Friday, August 13, 2010

What is in a coffee name?

The petite cashier in Starbucks gulped when she saw me approaching - probably yet to recover from the unpronouncable multisyllabic name casually dropped on her head this morning by another Indian. I ordered a tall cappuccino, at which point she had to ask me for my name which was not without trepidation.

'Luke,' I said. Her face went blank for a second and then she exhaled in relief. Luke, that is easy! Of all the coffee names I make up, Luke is my favorite. It is short but also distinct, and, most importantly, easy to yell. Try yelling a Brad or a Chris, and your inflamed larynx begs for a menthol lozenge. Luke is elastic and smooth like a soft whistle.

'Luke – cappuccino,' the barista hollered.

My order was ready in seconds. Fabulous! I collared my cup and headed for the sugar bin when a shrill voice shouted: 'Hey! That is mine.'

A large flat-nosed white guy poked his chin at my coffee looking very pissed.

'Sorry, I'm sure this is mine. You see the name "Luke" written on this cup? That's my name.'

'Luke is my name - my real name. You don't look like a Luke to me.'

Well, excuse me! The insinuation is chilling. This guy has crossed a line – there is got to be some line on racial stereotyping. I don't look Luke just because I am brown? (On that matter, let me set a record straight here - I may look brown, but I was once really fair-complexioned. Years of Indian summers have tanned me. I can even prove it - my inner thighs are still milky white.)

'What do you mean?' I barked.

'Are you kidding? Luke is the whitest name on earth. You will be more convincing calling yourself the Big Lebowski. '

Suddenly, a new indignant voice joined us. A suit-clad Vietnamese. 'The Indian has a point. Maybe that is his real name. Why cannot he be a Luke?"

Just then, the barista hollered again, 'Latte for Kenny Rogers.'

The Vietnamese guy said: 'Excuse me, that's my coffee.'

Luke rolled his eyes. 'You are defending this phoney when you call yourself Kenny Rogers? C'mon, give me a break. You are either a Ngoc or a Nguyen. What are you? Show me your card.'

'Even if I'm a Nguyen, so what? You are a bad man. You are a racial name profiler, Luke,' Rogers said.

'Racial name profiling? Is that a new offense … are you accusing me of a crime? So I'm guilty, sue me.'

Just then, Luke's quiet friend stepped into the fray. A lanky chap in t-shirt and slacks that seem to slowly drift down to the VCL
1. Tugging them up at the last instant, he spoke with a mild grin: 'Excuse my friend, he is not very PC.'

'You bet I'm not PC, Steve. You –' he said, addressing me. 'Just give me my coffee. When the cup says Luke, it is me.'

'This is my coffee. My name is written on it. And I'm bloody well having it.' I said, and sipped it watching Luke's dismayed reaction.

The barista hollered again - 'Cappuccino for the Asian Luke.'

Awkward silence followed as my expression turned sheepish and Luke's turned murderous. Ok, I messed up.

'All right, it is an honest mistake. Two guys, same name.'

'That ain't a mistake. You are trying to pass off as someone you are not.'

'There you go. RNP again,' said Kenny Rogers.

'RNP? Now it is an acronym? Here is some RNP for you. I walk into an ethnic place and try to pass off as a Nguyen or a Reddy, I will tear the place down with laughter.'

'You are wrong, Luke,' I said. 'They might be surprised, but they won't insult you.'

'Ha! That's what you think!' said Luke.

Steve said: 'Well, there is only one way to find out. I know the perfect Indian place. It is a chat cafe just a couple of blocks away.'

I was game. Luke pondered for a second and accepted the challenge. Rogers said he will tag along to watch Bollywood in the Indian café. He said he is a big fan of Shah Rukh Khan.

'What is taking my Latte so long?' Steve wondered, as his slacks again descended towards VCL.

'Forget it, theAsian Steve just whisked it,' said Luke, with a sardonic guffaw.

There are many chat cafés in the Bay Area, but this place is unique in two respects. First, the kitchen has an exhaust, though it seems to exit the odors into the dining area where they permeate into the customers' skins. Second, the cashier takes orders by names, which is why we came here to test our ethnic RNP theories.

First to order was Steve who chose a samosa chat and gave his name to the bushy-eyebrowed, open-mouthed cashier typing on his computer.

Steve recommended the same dish to Luke who was next up.

'Your name, sir?'

Without flinching, Luke said loudly to anyone who can hear: 'Reddy.'

One bushy eyebrow went up, but the cashier remained glued to the screen. No one laughed, no one seemed to care.

'Repeat: I am Reddy!' said Luke, a little louder. Still no reaction. I smiled pleasantly at Luke who just grunted.

Next up was Kenny Rogers who ordered a Bhel Puri.

'And your name, sir?'

'Shah Rukh Khan.' Both the bushy eyebrows went up, and bobbed once.

I leaned over and asked Kenny what the hell he was trying to do. He said that was the first Indian name that came into his head.

'But you don't need an Indian name here. Just be yourself.'

'Over here, I want to be someone else.' Kenny said. His top shirt buttons were already undone like Indian matinee idols. I peered hard into his face and saw a bit of insanity there. He had moved on from Kenny. He put on shades. A role player who lived in his roles.

When my turn arrived, I ordered a kulfi and gave my name.

'So is that your real name?' Luke asked after we found a table.

'Let us stick to the point. No one here gives two straws whether you are Luke or Reddy. Names don't mean anything here. You got to concede the argument.'

'We are not done,' Luke said, but unconvincingly.

The waiter brought Steve's order first who immediately started digging into it.

'Mmmm … ' said Steve, 'this tastes good.'

I got my Kulfi, Kenny his bhel puri, and then Luke's order arrived.

Luke took a big spoonful and immediately turned purple. His flat nose ballooned out, his eyes melted into waterfalls, his face turned ruddy and black.

'What the bloody f@!% is in this dish??'

'What is the matter?' I asked.

'One spoon and a nuclear reaction is going off in my head. I am dying here. Where is the waiter?'

The only waiter in that place came around shortly. 'Is there a problem, sir' he inquired.

Luke who was emptying sugar sachets into his mouth looked at him with burning eyes: 'There bloody well is. What did you put into my plate? TNT, RDX?'

'May I look at your orders, sir' said the waiter, checking our receipts.

'But I ordered the same dish and it is quite good,' Steve said.

The waiter suddenly exclaimed. 'Sir, Mr. Steve got the white-guy-spicy version, which is really mild. But since your name , is it really Mr. Reddy, sir?'

'Why not?' Steve asked.

'Sir, if you give your name as Reddy, the kitchen staff will think you are a real Reddy and automatically upgrade you to the Guntur-chili spice level , sir.'

Silence. Luke looked at me incredulous. 'Did you say no RNP in Indian places? Maybe, but here is a new acronym – RFP. Racial food profiling! Now, if you will excuse me, I need two gallons of beer.'

He stormed out. Steve excused himself to spring after Luke, the action taking his pants finally past VCL – a very unfortunate sight to add to my chagrin. But Shah Rukh Khan was happy digging with gusto into Luke's unfinished plate.

  1. VCL – Visible Crack Line.

After reading Shefali Kulkarni's delightful piece on coffee names in the village voice blog.