In the summer of 2001 I was in a Starbucks in Duluth, GA - an "edge city" outside of Atlanta that sprung up around the mall. Our customers were an interesting crowd - I'd say native Georgians made up maybe 20% of them. The rest were a mix of wealthy businessmen from parts North and immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Some days, only half of my customers spoke English. I got to know many of them fairly well, the way a bartender gets to know his regulars. I'd spend breaks outside, debating with the table of Libertarians that never seemed to leave, or talking about Bob Dylan with other friendly customers. My manager was about the most transparently gay man in the state. I didn't like the company much, but I loved the environment.

There was one customer who came in enough that I had a name for him - a very business-like guy who never said anything but "Espresso. Dopio. To go."  Every conversation I had with him went just like this: "Hi." "Espresso. Dopio. To go." "$1.87....thanks."   Sometimes he'd nod and sort of grunt when I said "thanks." I called him "espresso dopio to go guy." 

Then, on 9/12, I looked at the photos on the front page of the newspaper and thought "wow, that guy looks just like 'Espresso, Dopio to Go."   Then I found out that the guy in question and one of the others had been living near Duluth, doing flight training or something. Then some of my co-workers started getting asked about the guy by the FBI...

When word of this got out, things got a bit weird.

There was a roll of flag stickers behind the counter that employees could wear, but I stopped wearing one after an hour or so. Too many customers saw the flag sticker and thought "now, here's a guy who will agree with me when I saw we need to be sending all the Arabs back where they came from!" 

Even without it, I got a handful of customers who thought they were Batman or something. One guy came in to show me a picture of the two guys and said "Have you seen these men?"

"Not lately, obviously," I said.

"I saw them at IHOP," he said. "And they had airplane blueprints. And I let them slip through my fingers!"

I almost laughed at the guy. What was he going to do - call the FBI and say he'd seen a couple of brown-looking guys who were into airplanes? That town was crawling with engineers, after all.

But at the same time, I understood him enough to sympathize with what must have been going on in his head. I knew I couldn't have possibly poisoned the guy or anything (though plenty of people told me I should have), but I did catch myself thinking stupid things, like "hey, I spent that whole summer reading The Satanic Verses...what if he saw me?" It was a weird time, and made us all think weird things. The plus side, for me, was that I'd charged the guy $1.87 for what had to be the worst espresso in town (they may have gotten better by now, but at the time the "automatic bars" at some Starbucks yielded weak, lousy shots).

Another guy was even worse. He came in and pointed out at the table full of middle eastern regulars. "You got a bunch of terrorists on your patio," he sneered. "I'm gonna go get their driver's licenses, so when they blow up a building I can tell the FBI I knew them."

"Sorry, man," I said. "We're not profiling against Arabs here. We are profiling against idiots, though, so you'll have to leave."

And I made him leave. It was probably the worst customer service I ever gave, and it's the proudest moment of my long career in retail.

I still wonder, looking back, if it was really even him. It was a time of hysteria and fear, and weird theories start to look like facts. All I really know is that I certainly never saw "espresso, dopio, to go" again.

So now, upwards of ten years later, Bin Laden is dead. I am tremendously relieved that the CIA/Navy Seals got him, not some bounty hunter who got his start going around asking baristas if they'd seen anything suspicious. I don't relish the death penalty, but I'm glad we don't have to sit through a trial and execution video. I'm glad it happened far enough from 2012 that people can't plausibly say it's an election stunt (even though I know they will). I'm glad that the news interrupted The Apprentice, because it's sure to lead to a new episode in my current obsession, which is watching Donald Trump make an ass of himself.

I just saw the President the other day. I heard he was flying into Chicago to film an episode of Oprah right after releasing his birth certificate, so I thought I'd go see the motorcade. I biked over to Harpo Studios (about four blocks from my apartment) and joined a small crowd who were waiting. I told WGN that releasing the birth certificate was probably Obama's attempt to help Trump get the nomination, since he'd be such an easy target in a general election. After an hour or so, the motorcarde drove by, and there was Obama, sitting in the back seat of the second car.  He appeared to be reading something.  From what we know, by then he had already given the order to raid that house in Pakistan. 

I don't know where I'm going with all this - I was going to maybe say that the celebrating in the streets makes me a bit uneasy, because it reminds me of those weird days in Duluth, somehow. Or that giving him an Islamic burial (or as close as they could get with no one to accept the body on short notice) was probably smart, but that I didn't believe he was really a Moslem - just a culture warrior besmirching the name of Islam to manipulate people. Terrorism is usually more about culture than religion if you get right down to it. But I guess I wanted to write this all out and let it get out of my head. I forgot some of it was there. Getting this guy won't bring anyone back, and I don't believe it really avenges anything, but it feels like letting all the air out of a balloon that's been floating around for too damned long.

1 comment:

Cassidy said...


Adam's New Book: Sept 2013