Divided Feast: How a high-end consumer's paradise is redrawing the lines in a formerly low-rent neighborhood
April 1, 2001
Cecilia Crawford had never heard of the luxurious organic grocer Fresh Fields until one came to her neighborhood. Unemployed and 28, she was like most of the others who filled out job applications. They were Giant people, or Shoppers Food Warehouse people, or corner market people.
The new Fresh Fields near Logan Circle was spectacular: a 61,000-square-foot cathedral that cast its auric glow over P Street NW.
But in this neighborhood? This neighborhood was more Popeyes and bulletproof windows, arroz con leche and $3.29 fried whiting in greasy carry-out joints that played “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” on scratchy AM radio.
All Cecilia knew was that she could earn $7 an hour at a job that didn’t require a bus ride. She tied on her new Fresh Fields smock and her knockoff lunar Nikes, and took her place at the end of a cash register bagging groceries. Doe-eyed and maple-skinned, smiling that beguiling smile, even though most of the items moving toward her on the conveyor belt were mysteries.
A jar of green paste with a turtle on the lid for $4.99. A ball of white something floating in milky liquid for $10.62.
Occasionally, one of the cashiers would turn to a customer, holding up a bunch of leafy greens. “What’s this?”
“Just plain kale.”
After a while, Cecilia stopped looking at the register to see how much things cost, and she stuck to sacking. The five-pound bag of Pleasant Morning Buzz coffee beans went next to the Pilsner Urquell on the bottom, then the octopus salad, the fresh mozzarella, then two avocados, then fresh basil, and a Burt’s Beeswax lip balm last.
The crowds surged. They came for staples and they came for curatives. A man stood morosely in the specialty food department one afternoon, his basket containing $150 French champagne, a brick of Belgian chocolate and several artisan cheeses. He was to sign his divorce papers in two hours.
With the cars double-parked outside, it became apparent there was a new drug on P Street. It was called food.
ON A BRILLIANT SUNDAY a month after the grand opening, the P Street Fresh Fields is a scrum of consumerism: The cash registers are doing 20,000 transactions a week.
At the cheese counter, a husband stares at the pecorino foglie di noci, aged in walnut leaves in ventilated caves. “I can’t find good old standard Swiss cheese,” he tells his wife.
“Well,” she explains, “I don’t want good old standard Swiss cheese.”
On this Sunday morning, they want tulips and rotisserie chicken and warm baguettes. Butcher paper is wrapped with square corners around heavy steaks. Even the delicate things are more beautifully frail on Sunday, like the Malpeque oysters glistening on ice. A feeling floats down the aisles that good things will come of all this.
The plaintive hope is best spoken by a tall blonde standing at the bakery counter. She’s holding up a pre-boxed cherry pie and asking, “How do I make it so it’s all crunchy and golden and warm?”
Fresh Fields understands the dream, but usually in places like Bethesda and Georgetown. Not on P Street, home of Best-In Liquors and its large sign warning, “DO NOT URINATE HERE, VIOLATORS WILL BE ARRESTED.”
The arrival of Fresh Fields is part of the larger story of a rebounding city, particularly in areas such as Logan Circle on the edge of the Shaw district, once scarred by rioting after Martin Luther King’s assassination and unable to recover until the rejuvenating river of pinot noir began to flow.
By the early 1990s, a ripping economy was pushing the affluence of Dupont Circle eastward. Construction of a new downtown convention center started to push revitalization from the other direction. Sandwiched in between was a residential real estate market gone atomic. A former methadone clinic at 14th and Q streets NW was turned into $300,000 luxury condo units that sold out in four hours.
The area still had its share of soup kitchens, homeless shelters and armed robberies. But in 1997, an unlikely retailer began scouting the area for property.
Whole Foods Market Inc., which had bought Fresh Fields in 1996, was expanding nationally. Whole Foods had helped catapult the health food store from dusty grain bins to gleaming meccas offering organic, natural and gourmet foods, all swaddled in Earth Day politics. (“Ultimately, each of us creates our own reality,” the employee handbook explains.) Ferociously anti-union and publicly traded, Whole Foods pulled in $1.6 billion in sales in fiscal 2000; its 2.875 percent profit margin is double the grocery industry average.
The company began eyeing a site on the corner of V and 13th streets NW. But when a group of Logan Circle citizens -- white Victorian home rehabbers -- learned of Fresh Fields’ interest, they launched a campaign to persuade the company to consider P Street instead. The group produced a 52-page demographic study that showed the 1997 market price of a home within half a mile of the P Street site was $342,000. It flooded Whole Foods’ headquarters in Austin, Tex., with more than 3,000 written pleas.
Fresh Fields’ own “psychographic” figures revealed that dining and entertaining were core values in the gentrifying P Street radius, which was increasingly white, gay and affluent.
