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…FOR Zal,” “Sowl,” “Sagi,” “Shi”—

Barista, please get it right (write)!


The Name on My Coffee Cup

By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

Photographs courtesy Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

Starbucks announced earlier this week that, in the hope of sparking impromptu and much needed discussion concerning race relations in the United States, it will begin encouraging baristas to write the phrase “race together” on its coffee cups.

As a frequent consumer of Starbucks, I have yet to encounter the slogan or the ensuing exchange of views, but the most contentious aspect for me when ordering coffee—until now, anyway—has been the perpetual misspelling of my name on the side of the cup.

The mutations have been many, and they have often been egregious—“Zal,” “Sowl,” “Sagi,” “Shi”—and then once, incredibly, three years ago, at a branch in the financial district, “Saïd,” diaeresis added, prompting me to seek out the barista, whose hand I grasped with deep feeling but who, frankly, seemed perplexed that anyone would have difficulty spelling my name.

He was Latino, I think, and he told me that he had a best friend named Saïd, spelled identically, which would explain his astuteness. Never mind the backstory, I was delighted by the outcome. I photographed the cup for posterity, and then, for good measure, tweeted it for the world to see.

Until that moment, I had always recoiled when asked for my name by a barista—an innocent question for a simple transaction, but one that harkens back to traumatic days growing up in Pittsburgh, where my name caused controversy and consternation for people who, if they were not black, were mostly descendants of Germany, Italy, and Ireland. When I was in sixth grade, there happened to be one other boy in my school of Middle Eastern extraction, whose name was Hassin but whom everyone called Hi-C, and who had the further misfortune of having an accent.

The boy wanted to be friends with me, but I avoided him at all costs, lest his foreignness reflect back. My own apparent foreignness was misleading, considering that I had been born in Brooklyn, and I did my best to mitigate it when I could—that is to say, always—but there was no getting around the fact of my name, which, during school, was occasionally brought into the spotlight by substitute teachers, who mangled it aloud to the amusement of my white classmates, reminding them that there was someone of abnormal ancestry sitting in their midst.

Thirty-five years later, I might have been able to endure the painful and momentary mispronunciations of my name shouted in Starbucks, but it was the misspellings, perhaps because they were written in harsh black ink, that seemed as if they would last forever.

But, after that wondrous occurrence at the Starbucks in the financial district, a profound shift took place inside of me, revelatory and liberating, and I began to openly acknowledge misspellings of my name, even to look forward to them, so that I could photograph and tweet the results—in essence, preserving them forever. For the record, there are several acceptable ways to spell Saïd—“Saeed,” “Sayid,” “Saeid”—but I accept only one, with the diaeresis included.

A high standard, I suppose, but we should each have high standards when it comes to our name. As a rule, I never offer the barista assistance with the spelling unless it is requested, which it seldom is. There have been a few instances when my instructions for “two dots over the ‘i’ ” have been transcribed as three dots over the “i,” which is cute but wrong.

When I was four years old, I would draw pictures where the “i” had three dots, and those three dots then became parts of a smiley face. That was back when my name was a playful thing for me and I marvelled at its unusualness, but that playfulness is long gone.

Several months ago, a Twitter follower, perhaps growing weary of seeing Starbucks misspellings from all over the United States, suggested that I could easily resolve the dilemma by providing the baristas with a different name. Bob, for instance. Strangely, this had not occurred to me. Nor had it occurred to me that even American names might be undergoing problematic interpretations at Starbucks. Henry, I have heard, becomes Avery.

Amy becomes Jenny. The advice struck me as sound, but I had not hung onto my name all these years in order to now become someone named Bob, even for the sake of a momentary convenience. The time for being Bob was 1979, during the Iran hostage crisis, when having a name like mine was a badge of shame and criminality.

But the name had been the single constant connection to my Iranian father, who had abandoned me when I was nine months old, leaving me alone with my Jewish-American mother, Martha Harris. If there was a time for transformation—or obfuscation—it was then.

