Join the French Foreign Legion of Coffee

Lately, a lot of people want to know my name. The “barista” at Starbucks. The guy behind the counter at Peet’s Coffee. “Can I have a name for that order?” he asks. I look around the place at 6:30 in the morning. I’m the only one there, but I give in and tell him my name. It’s just easier.

Boston is the city that had the fictional bar–Cheers–where everybody knew your name. I’ve been in the real-life counterpart of Cheers–the Bull & Finch Pub–and not only did no one besides my date know my name, nobody even asked. I prefer it that way.

Bull & Finch Pub: Actually, nobody knows your name there.


The problem is–my name. “Con” is rare in America, although fairly common in Ireland (Con Melody, an Irish immigrant to Boston, is the protagonist of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet”). “Con” rhymes with Jon, Don, Hans, John, Juan, Lon, Ron, Huan, Tom and Vaughn, among other first names, so giving my name to a barista usually sets off a back-and-forth worthy of a vaudeville comedy team–Con/Ron?/No, Con/Don?–until she finally gets it right. If she repeats the sound correctly, she usually says “Kahn–and your first name?” If I’m coming from the gym, my hair is often blown dry by the hot, impatient sighs of the people in line behind me.

Buster Crabbe in “Captain Gallant of the French Foreign Legion”


In English, “con” is both a noun and a verb. To America’s growing Spanish-speaking population, it’s a preposition. That’s three parts of speech I have to lug around with me every day.

Throw in the insults that can be concocted out of my name–con-man, ex-con, convict–and it adds up to a lifelong aversion to giving my name. Thinking back on the slings and arrows from the tongues of young smart-alecks that I suffered as a kid the other day reminded me of an old TV show of the fifties–Captain Gallant of the French Foreign Legion, starring Buster Crabbe–that inspired a solution to my problem.

“My name? Uh, you can call me ‘Aloysius’.”


The French Foreign Legion (Legion Etrangere) is an elite unit of the French Army that was originally made up of foreign volunteers, many of whom were criminals who joined to escape their former lives. Historically, a Legionnaire could choose a pseudonym–a “declared identity”–and thereby emerge from his service with all traces of his past erased. Nowadays, every one who applies to the Legion must change his name so that there is no stigma attached to those who want to start their lives over.

“I know you are lying you–you bad man, you!”


So every morning I now look the barista in the eye with a cool, detached gaze when she asks me what my name is, and I say simply–”X.” It sounds cool and somewhat menacing, like Malcolm X, or The X Files. I’m lying, of course. The barista knows it, I know she knows it, and she knows that I know that she knows it. We both begin to feel dizzy in this house-of-mirrors of consciousness/self-consciousness. There is a tense moment as she looks at me first with pitiless contempt before a touch of admiration at my decision to live a secret life begins to creep across her face.

The corner of her mouth turns up to form a narrow little smile, and she gives me a conspiratorial glance. “You want an extra shot of espresso with that?” she asks.

“Non, mon cherie,” I say. “But do you have any Sweet ‘n Low?”

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3 thoughts on “Join the French Foreign Legion of Coffee”

  1. I have a character in an unpublished YA mystery who I named Conway Quinn — Con for short. It never did quite fit him, and I ended up changing his name to Jack … but I still like Con for a first name.

  2. When I entered First Grade, I told my mother not to tell them at my new school that I had a nickname. I was to be just “Kathryn.” Why? The kids in my kindergarten class had teased me mercilessly over my nickname, Kitty. After the umpteenth time of hearing, “Here, Kitty Kitty Kitty,” getting mad and hearing the perpetrators laugh, I had had it! Of course, the kindergarten teacher did nothing to stop the teasing, or, at least, I couldn’t SEE her do anything about it if she did. I learned early in life that I had to fight my own battles.

    I will always be Kathy at Starbucks. 😉

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