Shortage of Interpreters Leaves Starbucks Refugees Stranded | HumorOutcasts

Shortage of Interpreters Leaves Starbucks Refugees Stranded

April 5, 2019

RICHMOND, Virginia.  The airport here is relatively small by comparison to those located in larger cities, but for many travelers that’s one of its attractions.  “The lines are short, it’s clean, and the parking isn’t bad,” says Mindy Kavanaugh, a sales representative for International Tchotchkes.  “The one thing it doesn’t have is a Starbucks,” she says as she purses her lips in disapproval.  “I need bitter-tasting coffee to wake me up in the morning if I’m going to make six sales calls on mom-and-pop gift shops by cocktail time.”

While others have learned to make do by frequent usage of the limited dining options here, others are not so savvy, leading to confusion and embarrassment when regular Starbucks patrons are forced to use English as a second language to order their drinks.

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Starbucks.”


“What’ll ya have, sweetheart,” barista Elvira Smuthers asks as New Yorker Lisa Curtwein steps to the cash register after making her way to the front of a line that snakes out as far as the cream-and-sugar station at Caribou Coffee across the concourse.

“Venti Macchiato,” Curtwein says, then looks back down at her phone to see if her cat sitter has been able to lure Fluffernutter, her orange tabby, out from under her bed at home.

“Excusez-moi?” Smuthers asks, not understanding the espresso-Esperanto that employees and patrons of the Seattle-based chain use to appear worldly or something.

“Ven-ti Ma-chi-a-to,” Curtwein repeats in a slow cadence, as if speaking to a child, a foreigner, or a slightly dim-witted relation from what she calls “flyover country.”

Smuthers rolls her eyes, then signals to a Transportation Safety Agency employee for help.  “Do we have any coffee interpreters?” she asks, as customers in line behind the Manhattan resident begin to fume.

“I’m afraid not,” says Floyd Urselback.  “What with the government shutdown, they never hired a lot of those people to come back.”

“He speaks Starbucks.”  “No, SHE does.”


Exasperated, Smuthers asks customers who aren’t distracted by their phones to help.  “Excuse me, does anybody here speak Starbucks?” she shouts.

“Feliz Navidad,” says Mike Adamle, an auditor for a regional accounting firm here for a client site visit.  “Piso mojado frijole enchilada, por favor.”

“Great,” Smuthers says.  “Can you help this woman here, a lot of these people are going to miss their flights.”

Adamle confers with Curtwein, and determines that what she wants is a large espresso drink with a small amount of milk, and he conveys this request to Smuthers.

“Well why didn’t you say so, sweetheart,” the barista says with characteristic Southern hospitality.  “I woulda fixed you right up.”

“If you want your latte WITH foam, line up on the right.”


International relief agencies say they are ill-equipped to handle the crush of Starbucks patrons who flood out of urban areas on their way to weekend getaways, college campus visits, and sporting events, burdening untrained counter help with demands for drinks that never existed until imagined by Starbucks marketing executives.  “What the hell is a ‘Matcha Latte,’” says Refugee International spokesman Floyd Shima.  “And ‘Frappucino’ sounds like a Providence, Rhode Island-based organized crime family.”

Smuthers eventually produces a reasonable facsimile of Curtwein’s favorite drink, and the frazzled traveler moves off to add an artificial sweetener to it to the muttered exclamations of thanks from those who have been waiting behind her.  “I don’t know what it is with these people,” says Eugene Ushu, a claims adjuster from Charlottesville who shakes his head as he watches her go.  “They think they can come in here like Julius Caesar and make us start using Roman numerals or something.”

Con Chapman

I'm a Boston-area writer, author of The Year of the Gerbil, a history of the 1978 Red Sox-Yankees pennant race, and 50 books of humor including "Scooter & Skipper Blow Things Up!" by HumorOutcasts Press. My work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor and The Boston Globe among print outlets. "Rabbit's Blues," my biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington's long-time alto sax player, will be published by Oxford University Press in September.

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