A North star is guiding star, one that gives
directions to travelers in the dark of the night….
I have worked on the late shift at Rahman’s Market & Convenience Store ( My dad calls the store the Stop and Rob) for the last six years now. I started here in the 10th grade and have kept the job through college. We had a little trouble here and there, but it’s been pretty safe to work here, so far. Mr. Mohammad Rahman is a short, bald-headed, middle-aged man, with a great big gut, an immigrant from India. He is well liked by all the Black people in the neighborhood, I think mostly because he understands the nature of poor people. Most of our customers are teetering on the poverty line, with many of them on food stamps. There was a week when the food stamp cards were not working, and instead of turning food stamp customers away, he took IOU’s. I thought he might have had 8 or 10 thousand dollars out in the community. Many of them paid him back, a few did not, but no matter how they treated his generosity,he never changed his willingness to lend a helping hand. In fact, Mr. Rahman even gave me a job, after he caught me trying to steal a submarine hoagie out of his store.
I had gotten up late for school that morning, I had missed the school bus by three minutes, so it was either ride the city bus, or go back home and have my sleeping pissed off dad take me to class. Dad’s shift at Mannington Mills was on the night shift rotation that month. I was not up to waking the sleeping dragon that morning. I went by the market, on the way to the city bus stop on the boulevard. I went into the store, Mr. Rahman stood behind the counter talking that “Hindu” on the his phone. He acknowledged me as he continued to babble in his incomprehensible language. I walked by the snack cake rack and picked up a bear claw pastry, then headed by the cooler doors to get an orange juice. As I went by the glass door containing the fresh sandwiches, one of the hoagies called to me. It was if I heard its voice…… as clearly as you now hear mine.
The next thing I knew I was standing at the open glass door, rescuing it from the chilling air of the cooler. With the close of the door, I realized that I had only seven dollars. It would be two dollars for the bus ride and a transfer, even at student fare. The bear claw and the O.J. would be close to five, the submarine sandwich was 3.99 by itself. I heard my Dad’s booming voice in my head. “Put it back Herman Travon Putnam Jr.!” It started me, and as I reached for the door handle again, my eyes traveled back towards the counter where Mr. Rahman stood, his back was turned. He was engrossed in his conversation, his little bald head bounced as he talked. The ear bud gleamed next to his tanned skin. It had always seemed to me that when the Indians talked to each other, especially when they were two men talking, they were in an argument. I knew that they weren’t, because Mr. Rahman was laughing. I put the sandwich inside my coat, as I looked at his back. Thinking he would not miss this one, it was mostly pork anyway, they did not even touch the package of things made with pork. We bought some bacon once, and when it came time to ring it up, he asked my Mom the turn it over so he could scan the bar code, and gave her the bag to put it in. He handled pork as if he was handling dead human parts. I often wondered how he got it from the Wal-Mart to his store! I went on and got the orange juice and went to the counter to check out.
Mr. Rahman ended his call with a shalom, and rang my two items up. Locking eyes with me, he ask me if that will be all. “That’s it” I said as I pulled my money out. His next series of questions, raised a fright in me, though none of his words were threatening in any way. Still they stirred fear in me. “You are Herman Putnam’s son aren’t you?” I had no idea that he even knew my Dad by name. Let alone that I was his son. He had operated this store since we moved here ten years ago, and like the others shopkeepers and owners. At the end of the day, they closed up their stores and joined the caravan of Toyotas out of the neighborhood and back to wherever the Iranians go. Maybe even all the way back to Iran! I ‘d never thought he had ever had a conversation with his customers, outside the normal conduct of business. I didn’t imagine that they had any need to talk beyond that.
In response to his question, I answered slowly. ” Yeah, that’s my Dad.” Mr. Rahman held me in his gaze and asked me “Then why would you dishonor him in this fashion? Why would you damage your family’s honor by stealing a pig sandwich? In that moment, I knew that he had eyes in the back of that bald head. I was looking right at him when I slipped the hoagie into my coat. There was no way he could have seen me. That moment was worst than the day Mom walked in my room while I was jacking off. I thought I was a home alone, and don’t know how long she was standing there, as I was about to reach that magic moment, I heard her say “Oh my God” as she turned and went out of the room. She never said anything about it, but that incident would forever hang between us. Just like this moment would linger between me and Mr. Rahman. Mostly with me, I think Mr. Rahman forgot about it immediately. Mr. Rahman was not upset, just disappointed. Until that day, I had never been made to feel small, by a man, who was essentially a stranger to me. I felt lower than the family dog, who has just been caught on the dining room table. Eating the Thanksgiving feast, while the gathered family gives thanks in the adjacent room. That moment hung at the counter like a stinking fart in a small, hot, and crowded room. Mr. Rahman took a plastic bag and started putting my O.J. and pastry inside, he held the bag open waiting for me to pull the sandwich out of my coat. He scanned it, and totaled up the register. He took the receipt and had me sign it. “This will come out of your pay. When you get out of school today, you come back to clean this store. I will see your father later when he comes in for gas. I will ask him if it is okay for you to work. If you don’t show up, then there will be trouble for you!” I left Rahman’s Market and Convenience Store with a job, seven dollars and my first lesson in being an honorable man. I felt like a death row convict, that had been granted a last-minute reprieve.
