MY FRIENDS and I are watching a B-movie of the vampire genre. In one scene, the modern-day vampires are suddenly involved in a crime even more serious than neck biting. Concerned about being discovered, one vampire exclaims, "How should I know who knows? It could be anybody -- the feds, the police, the Gambinos!" My friends all laugh heartily. It is the first real laugh this movie has given us, myself included.

The first time I can remember my name making people suspicious of me was in junior high school. One morning I arrived late and ran into the principal's office to get a pass.

"Name?" the secretary asked.

"Erica-Lynn Gambino."

"Gambino?" she enunciated slowly, a slight gleam in her eye.

"Um . . .yes," I stammered uncomfortably. I wasn't that late, was I?

The secretary leaned forward, lowering her voice. "C'mon, you can tell me."

"Tell you what?" I asked, leaning in too.

"You're one of . . .them. The Gambinos."

I thought a moment. "Well, my mom is the music teacher at the elementary school and . . . ."

"Uh-huh. Shuo-uh {Long Island for sure'}." The gleam in her eye intensified. Her blue-gray bouffant was prickly with excitement, fear, repulsion and horror that she was actually in the presence of one of . . .them.

Who were they, those other Gambinos? What had they done that she was speaking to me so accusingly? Already, I was conjuring up wild criminal scenarios in my 12-year-old mind; they robbed banks like Patty Hearst or roamed huge dark mansions in search of victims like Dracula. When I came home that day and told my parents what had happened, their immediate response was, "Ignore it."

I've learned a lot about those other Gambinos since my days at John Philip Sousa Junior High. Like that they are a notorious crime family from Long Island and that people believe that if you cross them, you could end up buried somewhere in New Jersey.

Now, 15 years later, I am on the phone reserving an Amtrak ticket from Providence to New York. "G-a-m-b-i-n-o," I spell, waiting for the wisecrack. The operator indeed snickers. Instead of asking me for my Visa number, he asks, "Know where Jimmy Hoffa is?"

"You'll have to ask the Kennedys about that," I say curtly.

I was in a bad mood. I had sent out articles and essays to various local New England publications and was subsequently scolded by my Rhode Island friends: "You sent it under your real name? Are you crazy?"

Almost everybody I know seems to be under the impression that the Mafia owns and/or runs Providence, so you might wonder why a woman who has been mistaken for the heiress to a legacy of murder and drug-peddling chose to move here. The answer is ridiculously simple: It seemed like a nice place to live.

Back when I was an NYU under- graduate, I had to scrounge Avenue B for a cheap hole in the wall to live and study in. Landlord after landlord would ask, as he assured me I could squeeze my twin futon into the studio and still avoid the cockroaches that lived in the sink in the junior kitchen, "So, Gambino -- as in . . . ?"

As in what? As in someone who could afford to live on Sutton Place but actuallylongs to spend her nights with a view of a crack house? Oh, yes, that must be me.

I then moved to the picturesque mind-your-own-beeswax state of Vermont, where I obtained my master's degree at Bennington. I spent three blissful years with interesting, unusual people who never judged books by their covers. Recently, one of my Bennington friends admitted that "of course we just assumed you were Erica Gambino of the Gambino Family. We thought it was great." Great. Bret Easton Ellis couldn't have dreamed up a better character. Artsy Mafia princess goes to small, elite, liberal arts college, discreetly driving a bottom-of-the-line Honda Civic and living in a small, nondescript apartment. What a fabulous cover!

Every time I think I am at the point where I can finally laugh off people's reactions and insinuations -- I mean, it could be worse, my name could be Manson -- something happens to remind me that my name is no laughing matter. This spring I was in London, thousands of miles away, I thought, from the American ethnic stereotyping I had always experienced. I was visiting my half-sister, whose blissfully Irish last name -- Beatty -- suggests gorgeous Hollywood actors to most. In Portobello market, we stood at a currency exchange booth as a friendly Pakistani man patiently counted my traveler's checks. He looked up at me with eyes wide, a grin of sheer fascination -- and fear? -- spread across his face. "Gambino!" he exclaimed. "The Mafia . . . ."

Instead of smirking awkwardly, making a snide comeback or cowering helplessly when I get this reaction, perhaps someday I'll be more like my mother, a Jew from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who revels in the proclamation of our last name. Being madly in love with my father has always made her madly in love with his name, without regard to its connotations. A sweet sentiment, but for me it is nevertheless disconcerting to hear her proudly bellow, in that projecting New York Schubert Alley way, "Gam-BEE-Nooo" when asked who our dinner reservation is for.

The son of a poor, hard-working immigrant, my father has chosen to plow through the barriers of ignorance with academic zeal. He is the founder of the first university-level Italian American studies program in the United States and is the author of several best-selling books on Italian American ethnicity. In short, he has become an expert at being himself -- a Gambino.

Since my junior high school induction into the Crime Lords Hall of Fame, I have become an expert myself at those little tricks that help me avoid having to say my last name at all. I have a secret career as a historical romance writer named Veronica Stephens. And, like my wonderfully unself-conscious mother, I prefer to make dinner reservations under my beloved's name. He, on the other hand, thinks it's thoroughly amusing and interesting to use my last name. (His own, Huberty, causes people to become suddenly hard of hearing and very embarrassed.)

The word "gambino," incidentally, means shrimp fisherman in Italian. Not every name is what it seems, after all. I went to Bennington with people named Mohammed Ali, Matt Dillon, Amy Fisher and Mark Spitz. Perhaps it's the Bennington Curse -- destined to be associated, by one's birth-given name, with celebrities. Maybe I should start a club for people like me. I might call it People With Societally and Ethnically Challenged Last Names. Erica-Lynn Gambino is a writer in Providence, R.I.