In 1999, Fresh Fields broke ground on a rat-infested lot at 1440 P St. It would be one of the largest stores in the company, with 37,000 square feet of shopping area and a parking garage for 151 cars. Hoping for a visual echo, the architect studied the abandoned auto showrooms that lined 14th Street in the 1940s. A glass facade would throw light everywhere, creating a colossal blast of radiance on P Street. Galvanized steel beams were left exposed in the ceiling. The aisles would be roomy and wide, mocking the Lilliputian lanes of cramped city markets. Special bulbs were used to create a natural warmth, not the cold blue of other grocery stores.
Groupies monitored the construction site as if it were a sacred dig. When the glass front went in, they pressed their noses to it and tried to guess how much longer.
“It was kind of like the early reports of the Spanish and Portuguese telling us of another land,” says Dave Cercone, a historian who lives a block away. “It was like a burning tower for all of civilization.”
And then it opened last December. A man newly sprung from a five-year federal prison stint returned to his old neighborhood and stood agape when he saw the buttery basilica on P Street, later remarking that he felt like he’d been away for 20 to 30 years.
On this Sunday morning, the store is something to see: brunch hunters in leather jackets, scruffy pagans, matching male couples and worshipers from the nearby AME Zion, cooling their gospel throats with power smoothies in the juice bar.
And yet there’s the sense that all parties are grappling with one another’s folkways. Those most mystified are the employees. While nine department managers and other experienced hands have come to the P Street store from other Fresh Fields locations, the majority of the 300 hires are from the neighborhood. They live in the shrinking inventory of affordable housing, Section 8 apartments and much-prized rent-controlled units. For them, grocery shopping means 69-cent chicken thighs on sale and Donald Duck orange juice and bread that’s either white or wheat. This is a whole new galaxy.
“DO YOU HAVE Luna Bars?” a customer asks.
“What are Luna Bars?” the employee asks back.
“You know, sort of like Clif Bars.”
Or: “Do you have low-fat brie?”
In these early days, the hunters always seem to know more than the employees. A slender woman with silver jewelry approaches the bakery counter. Her tone is determined. “The Fresh Fields honey buns are usually this high,” she says, holding her fingers four inches apart. “These are down to here.”
The baker explains, “It’s the way they been poofin’ lately.”
“The way they’ve been what?”
“Define poofing,” the woman says. “That’s obviously your term.”
Cecilia Crawford stands at Register 5, bagging groceries and taking it all in. She can’t remember what they buy or how much they spend. But she wonders where they go from here. “A big house with a great living room set,” she says, imagining. “Totally nice.”
Like the city itself, she’s rallying, trying to forget her old fast-food apron and welfare. She’s arriving early and doing extra. “Paper or plastic?” she asks, a hundred times a shift. Some people bring their own cloth bags and she fills those. Some have Italian baby strollers with special wire racks and she fills those.
“Paper or plastic?”
She bags organic baby bella mushrooms, yellow pear cherry tomatoes, watercress and sirloin for a total of $64.75. She bends over to say hello to a baby in a velvet hat.
“He’s gorgeous,” Cecilia tells the mom.
“Oh, thank you,” beams the mother.
The next customer says to his shopping partner, “I feel like I’m in Communist Russia when I’m in that Safeway. There’s nothing in the store.” Cecilia bags his fingerling potatoes, eggplant, smoked salmon and pasta.
When her shift ends, she punches out and unties her smock in the break room. She exits the candescence and begins her walk home in the dark. Three blocks later, she comes to her building and presses the buzzer.
Upstairs, a few women in bathrobes are watching TV, tossing out answers at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which strikes Cecilia as funny, “seeing as how we’re here.” Here is N Street Village, a homeless shelter and residence for women. Three times a week, Fresh Fields donates soon-to-be-expired groceries to feed the residents, one of whom is Cecilia Crawford.
MORE THAN 2,300 PEOPLE applied for the 300 jobs at the P Street store. In produce alone, 600 were screened for 21 positions. A knowledge of risotto and orzo was not a prerequisite, nor was grocery experience. One person had cleaned bathrooms at the National Zoo. Another worked at Linens ‘n Things.
“I’d much rather have someone happy and smiling over someone with a long face and 10 years in the grocery business,” says store manager David Schwartz. “I can train you to cut meat. I can’t train you to enjoy life.”
In the nonauthoritarian culture of Fresh Fields, the bluejeans-wearing store manager’s name tag simply says: David. Wiry and spring-loaded, after seven years with Fresh Fields David believes intimidation squelches employee creativity. He acknowledges those who come from a “culture” of standing at a cash register and pushing pictures of combo meals may struggle with the self-empowerment atmosphere of Fresh Fields. And, he readily admits, “you are not gonna get everyone to have the love.”
He’s right. Not all employees catch the fever. “Everybody wants to raise their children healthy, but we can’t afford it,” says one bakery worker, who will later quit. “Five dollars for milk ‘cause it’s in a glass jar?”
After several weeks of operation, some 30 original employees are gone, for a variety of reasons. What’s left are the best, David says. “Look around the store and what you’ll see are shiny happy people.”
Food has a joyous narrative at Fresh Fields. Little signs explain the journey of a piece of cheese or the bio of an organic orange. But the most remarkable stories belong to the employees.
