Keeping the Home Fires Burning

How Immigrant Shopkeepers Teach Us to Act Naturally

In the aftermath of last Tuesday's tragedy, Manhattan was cordoned off from 14th Street southward, and official sources reported that all routes were closed and buildings were shut down in the area. Yet an informal survey Wednesday morning indicated that, between 14th and Houston streets, perhaps a third of the retail businesses remained open—often shorthanded, but still open. While chains like Starbucks and Banana Republic and Rite Aid were shuttered, small mom-and-pop stores, mainly run by immigrants, were open and doing a brisk business. The persistence of these familiar small-scale establishments in the face of the tragedy provided a welcome sense of normality to the residents who milled worriedly about in the streets, not to mention providing them with vittles and a chance to socialize.

Behind the glass counter at the Boss Café on Bleecker Street, the orderly tubs of sesame-studded falafel, tabouleh, chopped salad, and stuffed grape leaves contrast with the strange tension in the air outside, symbolized by the plume of smoke and ash still visible directly to the south. Just before noon, a line of customers has begun to assemble, attracted by the sight and smell of somersaulting rotisserie chickens. Proprietor Jamal Kayas has tacked a scrawled "Help Wanted" sign in the window, and he readily discusses his staffing problems in the wake of the disaster. "I live across the street, but most of my delivery guys come from Jersey and can't get here." He has a couple of assistants working in the store, and each has a harrowing account of long waits on inbound subway trains from Queens, ending in an overland trek from 34th Street. Jamal is glad to have them but laments, "If I can't make deliveries, I can't make any money."

All the police stations downtown are barricaded, and right next to the Hudson Street portal of the Sixth Precinct station on West 10th Street sits Woodland Grocery, a favorite retreat of cops for sandwiches and steaming cups of coffee. A woman in a jogging outfit rummages forlornly for milk in an empty cooler, and the shopkeeper, who will identify himself only by his nickname of Vick, recounts how he's carried loaves of bread and several cartons of milk from his home in Queens so he can at least make sandwiches and lighten coffee. He has no milk to sell, since delivery trucks are not allowed south of 14th Street. When there's a lull, he will send his assistant northward to search for luncheon meat, since critical supplies of baloney and salami are running out. I wait as the line recedes, and then ask him his feelings about the Trade Center attack.

St. Marks piercer and tattoo artist Arif ends his day early.
photo: Robert Sietsema
St. Marks piercer and tattoo artist Arif ends his day early.

"I came over here in 1982," he says, "and I've never seen anything like it. Back home in India, I never saw anything like that. I'm a Sikh from the Punjab, I'm not a Muslim. But everyone with dark skin has to be afraid. People who wear a turban are attacked. There's a rumor that a few cab drivers have already been pulled from their cars and killed." I press for more details, but he doesn't have any. He continues, "I've told my wife and son in Queens to stay inside. Don't leave the house." He makes another sale, asking the customer, "Are you old enough to buy those cigarettes?" then turns to me and says, "I usually have cabs lined up outside, I sell lots of things to cab drivers. Now there are none here. They're afraid to go outside."

It's not too surprising that convenience stores and cafés are open on this day, but as I wander down Bleecker a good number of the tourist stalls are open, too. At First Gift there's a hubbub, and as I crane my neck to see over the heads, I realize the crowd is thronging a metal rack of postcards. Those that feature the World Trade Center as the centerpiece of the downtown skyline are moving rapidly, and when I talk to the clerk, Kang In, she confides that she's running out of stock and doesn't expect the supply to hold out beyond this afternoon. She notes that WTC posters are going less quickly; it seems a postcard is the perfect commemoration of the way the city used to be.

At the cybercafé Escape, the proprietors are too busy to speak with me, and, anyway, the Korean clerk suggests that he doesn't know enough English to be interviewed. Patrons are lined up three deep to send Internet messages to loved ones assuring them that they're still alive. By noon, the streets are beginning to be mobbed, partly with people purposefully heading downtown to try to get back to their apartments, partly with strollers who, sprung from work, are enjoying an almost festive ramble. Parents are leading their children and carrying babies toward Houston Street, where a much more serious cordon weeds out people who don't have absolute proof they live south of there. I see people rummaging for electric bills in their pockets, anything that will prove they live further downtown as lines of skeptical Nassau County cops look on. The wind shifts, and a thin haze drifts north of Houston Street for the first time, bringing with it an acrid stench like burning plastic. Pedestrians pause to put handkerchiefs to their mouths and press onward.

The East Village has always provided a haven for devout Muslim shopkeepers, largely because of the Madina Masjid, a mosque, founded in 1976, that's located at the corner of First Avenue and East 11th Street. The blue minaret surmounted by the Muslim star and crescent has been the destination for lines of worshipers who approach from the north and south along First Avenue five times a day. On Wednesday, the mosque was ominously flanked by a pair of patrol cars, though the officers inside explained that they were there as a precautionary measure, and not in response to any particular threat. A zipper-type electronic sign was recently installed to broadcast religious slogans, but today the sign is dark. On a sheet of paper a note warns that the mosque will be closed until 5 p.m., and when I return at that time, instead of the usual lines, a single devout appears, deftly removes his shoes, and slips inside.

Many of the Muslim-identified businesses have been shut tight all day. Right next to the mosque, the Egyptian Sahara East is locked tight, while further down First Avenue, the halal Indonesian Borobodur Café hasn't been open since the previous afternoon. Most of the falafel stands are also closed. An exception is the strip of Indian restaurants along East 6th Street, mainly owned by Bangladeshi Muslims. But the shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and touts positioned along the street prove very difficult to interview. Understandably reticent to discuss their nationality or religion, they point me to the next restaurant in the row, saying, "They're Muslims in there." I finally gain an audience at Mitali East, the culinary anchor of the strip, where a conclave of waiters, cooks, owners, and busboys is proceeding deep inside the darkened restaurant. The only one who will consent to an interview is a young and well-spoken busboy with a slight fuzz on his upper lip, who doesn't want to give his name or have his picture taken. He observed police cars outside his own storefront mosque in Queens, but he says he was relieved, because he understood they were there to protect the mosque. As to any threat to the restaurants along 6th Street, he says, "No one knows we're Muslim, and if they do, they don't think we're from the Middle East. Those are the ones they're mad at."

Arif runs one of the piercing and tattoo stalls that have become fixtures on St. Marks Place. Late Wednesday afternoon he is carefully packing up his nose studs, navel rings, and tattoo needles in lengths of velvet and stowing them away. Though he doesn't want to discuss religion or nationality, he volunteers that he has never seen anything like the Trade Center disaster in his home country. I ask him if he is packing up early because he is afraid, and he grins wryly. "No, it's not that. It's just that no one has wanted to get pierced all day."

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