He is of late middle age. Dark hair salted with white and gray. Knuckles gnarled.
I found him when my car broke down and I called the American Automobile Association for a tow to a triple-A approved garage. They brought me to him.
He and his mechanic, a younger version of himself, worked on the car. The fee was reasonable. I drove away and broke down again a few miles later.
I called him bent on tearing into him for a job done poorly. Instead, I listened to an honest apology and a request that I give him another chance. It was a rare moment when I heard a foreign sound: the sound of quiet pride and integrity and a genuine desire to set things right. Not something you hear often. Not something you forget soon.
I was towed back for round two.
He did more work, presenting me a bill for $11.00…the cost of the part I needed. No charge for hours of labor. No excuses or arguments.
When all was done and settled, I waited in the small, shabby foyer for my car to be brought around to the parking lot.
A woman burst through the front door. Red-faced. Fuming. Shrill and Ugly-with-a-capitol-U; the kind that has nothing to do with physical appearance, but stems from a much deeper source.
“Get out of our country!” She screamed. “We hate you! There is no place for you here! I called the police and they’ll lock you away!!”
Both the owner and I stared at her in shock. I think his English deserted him, so I asked in a quiet, unsure voice, “What’s wrong?”
“This!!” She shouted, shoving an invoice under my nose. It took me a while to find what she meant at the tip of her shaking, pointing finger. A math error. The mechanic had added incorrectly.
A $1.25 mistake.
I stared at her, speechless before such extreme overreaction as she continued to harangue the man frozen behind the counter. Sure enough, a police officer showed up, giving that once-over, wary scan of the situation that they do, seeing a livid, prancing woman, a statue of a shocked and frightened man, and me.
The woman repeated her performance, brandishing the invoice at the cop. He read it through. His brows rose. “You said someone robbed you, Ma’am.” He handed back her receipt.
“He did! He did!” She pointed, jittering with venom. “He’s a thief! A liar! He’s from Iran!!”
The owner found his voice and began to apologize. “I’m sorry…”
“You will be!” the woman shrieked.
“Ma’am, I think there’s been a mistake, but this isn’t robbery.” The calm words of the officer had the opposite effect of what he’d hoped.
With a strangled cry of rage, she slammed out of the shop, unaware the owner had opened the register and was holding a handful of cash, apparently refunding her entire bill. We watched her lumber into a decrepit van held together by duct tape and rust and careen out of the parking lot.
The officer took his leave.
The owner put the money back in the register and closed it. He came out from behind the counter and took a seat across from me. Hands trembling. Eyes full.
“I am from Persia.” His voice shook with the aftermath of fear and shock. “I leave my country because they try to kill us. They try to kill us all. I come here.” He gestures with one work-hardened hand, encompassing the whole of his establishment. “I make this for my son.” His eyes finally overflow.
“Persia is beautiful country. And Persian people are so kind. But…Them…” His lips press into a thin line and he shakes his head. Words have deserted him again.
I offer him a sad approximation of a smile.
“I like your cats,” I say.
He blinks. Then, tears still tracking downward, he gives a ragged laugh.
I hope he knows that every country has a ‘They.’ But it’s not everyone. And today it’s not him… and it’s not me.
We’re just us.