Back in Brooklyn I was a frequent customer at a local service station - it's one of the huge oil company stations, owned by the greedy weasels but managed by two of the loveliest gentlemen. I'm going to refer to them as Gent1 and Gent2.
They are both from Pakistan and until last night I had not spoken to them in almost two years. I first became friendly with them, especially Gent1, when I started stopping at the station late at night, on my way home from Manhattan, to fill up the car and get whatever groceries they carried in the little store. They each work 12 hour shifts. Gent1 always smiled and offered me bottled water or a soda. He'd laugh and say coffee would keep me awake. If I stopped in early in the morning Gent2 would offer me coffee and laugh and say I needed to stay awake for the drive to the city.
As I became a regular I would sit in the little store and chat with Gent1. For months I had been calling him Muhammad because the ignorant creature who filled the vending machines told me that was his name. It was one of the few times that my inner sense of people really failed me, it never occurred to me that this moron thought it was amusing to call all men from the Middle East Muhammad. When I finally realized my error I asked my friend why he had never corrected me and he laughed and told me he knew where the name had come from and it amused him to aggravate the idiot by not reacting, plus he liked the way I pronounced Muhammad.
We rarely talked about Pakistan - it pained him to think too much about his home and all the family he left there. Gent2 told me that it was an excruciating decision to leave so many behind. We talked about the weather and the neighborhood and we talked a lot about America. They were both so thrilled to be here, so grateful for every opportunity, so appreciative of being able to work - regardless of the long hours and low pay. We talked about the younger people in the neighborhood - their sense of entitlement, their selfishness, their lack of respect. We talked about how immigrants often have a far more genuine sense of what it means to be American than those born here do.
By the time September 11, 2001 came I had opened my office in the neighborhood. Being in NYC that day is so hard to describe - the disbelief, the fear, the heartbreak. I spent that morning calling around to make sure everyone I knew who worked at the towers was safe - I stood at my front window and watched the dust and debris blow in - from across the Narrows and through the streets of Brooklyn! I'll never forget that image. The afternoon was taken up by making sure my staff got home - mass transit wasn't operating much and they were too afraid to be down there anyway. I drove them home or to meet their parents at prearranged locations. We were all silent as we passed people coming home from Lower Manhattan - dazed, exhausted, covered in white dust.
It was evening by the time I decided to go home. The air was full of the smell of the burning pile. The fighter jets flew overhead - low and loud. They didn't make me feel any safer - they made me feel that the world had lost its mind. Huge military vehicles rumbled down my street on their way to the Belt Parkway and on to Lower Manhattan.
I stopped at the station to fill up the car. Both my friends were there - they had decided it was "safer" to be together. Safer!? I asked. Some young men had stopped by to threaten and taunt, the police weren't too interested and the owner was worried about his choice of managers. I couldn't come up with enough words for them - it was insane, absurd, ignorant. Gent1 quietly said "it's terror - at its strongest" - "it is what terror does, I'm very familiar with this"
We talked for awhile about the people we were worried about - not everyone had been accounted for. We watched the little TV with tears in our eyes. Blessedly more customers came by to say they were concerned, they had heard about the trouble, they wanted to make sure the Gents were OK.
"Musharraf and his thugs will take advantage of this" Gent2 said. "And I fear our President will not handle it properly" Gent1 added. Chilling words then and now.
All day yesterday I watched the coverage of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. I watched with a heavy heart the loss of a powerful woman in a part of the world where that is so rare and fleeting. I watched with unease as one more giant can of kerosene was dropped on the huge explosion that is the Middle East. I watched with frustration and embarrassment as our President mumbled his feeble words - glazed eyes shifting. He could barely hide his annoyance at having yet another Crawford vacation interrupted by a part of the world he'd rather just destroy.
I called the service station last night. I had to know how the Gents were. I asked for my friend - Gent1 - by his real name. When he got on the phone I was filled with relief that he was there and then I couldn't think of what to say. "You probably don't remember me" I stumbled. "I'm uh - Dianne - you know, the green car - we used to ..." I sounded like an idiot (or our President). "Hello Dianne! it's me, Muhammad" laughed the soft voice with the lovely accent. "How wonderful to hear from you, are you OK?" Am I OK!? "I'm fine, I've been watching the news, I was worried" - "Oh thank you!, yes, it is a terrible thing" He has not yet been able to reach his family - busy circuits, he believes they may have moved further away from the violence, he is resigned to not knowing for days. Gent2 went back to Pakistan months ago- his son was seriously injured in a riot. People say Americans did it but Gent1 says it was Blackwater soldiers. "Blackwater is American" I say. "No Dianne, not real Americans"
Gent1 promises to let me know when he contacts his family and I know he will - such a lovely man - gentle and kind and true to his word.
I haven't thought much of terror in a long time. I don't buy in to the fear created by the White House and fed to us by Fox News. But I thought of terror last night - the terror of being a world away from all you love and not knowing if they're OK. If my dear friend can remain calm then so will I. If he can continue to believe in "the real America" then so will I. And I will hope for change and I will use my vote very wisely come November.