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Ahab at Starbucks

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Whenever it was a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I would drop by Mr. Starbuck's for a steaming double-cupped grande vanilla latte with extra foam. Our industrious First Mate made a habit of buying coffee from local growers in whatever far-flung lands The Pequod made port -- from Brazil to Peru, from Sumatra to New Guinea -- hand-selecting beans at the peak of their ripeness and flavor. He would double-roast them in the same vats we used to render oil from whale flesh, then grind and blend them into full-bodied brews that bore aromatic hints of tropical flora and blubber. His potables were quite popular among the crew; in particular, I found his Spermicetti Breakfast Blend to have a dark, robust flavor that was more palatable then it sounds.

Such shipboard entrepreneurial enterprises were not unusual among seamen of the day. Many an evening Queequeg and I took our supper at the berth of Popeye, a sailor whose fried chicken and biscuits were counted a bargain; and Long John Silver was said to serve up a hearty batch of popcorn shrimp and hushpuppies for a reasonable price.

Captain Ahab was not known to visit Starbuck's often, nor to partake of his offerings. The Captain kept to his cabin and preferred the consumption of grog to coffee drinks. He was thought to consume the former in such prodigious quantities that it was common for members of the crew to jest that Ahab must have a hollow leg. This witticism was one of the few sources of mirth aboard The Pequod, the other being the assertion that the Captain's wife was named Peg.

One evening a cohort of the crew was gathered at Starbuck's, sipping their drinks and staring at their laptops (where they were carving scrimshaw). Outside in the passage we heard the approach of Ahab's familiar measured tread -- clip-clop...clip-clop... clip-clop. In he limped, a scarred, brooding figure, whose powerful chilling effect on the men was diluted somewhat when his ivory leg became momentarily stuck in a knothole. So fearsome was his countenance that none dared snigger at his predicament.

As Ahab hobbled further into the cabin Mr. Starbuck called out to a waiting seaman, "Here's your white mocha, Dick!" The Captain, who counted poor hearing among his sundry afflictions, misconstrued Starbuck's cry for an alarm that Moby Dick had been sighted. He became violently agitated and barked a confusion of orders at the men -- "In stunsails! Down top-gallants! Stand by boats! Over the side! Larboard! Starboard! Prepare to dive! Luff a point! Hoist the mizzen! Flush the heads!" Soon The Pequod was sailing in figure eights. It was some time before the Mate could convince Captain and crew that Moby Dick was not in the immediate neighborhood.

The White Whale was the object and focus of Ahab's vengeful wrath, but in truth his hatred extended to all cetaceans, no matter their shape, size or species. Some months earlier, on the occasion of Ahab's birthday, the Fourth Mate, Mr. Carvel, had surprised the Captain with his playfully configured comestible Fudgie the Whale. The Captain instinctively snatched up a harpoon and drove the iron straight through the frozen confection. To save face, he then ordered us to take it below and boil it down for the marzipan.

"I would speak with ye, Mr. Starbuck," said Ahab.

"Aye, sir," said Starbuck. "But first, might I get thee a cup of joe?"

"If ye must," growled the Captain. Starbuck then pressed him for his preferences, employing the arcane lexicon of his avocation as if he were a medieval alchemist. The captain grew increasingly perturbed as the First Mate wielded cryptic words such as grande, venti, trenta, and frappuccino.

"Damn it, man!" thundered Ahab. "Are ye speaking in tongues?"

"I'll just give thee a latte," said Starbuck, and set about preparing the captain's libation.

"I wish to speak again of Moby Dick," said Ahab.

"Thou knowest my feelings in the matter," said Starbuck. "'Tis blasphemous to seek vengeance on a dumb brute. I have told thee this before."

"Hark ye," cried Ahab, "I strike at the inscrutable malice behind the White Whale! All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks--"

"Speaking of pasteboard, Captain, here's a little sleeve for thy cup, that thou wilt not burn thy fingers."

"Hmm? -- er, thank ye," said the Captain, accepting the cup from Mr. Starbuck. As he raised the brew to his lips, Starbuck said, "That will be $4.86," which caused Ahab to spew foam like a typhoon straight into the First Mate's face.

"Mr. Starbuck," said Ahab, his brow darkening like thunderheads on the horizon, "I would sail round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I'd pay five dollars for a cup of coffee!!"

"'Tis the customary price," said Starbuck firmly, "the same for Captain and seaman alike."

"Blast!" cried Ahab, and swearing oaths that were terrible to hear, he checked all his pockets and looked inside his lone shoe and the band of his Quaker hat, but came up empty. Then his stern visage brightened and he snapped his fingers. "There's a gold doubloon nailed to the mast!" he cried. He scurried out to fetch the coin as quickly as his mismatched legs would carry him, and we listened to his staccato steps sounding twice as fast as when he entered -- clipclopclipclopclipclop -- which faded as he mounted to the upper deck.

I immediately took out some foolscap and a quill and began this account of all that had transpired. Mr. Starbuck stood over me and inquired about my labors.

"'Tis a book," I told him, "a full account of our voyage."

"That's grand, lad," said he. "Perhaps when ye publish it, I could make it available right here. Folk like something to read with their coffee. Have ye a title for it?"

"I think I shall call it A Long Way Gone."

"That's a fine title for a whaling man's book," said he. "We'll make it a Starbuck's Book Pick!"

"Call me Ishmael Beah," said I.