As I am in my last year in college, I have entertained what I might be doing after graduation. Including an offer to manage a new store that Mr. Rahman is opening. I don’t want to seem unappreciative, Mr. R has done a lot for me. He saved me that day he caught me stealing from him, and instead of putting me in jail, he put me on the payroll. He stood on my neck to make me finish school, he helped me get a car, and he sat with my family during my high school graduation. He is a Grandfather and a Godfather all rolled into one. He always said that life is a precious gift, and it is never to be taken for granted. Every moment should be lived to pay homage to Allah. Just like my folks beat me over the head with the Bible, he beat me over the head with the Koran. And even though I am an atheist, I still gave them respect for their beliefs. Because they would all ask me, “Who am I, without God? What is the purpose of my life, if I wink from nothingness to life, then back to nothingness. What was the point?” These and other questions they would pose to me. I have never converted, but I learned to trust them in all their faiths in God. I met a man claiming to be the all-powerful deity once, wearing the guise of a dirty stinky old transient. He almost convinced me that there is….. something out there. Almost. That was a month before the robbery.
I was in Physics class when I got the news. The text had only said that Mr. R was injured, and that they had taken him to the hospital. I bolted from class and went straight to the emergency room at Central Presbyterian Hospital, the closest Trauma Center to the store. The E.R. was filled with police officers, I made my way through the swarm of detectives, to the Rahman family. Tanvir and Saifur were with their Mom, Mrs. Rahman. When the Indian surgeon came through the door, the expression on his face told me that the The Star of India was dead. Everyone else begin mourning at the announcement that Mr. Rahman had died, for everyone but me. I didn’t feel sadness….I felt anger. White hot anger.
The news cast replayed the video tape of the robbery over and over, for 36 hours straight. One of the robbery suspects was turned in by his family, the other was hold up in an abandoned house. With a growing mob of Blacks, Hispanics and Whites outside surrounding the house. The Swat team was called to extract him from the scene, for the suspect’s safety. He came out without resistance, handcuffed and in a Swat team vest and helmet. The news media continued to rebroadcast the details of the robbery/murder after both suspects were in custody. Some of the customers rumored that the altercation had begun earlier, over the fact that the defendants did not have I.D. to buy cigarettes. Even though one of them was over 18. Over the days and nights following the murder. I thought of Mr. Rahman’s concern for poor people and was always trying to help them out. I’d asked him why he took such a risk when the food stamp machine was broken, he took IOU’s from all those folks when he didn’t have to. My philosophy was “No money, no ticket!” If they don’t have the cash, then what did they come in the store for? This was not the Help Center! He explained it by telling of his boyhood back in India, and a child he befriended that was the son of one of the “dalits ” or servants that worked for them. He said that India still had a caste system, where people of one caste did not mix with other lower caste. Those of the lower caste were required to remove their shoes when walking on the grounds of a higher caste. It was much like the segregation practices of the United States up until the late 1960’s practiced by Whites on Blacks in the South. The dalits could build your house, but after it was built, they could no longer enter it because if they did, it would be considered unclean from then on. His family was not allowed to be touched by his dalits and certainly never play with their children. So, the friendship that should have never been, was formed anyway by Mr. Rahman and the dalit child Samir. A few months passed, with their friendship continuing to grow each day, Then one day Samir’s mother showed up without him. When Mohammad ask his father where the little dalits boy was. His father told him that his parents sold him, because they were poor and not able to feed all the children in their family. Which is still a practice done by the poor in India. Mohammad pleaded to his father to go get Samir and bring him back to their home. His father said that it was time that Mohammad learned to accept the facts of the world. There is a destiny for everyone, and some peoples are destined to be poor. A tiger will always be a tiger, and cannot decide one day that he wants to be a bird. Mohammad brood in sadness for Samir in the weeks that followed, and he decided that when he was a man, that he work try to help the poor whenever he could. He would be the first tiger, to become a bird.
Notes Mr. Rahman is murdered by two men during a robbery, initially because he would not sell them cigarettes without I.D.. My feelings about that, and the community reaction.