Petrolandia – The Arab
The morning rush started at five-thirty every weekday.
Coffee had to be made and cycled by then. We had eight coffee dispensers, four upfront and four to play back-up, and an old hot chocolate machine that had to be cleaned every night. By the time five-thirty rolled around, all eight coffee dispensers had to be full and ready to go. Whenever there was as spare moment I’d duck over and swap out empties and take them to be refilled.
It was a rush for me as well as the people going to work – they to get their things, pay for it and get out. Me, to get them their things, keep the coffee fresh and flowing, and to make change. It was harrowing for all involved until about six, when Jon would show up and handle coffee while setting up the carwash and running the accounting, and then at seven when the morning shift arrived.
Every week day between six-thirty and seven a well-dressed aging Arabian man would walk in. He would go and make himself a small black coffee ($1.50), put a two dollar coin on the table, and leave. The blend was always the same – Columbian – and he always smiled, waved, and never grabbed anything else.
I never knew his name and he never deviated from this action.
Monday to Friday, every day for four years.
In the early days I brought it up with Sandor.
“Yeah, we don’t know,” Sandor admitted. “He’s nice enough. I’ve chatted with him a few times – he works downtown and lives up the street, but he’s got a routine down.”
“What do you want done with the fifty cents change he never takes?”
“Keep it. Hell, keep the toonie. Jon doesn’t mind.”
“Cool. Does he have a name?”
“Probably. He never gives it. We just call him the Arab.”
And so it went. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.
There was a holiday that came up and he happened to come in. No morning rush to cater to, but the Arab showed up all the same. He made his coffee, put his coin down, and paused.
“What are you working on?” he asked. He had a slight accent but his words were crisp, his eyes clear. Paused as he was, I could see that his suit was tailored, a deep blue that played well with his skin tone, a slight hint of a subtle cologne wafting over the table.
“A book,” I answered, glancing up from my laptop. He smiled at me, nodded.
“You’re a writer?”
“I was,” I shrugged. “I hope to be again.”
“Of everyone here, you make the best coffee.”
“Thanks,” I said, then paused and extended my hand. “I’m-”
“A good coffee maker,” he said, taking my hand and shaking it. There was a slight glimmer in his eye. “I know names are freely given in this country, but among my people we reserve them only for friends.”
“Ah,” I said.
“I call you the morning guy,” he smiled. “I know you lot call me the Arab.”
“You’re alright with that?” I asked.
“I am,” he chuckled softly. “What are you writing about?”
We talked a bit more, the conversation lasting no more than four or five minutes. He worked for a law firm downtown, doing foreign exports and immigration, laughing about how one side of his job was for the living and the other was for the non-living, but they were otherwise the same.
“People get so wrapped up in things,” he said. “It’s people that matter.”
I agreed. How could I not?
He made a point of stopping in every time there was a holiday after that, spending a few minutes just talking. There was no sense of loneliness to him, just a great love of the people around him and a curiosity of their lives. He spoke with Sandor, with Eli, with me. Always polite and insightful.
Not everything at the gas station was a horror show, and it’s important to know that.