nicknames. When the coach, a jovial fellow in his late twenties, saw my nickname, he couldn’t stop using it. The team then knew me exclusively as Shaft and called me it in school. It seemed like everyone who heard it started using it.
"How’s it goin’ Shaft?"
"What’d you get for Question #8, Shaft?"
"No, I won’t go out with you, Shaft."
The name I had loved and adored was bigger than ever. Friends, classmates, even people I barely knew called me Shaft. But it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as it had once been. When strangers used it, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Should I give them a knowing wink? Do I pretend to be their friend? Do I ignore them? I was no longer Shaft the ardent lover of blaxploitation, I was just some kid named Shaft. The name was bigger than I was and it felt like a gimmick. Unfortunately this lasted through high school, but as the peripheral friends left my life, so did the dilution of my nickname.
By college the nickname had another, more satisfying rebirth. Michigan State was teeming with my closest friends, who were the only ones using Shaft at that point. When others heard it, they knew it was very important to me, even asking if it was okay for them to use it. The name regained its honor and was again a true reflection of my personality. To this day I’m known as Shaft across the country and it’s a constant reminder of my youth, my obsessions, and my adoration of cool. It’s the greatest nickname I could have asked for. And as a dorky white boy from the Midwest, it’s completely ridiculous.