Every morning, as I wait in line at the Starbucks on the corner of 115th and Broadway by Columbia University, I become Rachel. Rachel, of course, is not my real name, but a moniker I’ve assumed after a decade of confusion at the cashier. I’d finally had enough.
For years, after I’d say my name at the counter, I was asked: “Can I just write Netty?” or “Say it again—Natasha?”
“Netana,” I’d repeat apologetically, as the long line behind me would grow. “N-E-T-A-N-A.”
After a few noble—and appreciated—tries, the barista would then nod and scribble something with little to no resemblance to my actual name on the cup.
I’d go wait at the end of the bar while a different barista made the latte, then they’d attempt to call out whatever name the previous barista had written and, well, it was ugly.
Hundreds of Starbucks runs had trained me so that when I saw the quizzical faces of the baristas who were attempting to pronounce the name on the cup, or heard a name straight from a Sci-Fi novel—Nateena, Natafah, Nataynah—I knew it was probably my grande. But hearing “Netana” be called? No way!
This game of telephone between me and the baristas continued until I realized I didn’t have to suffer anymore from the routine. I thought: I don’t have to be Netana for those 15 minutes. I can be whomever I want.
I selected Rachel: The classic, nice Jewish girl—smart, but unassuming. Rachel provided me with a way to blend in, something I usually wanted minutes after I had arisen, my curly hair frizzy and my outfit a mismatch of the first suitable clothing I found. A name that still might attract potential Jewish suitors. Most importantly, it was a name I could be sure Starbucks baristas would recognize.
I have always been proud of my name’s Hebrew origins, a symbol of my one-quarter Israeli roots, but sometimes it was just easier to be a 100% American.
And I’m not alone. At universities like Columbia, and other similar schools with so much diversity among the student body, often unrecognizable names are the norm. And yet, to get through the day-to-day, many students find it easier to just be American, not American and other.
Tired of the hassle, my friend Rajiv goes by John at Starbucks because it’s “easy enough to spell.” Shreya uses Anna, her middle name, and Tamsin, a South African student, goes by Kelly because her mom’s maiden name is Kriseman. Even though the students are proud of their unique heritages, classic American names are still, well, simpler.
“Rachel, right?” one particular barista says almost daily with his sharpie in hand. I smile and nod, letting him bask in the satisfaction for remembering my “name.” No point in letting him down and complicating this frivolous routine. Plus, I’ll be late to class.
“Why’d you say your name was Rachel?” one of my best friends asked me during a pre-library Starbucks run.
“It’s just soooo much easier!” I laughed. This answer seems to suffice.
Another time, a barista’s name happened to also be Rachel.
“My name is Rachel, too!” she said, as though I’m the first person she’s ever met with her name. Excited we “share” the name, she asked me how I like it.
“Well….” I started. “I’m not really named Rachel; it’s just my Starbucks name because my actual name is too difficult.”
“Oh,” she said. Confused and disappointed, she didn’t write anything on the cup and I still feel bad when I take my first sip from a latte made by my namesake. Sharing the name Rachel meant more to her than the superficiality of the name itself. When I took that away, I once again became a stranger buying my morning coffee.
A few months later, back in my hometown in suburban Boston, I return to Starbucks. When a new barista asked me if I spell Rachel “ae” or just “e,” I smiled and told him it’s the latter.