Who Wants To Be An Extremist?

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12/31/2006

W. 83rd St. & Columbus Ave., NY, NY 10024

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

I buy my morning paper from a little shop on the corner of West 83rd Street called the Columbus Avenue Food Corp. & Convenience Store.

When you walk in, standing behind the counter on your left is Shahid, a very sunny and trim Pakistani man in his 50s with a thinning salt-and-pepper comb-over and a wardrobe of fresh-pressed button-down shirts in various shades of sherbet, which Shahid ate a lot of growing up in Lahore. He came here in the 1960’s as a trained accountant, but back then native New Yorkers didn’t want an enterprising Pakistani doing their taxes. So he bought the shirts, then started buying and selling businesses, and this is his latest.

It’s a narrow store, basically an aisle with merchandise on either side: everything from dog food to scented candles, cookies, handballs, cigarettes, micro cassettes, even bananas; along with hard-core pornographic magazines, Lotto tickets, a refrigerator case full of beer and another refrigerator with fresh ham, for making sandwiches. None of which Shahid can afford to enjoy, even with a substantial wholesale discount.

Because Shahid, like most Pakistanis, is a practicing Muslim: he prays five times a day–at home, before and after work, and sometimes during work, at the mosque on 96th street, which he drives to when business is slow, leaving his partner to mind the store alone. And as Shahid will tell you, Muslims are forbidden to look at pornography, and to gamble and to drink alcohol and to eat pork. Which together, according to Shahid, represent about 25% of his business at the Columbus Avenue Food Corp. & Convenience Store. Adding up, in my secular mind, to a spiritual conundrum.

So one day, while buying my newspaper, I ask Shahid, very matter-of-factly, “Shahid, how can you be a Muslim and sell these things?”

Shahid smiles his wily smile, and says, “Who wants to be an extremist? We all know what they do.” And he looks over at a stack of New York dailies sitting on the floor, with pictures of the latest turmoil in the Middle East, which sit alongside racks of pornographic magazines covered in stickers that cover the open mouths and genitals of the cover girls, and in a few cases, aroused cover guys. “Show me a passage in the Bible where it’s okay to take your clothes off in front of a camera,” says Shahid. “All the religions are the same.”

Everyone, in other words, bends the rules. And those who don’t…well, they end up as suicide bombers or with stickers on their privates. While the rest of us try to make a living in the space between; this, evidently, is how Barely Legal, Boar’s Head, Budweiser, Powerball, and the Koran go together.

“So you don’t feel a split,” I ask Shahid, “between what you believe in and what you do for a living?”

This is a question I’ve struggled with for many years in my own life. I write speeches for pharmaceutical executives who work for corporations that make products I would never buy, and in many cases, think others shouldn’t buy either. Things like antihistamines and erectile dysfunction pills that often are only marginally better than placebos, or worse: they can mask underlying causes like a bad diet or a sedentary lifestyle that should probably not be masked, and require the often-painful deaths of thousands of laboratory animals to make it into the mouths of humans. Who give me the means to, among other things, buy my paper from Shahid. Hence, my secular spiritual conundrum: I don’t believe in what I do. Yet, I do it. It seems like a very vicious circle sometimes, and I want to know how Shahid has resolved it.

“This is America,” says Shahid. “The land of many people getting along.” The same observation, perhaps, that a Lexus dealer makes when he sees a 16-year-old boy walk in the showroom holding $50,000 in cash, looking to buy a new set of wheels.

“But what goes through your mind, Shahid, when you’re looking at those magazines?” I say. “Don’t you ever just want to sneak a peek?”

“It’s like an evil person,” says Shahid. “When you see them, you can’t let them in.” Not unlike what I say to myself every time I take input for a speech. “Now please excuse me,” he says. “I have to get back to work.”

Meaning, among other things, that as far as Shahid is concerned, perhaps I am evil. I am, after all, introducing thoughts that, were Shahid to let them influence his behavior, would shrink his business in a stroke by 25%—which is, in a word, Un-American. As President Wilson (or his speechwriter) remarked many years ago, the business of America is business, and you’ll go out of business the moment you think it isn’t. Which is why often times it pays not to think. Or maybe, you just need to be an immigrant to feel at home.

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