(One of) The Most Interesting Men in the World
“What is all this?”
The question startled me as I stood staring at the shelves laden with wildly overpriced ground coffee.
“This?”, I asked the dapper looking elderly gentleman standing before me.
“Yes”, he replied his accent very thick, but I was unable to tell just where he was from though it sounded Middle Eastern to my untrained ear.
“Coffee. Overpriced coffee.” I said, smiling, and thinking he’d move along I went back to looking at labels.
Lately, I’ve tried to pay attention to what I buy and attempt to buy things labeled “Fair Trade” whenever possible. I know tea, coffee, and chocolate are just some of the products popular for this practice and I do my best to help support local farming in my small ways.
“Oh, yes. Everything. Everything, it costs so much nowadays!” he exclaimed, and it became apparent he wanted to talk to this stranger he’d just met in the coffee aisle of our small town grocery store.
I smiled at him, “That’s the truth, for sure.”
“Why, I can remember when you could fill your shopping basket with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and milk and spend $25 or $30!”
I, too, remember those days and nodded in agreement.
“Nowadays, it’s $300-$400 to feed a family fresh foods!”
He ended every statement with hand gestures, sometimes throwing both up in the air, sometimes clapping them together.
He was adorable.
“Where are you from?” I asked, intrigued by this gentleman.
“Palestine.”, he answered, “and when I came here, America it was heaven!” This last statement was punctuated by both arms going straight up to the sky as his eyes misted over.
I felt the catch in my throat.
Why don’t all people born and raised here feel that way?
“Yes, when I came here I came to Chicago and I could not believe the people…OH! They were all so wonderful. Now, not so much. I do not even know my neighbors, and I know people are busy, but it seems all of America is different now.”
I touched his arm and said gently, “Not all of America. Not you, right? And you are American, aren’t you?”
The misty-eyed man clasped his hands in front of his face and said, “Baby, you are America, too. And I love you!”
We both giggled.
He proceeded to tell me that he’d come to America in 1966 as a single 33-yr. old. He worked two jobs at first to help support his family left behind in Palestine. He had been a diesel and farm equipment mechanic all his life. He married a Palestinian woman, and had a son and two daughters.
His brothers, one a chemist, one a lawyer, followed him from Palestine in the early 70’s and eventually they brought their mother here, but after a couple of years she got lonely for the old country and went back home. She had passed away not long after returning to her homeland.
“Oh, but the British! They stab us after World War II,” he railed, his face darkening “they told us we would have a homeland after the war was over. That we must be patient, but they lied and stabbed us. And the Americans could do little. I blame all of Europe.”
“All of Europe?” I smiled and his face softened.
“Not everyone, but we should have the homeland.”
I know little of the Palestinian struggles, but when he told me that it was much like the story of Native Americans I understood a little more.
“Yes, we welcome the Europeans, the Jews, all of them. We share our land, we teach them to farm, and they kick us out.”
I stood there, watching a man in his early 80’s, almost 75 years removed from the perceived betrayal, and his passion and fire were palpable.
It dawned on me that challenges in the Middle East stem from hurts and betrayals that span centuries, and are so entangled it is impossible to completely understand, or remedy.
“So, you came to America.” I said, trying to steer him away from the dark corner he huddled in.
He smiled brightly, “Yes, yes I did and I love America. I love it more than Americans.”
You got that right, sigh…
“Well, not all Americans,” I countered, feeling a little defensive despite basically agreeing with him.
“No, not all. There’s you, baby. And you have renewed my hope.”
“I’m not alone, you might be surprised.”
“I hope so, baby, I think you have shown me something. But everyone is so busy, I do not even know my neighbors.”
“That’s true. We’re all so busy anymore.”
We spoke of front porches, and neighbors who watched out for each other’s kids, and times when there wasn’t a new fear around every corner.
Then, the conversation turned back to prices and wages.
“It is not fair, the wages down here.” He said, as he held his hand, palm down, about two feet off the floor, “and the prices way up here.” He said, holding his other hand high up over his head. “It is not fair.”
“I agree, but it is a price we pay for our free market system.”
“Aaah! In the old country, a strong leader would say LOWER THESE PRICES, and it would be done!” He pointed after every word for emphasis.
“Yes, but that’s not the way it’s done here. That is not our system of government; it is not in our Constitution.”
“Yes, well maybe a strong leader. Mr. Obama, he tried, but the Congress, they tell him NO! But, he is not strong.”
I couldn’t argue that point, nor disagree with it.
“It wouldn’t matter, it’s not our way of life. Isn’t that why you came here in the first place? So you could do anything you wanted, be anything you wanted? Make your fortune?”
He beamed, “Yes, yes I did. But, it hurts my heart to see my children and grandchildren struggle so.”
“Me too,” I said, “but remember, they too can make their fortunes and be anything they want. This is America.”
He grabbed my arms with his amazingly strong hands, and planted six kisses on each cheek.
“You, you are America and I love you baby!” He said, the tears really welling up now..in both of our eyes.
“Thank you, sir. Now be sure to instill a sense of history in those grandkids while you can. You are a walking history book, and they must learn from you.”
“I will, baby, I will.”
“It was so good to meet you.” I said, as I began to walk away, “maybe we will meet again.” (a distinct possibility, as this is a small town).
“I hope so, baby, I do. Have a wonderful day.”
And then, he was gone, walking spryly down the aisle and I stood there trying to catch my breath for a moment.
What a rare privilege I’d just been given! Had I served him well? Had I made a good impression for my fellow Americans?
I hoped so, because I was certain that Charlie had done the same for his fellow Palestinians.