What's in a name?

Graphic by jon-e |


Yesterday afternoon, as the skies once again threatened rain, my friend Roxy (not her real name) and I – well, not me: Bob – sat in a Valley Starbucks sipping vanilla lattes (her's extra hot -- like her), talking about our kids, Nikolai and Gregor (names changed to protect our too-soon no-longer-innocent offspring). Suddenly my cell phone rang. My wife, Debbie (I think it’s Debbie on Saturdays), had just woken from a nap and wanted to know when I’d be home. I told her that Betty (for the moment), and I (not me: Mohinder), were just finishing our coffees and I’d be back soon so we could be on time for our date (every week: secret of a good marriage) to see the new Indiana Jones movie. (He’s actually a Henry, I think, not that it matters.)

Janelle (please try to keep up) and I (not me: Julio) had taken a walk after lunch and decided to have coffees -- a rare treat since designer coffee costs about the same these days as a gallon of gas. We were laughing about how her ex-spouse Conrad (you think that’s his real name? Think again), had interrupted our lunch by calling twice and wouldn’t get off the phone. Perhaps he’d heard the lively ethnic music in the background (this wonderful, dark, red-booth restaurant is too crowded already or I’d give you its name), and wondered if she was having too good a time without him. (“Hi. Sorry to bother you again, but did you just call me?”).

Back to our vanilla lattes – that’s what we were really drinking; why would I lie about that? – and where this all began. I had noticed Rachel’s name on her coffee cup (not really her name, but there is an "r" in it), and I told her that I never gave my real name to the barista.

“Why not?”

“Why not? Why?”

“It’s just ...”

“Don’t waste humor on the help?”

“Sure. But it’s just your first name. You can’t be worried about identity theft. Why don’t you ...”

I wanted to say that the familiarity made me feel a bit queasy, that this name thing was just a crass marketing attempt to personalize service -- though, I suppose, it’s better than saying, “Venti double caramel mocha, extra whip, for the short fat guy salivating by the bakery case;” or “Skinny black coffee for the brunette toothpick with the implants.” I remember a recent business-class flight to London on which the flight attendant kept using my first name every time she wanted to know if I wanted a pillow, a personal DVD player, or some of those incredibly addictive warm nuts. I don’t need to be called Mr., but something about her chatty cozyness made me want to increase my personal space and say, "Please. Just call me ‘Hey you.’”

I guess I simply want to retain what small bits of my privacy that I can, given that I'm unable to resist writing for public consumption, hoping someone will notice. (You think I do this only for the money? I'm an artist.) Otherwise, it's not so philosophical. "I just get this urge to lie, to make up an identity that lasts as long as it takes to brew my latte . . . and hope I remember it when they shout out my name," I explained. I'm just having some fun. God knows we need a little fun in this crazy mixed-up world. (We can't depend on the Bush Administration forever.) You bought the coffee today. If I had, my cup would say Krishnamurti.”

“I get it. It’s your coffee name!”

“Right. Hmm. Right. Hey ... that’s a great idea!”

Francine smiled, proud. She deserved it.

“I think I’m going to write about this,” I said. “Of course, I’ll give you credit.”

“Not if I write about it first,” Angelina said. The idea of a little writerly competition felt like a double shot in my latte. Perfect for a chill Saturday afternoon in late May. "I know what you mean," she continued. "Every time I give them my real name, no one can spell it, so I end up doing it for them. You know: does it have one “l” or . . .

“Please don’t say anymore, or I’ll have to put it in my post.”

“You mean my post!”

We spent the next ten minutes toting up the places that, in order to make the customer feel more like a guest, they ask for your name. I can’t tell you which ones because it would clearly contravene the purpose of this exercise. You're on your own.

But if you share this post, feel free to use my real name. And Margarita's. We had a few of her namesakes at lunch, but at least we can still spell our names.

UPDATE: I've since discovered that others also have "coffee names." One friend uses his middle name. Another, a name that sounds great when it's shouted. In fact, he confessed, he's thinking of legally changing his real name to his coffee name. I kid you not, Jack.

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