He hitches his cart, which is about seven feet high and seven feet long, to his car and heads for midtown Manhattan. He has been working for two hours or so, and it is not yet dawn. He arrives at the corner he ownshe pays the city an annual fee for exclusive use of a few feet of sidewalksets up his cart adjacent to a subway stop, and then moves his car to a parking garage across the street. The garage guys charge him $15 for the six hours he’ll need the space. That’s not a bad deal for the Upper East Side. Of course, Mohammed gives them some rolls and donuts free of charge.
He is open for business by 5 a.m. It is always dark at that hour, but the winter, of course, is cruelest. Mohammed’s cart is shiny and new, but it’s still just a cold, metal cart, with an opening in the front so customers can order, give him their money and carry away their breakfast. In a few months, he’ll keep a battery-operated heater in the cart, but even then, he’ll wear a couple of layers under his coat.
By the time I get to Mohammed’s cart at about 10 o’clock, the rush of breakfast-eaters is over. I’m one of his last customers, although he stays open until 11, feeding the stragglers. He gives me two sacks of donuts and bagels for free, saying that they’ll go to waste if I don’t take them. By 10 o’clock, Mohammed usually has cleared about $100 for the day. That’s his bottom line; after he makes his $100, he starts giving away his leftovers, to me, to some homeless people, to other favorite customers. (For the record, let me point out that I share my bounty with my colleagues, even if my waistline suggests otherwise.)
On Sept. 11, 2001, I emerged from the subway at my usual time, vaguely aware that something had happened at the World Trade Center. Mohammed gave me all the terrible details as I ordered my coffee.
You watch, he said. We will be the ones who pay the price.
Mohammed is an immigrant from Egypt. He is a Muslim. He also is an American citizen, and has been living here for nearly a quarter-century. He is very much today’s equivalent of the immigrant romanticized in our Ellis Island narrative. He reads the New York tabloids. He keeps up on New York and American culture. He follows politics closelymore closely than most native-born Americans I know.
I once overheard a fascinating conversation between Mohammed and his dentist, who works in the neighborhood. His dentist is Jewish, and they were talking about Jerusalem. They disagreed, but pleasantly, and the dentist promised that they would go out to lunch one day soon to talk some more. As the dentist walked away, Mohammed looked at me and laughed, as if to say: where else but in midtown Manhattan could a Jew and a Muslim talk with such civility about the Middle East?
Mohammed didn’t show up for work in the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center. When Mohammed doesn’t work, he doesn’t make money, and he and his family suffer. He was frightened, he admitted. The thing that worries me, he later said, is that people will look at me and think I’m an animal. People don’t understand that Muslims don’t believe in murder. I came to this country 23 years ago, and I’m just trying to make a living and help my family.
He finally showed up, warily, on Monday, Sept. 17. He had taped a paper U.S. flag to his cart, not to appease his customers or fend off those who might wish him harm, but because he is as American as any of us. And he grieves not for us, but with us, because he is one of us.
It’s inevitable that police and federal agents will be watching Arab-Americans in the coming weeks. And, sadly, it must be said that they have no choice, for there may be more terrorists in our midst.
Still, it’s important that we remember stories like Mohammed’s, and that we bear in mind that most Arab immigrants came here for the same reason that the Irish and Italians and Jews and Poles and everybody else set sail for America decades ago.
After Mohammed told me about his fears, I was able to give him no small bit of reassurance. Don’t worry, I said. After all, you live in New York.
He smiled. He has great teeth. I really ought to get his dentist’s phone number.