the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Starbucks Napkin

I was in the parking lot of an LA Starbucks, having just pulled in, but unwilling to leave the car until the song that was playing on the radio had finished, which is a personal ritual of sorts.

It was Kelly Clarkson singing.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter
Footsteps even lighter
Doesn’t mean I’m over cause you’re gone
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger
Just me, myself and I”

In the side mirror, I saw a businessman leaving the coffee shop and wiping his hand with a crinkled Starbucks paper napkin.  When he reached his grey sedan directly behind mine, he tossed the napkin on the pavement, and twisted his foot on top of the innocent paper napkin, grinding it as if it were the remains of a tossed cigarette butt, or the grave of a hated nemesis.

This action struck me as violent.  Ultra-violent.   Especially since the only expression on his face was coldness.  This was not just littering.  This was not carelessness.   This was a statement.  This was a hate crime.

I’m not a hero. I run from trouble.  But as Kelly Clarkson sang “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I stepped out of my car, not thinking through the consequences.  I walked towards the predator.    Kelly continued to sing.   I heard the refrain in the background; I left my door ajar, the keys inside, the engine running.

As I write this down, moments after the incident, I am aware that I want your approval. Why else would I tell you this uninteresting tale? I want you to say, “Good job, Neil.”  But this was not the case at the moment I approached the businessman’s gray sedan.   I was acting illogically, quixotic, as if this napkin, this foot movement, all Kelly’s song were pushing me to the wall and asking, “Let’s see what you do, motherfucker?”

The businessman gave me a “I don’t take shit” look groomed from years in the steely boardroom.  He had just turned on his ignition, and the idling of both of cars made the parking lot pavement float up as hot dust.  I stopped in my tracks, and we faced each other in silence, like gunmen at the OK Corral.

My arm rose slowly, and my index finger extended into a point leading to the dirty Starbacks napkin lying lifelessly on the black gravel.  I had spoken.  And he understood.

His stare grew intense.  If the eyes are the windows of a person’s soul, this businessman lived within a ring of fire.  His soul was an old one, one that had been reincarnating time and time again for his numerous sins.  He had seen it all — death, plague, the raping and pillaging of entire towns.   I was a mere child in comparison, but one with a simple message, “You left your Starbucks napkin on the floor.”

He hated me, despised me like a thousand flaming suns.  But he would never win against simplicity.  He opened the door, picked up his Starbucks napkin, and drove off into the California sunset.



  1. kenju

    Good for you!

  2. Y

    bad ass.

  3. tiff

    way to go, Neil.

  4. Suebob

    This is like a Samurai movie.

  5. Jana A (@jana0926)

    So awesome. You, not him. He’s a douche for trying to litter. Especially for trying to angrily litter.

  6. Seth

    Maybe you raised his consciousness a little too.

  7. Karen

    Thanks, I needed a stand-up-to-bad-behavior story today. This one made me like you even more.

  8. Michelle

    Don’t mess with you Neil!

  9. Deborah ~ Westlander Poetry

    Did you ever know that you’re my hero,
    and everything I would like to be?

  10. Amie aka @mammaLoves

    Score one for us little guys!

  11. GeekandJock

    Nerves of steel, Neil.

    It would have certainly taken some guts to get the guy to fess up. The relationship between you (the lone gunman) and dude in the car must have been pretty darn tense.

    Kudos to you, mate.

  12. Lisse

    Even when it’s not funny, I enjoy the way you write.

  13. Irish Gumbo

    Fighting the power, one napkin at a time!

  14. The Honourable Husband

    The business world is full of old souls. Cynical, world-weary, and struggling to learn the lessons that will elevate them to the next plane. Young souls with open minds make far more progress, and don’t clog up the planet with repeat visits. How can souls be so old and so unwise?

    Not that I believe in that sort of thing.

  15. Megan

    You da man.

  16. magpie

    You, my dear, need a superhero cape.

  17. nk

    Good on you, Neil! I hate to see folks do that kinda stuff and am happy you had the nerve to cal lhim ou ton it.

    Just curious, though: How did you know he was a “businessman” and what specifically is your definition of who qualifies as a “businessman”?

    • Neil

      Maybe he wasn’t. But he was wearing a shirt and tie. So made assumption. And had professional look. The hair. The car. The shoes.

      • No

        Thanks for the reply, Neil. In my experience that describes a mid-level govt bureaucrat as much as it does a business person. I think the whole concept of businessperson is very vague anyway, especially in this day of rampant freelancing when many of us exist as our own “businesses.” I know that you wouldn’t do this, but i find the whole “businessman”archetype most typically deployed by lazy writers who want to set up a Scooby doo-level clinched villain for bashing and hating.

        • Neil

          I’m glad you are being honest. I like that. And I absolutely agree with you. I was completely lazy. It is probably one of my weakest skills in writing — description of character. I tend to go for the easy stereotype. I think screenwriting has only worsened this tendency. I wonder if this story would have been better if I made this “villain” into something more specific. Thanks. Love writing criticism.

  18. Cathy in Missouri

    Springs to mind a quote re: Vice Admiral William McRaven:

    “…physically tough, compassionate, and can drive a knife through your ribs in a nanosecond.”

    You got out of the car. You did it. You lived the message.

    Parking Lot Hero!


    Cathy in Missouri

    P.S. Appreciating the “Scooby doo-level clinched villain” thread…still, I admit to relishing raw showdown. I needed him to be Bad. And you to be Good. Shading would have muddied the waters – which makes me a lazy (but happy) reader. 🙂

  19. denise

    Kelly Clarkson, huh?

  20. wendy

    Yay. Admiration.

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