Amaan runs the gas station and convenience store on 12th Street. Every day, working people in trucks from the surrounding industrial area use Amaan’s pumps to fill their tanks. Diesel, regular, premium.
When I was working for an ornamental and structural construction firm in the bottoms, we pulled the trucks up in the morning for a fill up. The other guys called Amaan “Habib,” a generic term they used for any brown-skinned, Arabic-speaking person they did business with. We filled our insulated coffee cups at his machine inside. Some of the guys stocked up on energy drinks and chips for the day.
I came to know Amaan only slowly over the months I worked with the other ironworkers at the firm. Knowing that he had to have a name, I introduced myself. He was friendly. I noticed that whenever I went in, he had a good attitude, no matter who he had to deal with. Customers at the station ran the gamut of working and lower-class people. Homeless drifters and people on food stamps shopped at his store. Occasionally, someone who was a little crazy would make a ruckus. But Amaan handled them with respect and patience.
I came to admire the man. He was so steady. His face, while sometimes revealing frustration, more often beamed equanimity. He was a peace with his world. The shop provided for him and his family. (Several of his relatives worked there.) It gave him purpose, a way to serve others.
One day, I walked in and his cousin was dressed quite sharply in a double-breasted tunic, nice slacks, and dress shoes. I asked what the occasion was. Eid, he said, the holiday we celebrate after Ramadan. That night, I went to the store and bought up a bunch of high-end crackers and biscuits, along with expensive marmalade, preserves, and jellies. When I came back, Amaan was on duty. I gave him the sack of goods. For Eid, I told him. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to give gifts but take them from me.
“Gifts for Eid are always appropriate,” he said. He was so surprised when he looked in the bag that he came out from behind the bullet-proof glass and shook my hand for a long time.
It’s been years since I worked at the construction company. But every Ramadan, I take him a bag of goods. Since I am an infidel, I never really know when Eid is, what day it falls on. But I am smart enough to look up the month of Ramadan. The gifts, I told him once, are for when you break the fast this month. I have since found out that the evening meal, when Muslims break the fast they have kept since sunrise, is called Iftar. Iftar or Eid. It’s his choice.
He offers me free tobacco and pop. If I want a cup of coffee, all I have to do it take it. But I am not used to or comfortable getting things I don’t pay for. I did not give to him with the expectation that I’d receive anything back. Sometimes I stay away from the station for months. I don’t want him to give me things. I don’t want to have him feel ingratiated. I know it’s silly. He wants me to be happy too.
I don’t know Amaan as well as I should. We are both Americans but he is a world apart. He is a businessman and I sit in the basement and write books. He is up at dawn and stocking shelves while I’m still sleeping. He has told me some things over the years. He is from Pakistan and returns to visit family for three weeks every year. He and his family live in Kansas City, Kansas, and he goes to mosque nearby.
Sometimes I only see him once a year. It’s good enough. He makes me feel as if we have known each other well, like good friends, for years. He makes me feel good and giving him a little present every year allows me to think I am making someone welcome. I think about what I could use the money for. But we contribute to many charities. We give to a social service agency that feeds the homeless. I am bound by my own conscience to give alms to anyone that asks. So, I don’t feel as if I am spending my money other than where I should be spending it.
We live in a dangerous times. The atmosphere around the immigration issue has turned poisonous. Muslims, as a group, have taken center stage in a drama where only Mexicans are more distrusted and even hated. With a new president who does not hide his derision of minorities and immigrants, all sorts of people feel they have license to discriminate, berate, intimidate, and belittle.
Fortunately, not everyone feels this way, and those guys working in the bottoms still need gas and chips, coffee and energy drinks. Amaan’s is the most convenient place for them to get their goods, and when it comes to discrimination, most Americans are most likely to defer to their immediate needs rather than to their consciences. Plus, how do you approach a guy like Amaan and tell him out loud that he’s a not an American and wants to destroy the country? Most people, most bigots, don’t have the guts.
I missed Ramadan last year. I have not been to Amaan’s in a while. But I think of him often and curse myself for missing my annual duty. Every time is a good one for giving gifts. This year, I took him a bag of goodies on Inauguration Day.
Maybe showing kindness and thoughtfulness balances things in the universe a little. Maybe it makes me feel like I’m being one of the good white guys. Perhaps my gift gives me a feeling of magnanimity. Whatever it does, I feel better for it.
This year, I want to make my visits to Amaan’s more frequent. If I have a resolution, this is it. He needs to see my house and I need to meet his family. That will make things right in this universe.