‘Coffee Names’ and ‘Szechuan Names’


NPR picked up on this Village Voice weblog post by Shefali Kulkarni and I heard her interviewed today. She describes how, five months or so ago, she started to order her coffees at Starbucks under the name  ‘Sheila’ instead of being burdened to spell her unfamiliar foreign name for the baristas. She is apologetic about racial profiling, but she began to notice that those on the coffee lines with foreign names often did the same thing. Now coffee snob that I am, I would never be caught in a Starbucks, but this reminds me of somethng I do which in effect turns this situation on its head.

Being a fiend for Asian food, with which my neighborhood is quite well-endowed, I noticed about thirty years ago that when I ordered takeout the Asian restauranteurs often had difficulty understanding my name ‘Eliot’ and I began ordering my food under the name ‘Wes’. Unambiguous, didn’t require spelling, etc. Within a few months, however, my favorite Szechuan restaurant started identifying me whenever I came in for a table or a pickup as ‘Mr. West,’ and ‘Hello, Mr. West’ it has remained.

This was before I used credit cards. When that changed, I recall worrying about the confusion it might cause at the restaurant if ‘Mr. West’ paid for his food with a card belonging to ‘Eliot Gelwan’, but they never batted an eyelid. After I had children, once they became old enough to notice, my son and daughter on the other hand have been shaking their heads in consternation whenever my restaurant  greets me. I think I’ll have to point them to the ‘coffee names’ post to vindicate msyelf…

4 thoughts on “‘Coffee Names’ and ‘Szechuan Names’

  1. interesting. i’ve always had problems with people mispronouncing and misspelling both my first and last names (seth forstater). when younger or with my mother later, i might use my her maiden name (harris) for restaurants etc.

    later i’d use girlfriend’s names. before i got married, i’d use my fiance’s last name (martin), but now she took my last name ; )

    i think i’d pretty much always use my name when by myself, for whatever reason.


  2. I have a difficult last name, just two sylables and it’s european but just difficult, on top of that I have a common first name. So after many problems at places like restaurants I simplified it to ‘Cotton’. One time I was asked for my last name when ordering a camera. I pronounced my last name then began to spell it. I said ‘C, O, T’ the cashier ask me to spell it. Again I said ‘C, O, T’, she wrote down on the order form ‘Seaotea’. you just have to smile sometimes.

    Hi Eliot


  3. A funny story, I like it! Like commenter 2, I have a difficult last name with wierd French spelling, even though I’m American. After many problems making restaurant reservations over the phone, I started using my wife’s last name, and this works fine. Ironically, she’s actually French, but has an easy last name!


  4. Ha! I grew up in Texas, where none of the schools teach Catcher in the Rye, so no one was familiar with the name “Holden.” I was always asked, “Hogan?,” because of the popularity of the show “Hogan’s Heroes.” By the time I got to high school, I had learned to identify myself as Lou. And you know what? Sometimes that confuses people. They’ve turned Lou into Luke, Blue and I can’t remember what else.

    Sometimes I order things under the name “Five.” That really confuses them. I got that idea from an obscure series of “Peanuts” panels, from when Charlie Brown befriended a boy named Five, whose father had renamed the entire family with numbers to protest blah blah blah. I think the kid had a younger sibling named Three; the kid’s real name was Three Point One Four One Five Nine, but he was nicknamed Three.


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