But I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that there have been a few occasions when I did, in fact, change my name for the purposes of obfuscation—or obliteration. The first was when I was about thirteen, and had to deliver the afternoon paper to an elderly woman who lived behind one house in another, smaller house that resembled a shack. S

he had signed up for the paper as a new customer, but something kept going wrong with the correct address being conveyed to me —perhaps because it was a 1/2—so my dispatcher finally demanded that I make a special delivery and hand her the paper in person. It turned out that she was nice but lonely, and wanted to spend time talking with me, but I was frightened of her because of her age and the condition of her home, so when she asked me my name I told her it was Steve.

I was amazed that she could not tell I was lying. After that, I was always Steve with her, which felt to me like a terrible betrayal of everyone involved, including my father—but there was, of course, no going back. When I collected the weekly payment, she would pay me with a handful of coins since she was poor, and she never tipped but she would always say, “Thank you, Steve.”

The second time I gave a false name was about fifteen years later, when I was living in New York City, hoping to become a professional actor and having no success. Apart from an occasional call to audition for the role of a taxi-driver or a deli owner, the phone never rang. At some point, I managed to arrange a meeting with a casting agent, and the first thing she asked me was whether I had ever considered changing my name.

It was a fair question, I guess, but I felt insulted. “You’re sitting directly across from me,” I said, “and can see that I could easily pass for Italian American.” I was basing this on a moderately ambiguous ethnic quality in my face, which people had speculated over the years could be Italian or Greek or “anywhere in the Mediterranean.” But I had not formulated this concept as tactfully as I could have, and now it was the casting agent’s turn to be insulted. “

Why would I call you for an Italian-American role,” she demanded, “when there are a hundred thousand Italian American actors?” To this, I had no response. “If I send you out for an Italian-American role,” she said, “that’s trouble . . . and I don’t want trouble.” She was earnest and annoyed. It was also clear that she had lost any interest in helping me.

“Change your name to Joe Kelly,” she suggested, “and I can get you work.” And then she concluded with the powerhouse line: “Until then, I’ll call you when I need a terrorist.” At that, the meeting was effectively over.

She never did call me in need of a terrorist, a role that I most likely would have accepted. And after a few years had passed and my career had continued to stagnate, I finally took her advice and had five hundred head shots made with my face and the name Anthony March Harris, a clever amalgamation of names belonging to my mother, my cousin, and a childhood friend. I thought it had a nice ring to it, but unfortunately it also put me in competition with every other white American male actor, an even more daunting subset.

The one audition I landed, a shaving-cream commercial, seemed exceptionally promising when the young female assistant director, before turning on the camera, remarked, “You look like my ex-boyfriend.” I had never heard this before at an audition, and I took it to mean that she found me mildly attractive, and that my odds were good. With the paranoia of my ethnic psyche running in the background, I assumed that my commonplace name was partly why she had managed to see a resemblance. Either way, I did not get the part. Not too long after that I gave up acting for good and threw away my several hundred head shots.

Among other things, I had become dimly aware that much of my desire for stardom was fuelled by a wish for revenge, and the prospect of becoming famous on, say, a sitcom, even if that were remotely possible, did not hold much appeal if the classmates who had mocked me so vigorously years earlier would never know that it was I who had succeeded.

Lately, I have begun spending almost all of my afternoons—and sometimes evenings—reading in my favorite Starbucks, situated on the New York University campus. It’s by far the busiest Starbucks I’ve ever been in, with waits up to twenty minutes long, but I’m such a regular that the baristas frequently make my coffee before I’m even in line: decaf quad espresso ($3.21).

They know me so well, in fact, that my name is always spelled correctly, which means, unfortunately, that I no longer tweet photos of the sides of coffee cups—but so be it. With its enormous windows facing Washington Square Park and its chestnut-brown armchairs,

I sit there with my noise-cancelling headphones on, undisturbed. The other day, the eternal line of college students notwithstanding, one of the baristas took the time to deliver my cup of coffee to me. It was such a lovely gesture. The type of small-town fellowship that people lament the modern age for having eradicated.

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