For Cecilia Crawford, Fresh Fields is her comeback after a long drop. She quit Bowie High School in ninth grade, unable to read even a few words. She signed up for welfare at 18 with her first child. By the fall of 1999, she was 27 with four kids and an impending eviction notice.
“I went to Child Protective Services,” she says. “I did what I had to do.”
Her children were placed in foster care in Prince George’s County. Without them, she wandered into the District, where an aunt lived, but instead found herself at a notorious cluster of tin-can trailers where drugs were sold and dewy condoms hung in the morning weeds. A door was open and she went to it. The trailers became her blurry encampment. To get away, she walked around the Washington Monument or caught warm buses to nowhere.
Women who stayed around the trailers often walked to N Street Village for medicine or food. Cecilia would follow them but never go inside. One day she did. She was given a bed.
“I don’t think I talked to anyone for a month,” she says.
That was a year ago. She still lives at the shelter. Twice a week she takes the bus to reading class, having learned long ago to use landmarks, not letters, to navigate by. She sees her kids once every four weeks. She cashes her Fresh Fields paychecks at the liquor store and banks most of it through her caseworker at N Street Village.
To get her kids back, she needs a place to live. There are 13,000 people ahead of her on the District’s Section 8 waiting list. Like everyone else, she tries her luck in Maryland.
One Saturday Cecilia has off, she leaves N Street Village with the classified ads neatly folded in her purse. She wears a Winnie the Pooh fleece pullover, something she pulled from the pile at N Street Village. She is accompanied by a dignified older woman, another N Street Village resident whose matching shoes and hat belie her homeless status.
Together, they conquer a Metro ride, a bus ride and a quarter-mile walk, which brings them out to Landover Hills. When Cecilia reaches the rental property the landlord announces she’s nearly the 20th person to come through in the last hour, probably because his ad said, “Sec. 8 OK.” Walking back to the bus stop, a dog snapping through a chain-link fence, the two women are quiet.
“Sure is far away,” the older woman finally says.
Cecilia tries to figure the commute time to Fresh Fields. Ninety minutes.
“No way,” she says. Not in defiance, but in defeat.
When she returns to N Street Village, she goes to bed and sleeps into Saturday night. Above her is a gold framed photo of her kids. Among her personal trinkets is her unread Fresh Fields employee handbook, which explains its philosophy on wages this way:
“Drawing a paycheck is nice, but it’s not the whole meaning of life. We believe we offer each of our Team Members an opportunity to fulfill a higher purpose: helping to make the world a better place.”
ON P STREET, the world is becoming a better place. Developers with scrolled blueprints pace off the sidewalks, taking in the retail glory of Fresh Fields. Next door at Best-In Liquors, owner Amare Lucas is trying to capture some of the spillover.
“Look,” he exclaims, proudly waving toward his new inventory of premium vodkas, “Ketel One!”
Inside Fresh Fields, customers are eagerly posting their comments on the community bulletin board.
“A beacon in the night!”
“So very happy to have another high quality store in the DC. Thank you from Columbia Hts. resident and customer.”
“In town to protest from Brooklyn. I protest that my hood doesn’t have such a store!”
“Great store. Please add a white wine chiller like the one at your Georgetown store.”
“What’s the deal with the olive rolls. Lackluster. Try olive roll samples from your Wisconsin Ave. and Arlington store.”
“Please have a bigger diversity of goat or sheep’s milk cheeses at a price of less than $10.”
“Would like you to explore different coffee creams, like Irish cream, French vanilla, etc.”
“Need more French bread. (baguettes). You always seem to be out. This is a ‘basic.’ Thanks.”
“Incorporate solar panels on your roof top. Love, the green people.”
“I really like this store . . . but I prefer the bulk bin presentation at the Georgetown store.”
“The trash cans in the ‘dining areas’ are not big enough (the holes through which we insert our trash) to accommodate a plate from your hot bar. This means I have to fold the plate, thereby getting oil all over my hands.”
“Great store. Very impressive. But outside a lot of light shines up. Looking for aliens? I’d rather see stars.”
“Why no thyme?”
SALES NUMBERS are posted daily in the back. P Street is doing nearly half a million in sales a week. Of the 28 stores in the mid-Atlantic region, the P Street store has blazed to the front of the pack in wine, cheese and flower sales. At the same time, the store is trying to combat its upscale reputation in the neighborhood by offering a wider selection of its value-oriented private label “365” line, from colas to sandwich cream cookies to macaroni.
“We’re becoming everyone’s grocery store,” says assistant store leader Andy Smock. “We didn’t want to become classist.”
But resisting the pinwheels of stuffed salmon laid out on marble in prepared foods is proving too much for some. Shoppers at all income levels are cutting deals with themselves to rationalize. “If you go to the Palm or Smith & Wollensky, you’re gonna pay $35 for one steak,” says one customer.
An organic Haas avocado at Fresh Fields sells for $1.99; across the street at the small market an avocado costs 99 cents. Organic certification isn’t the only price booster, according to store management. Customers expect better-tasting and better-looking food at Fresh Fields, which carries a higher waste percentage than traditional grocers because it culls out aesthetic duds.
For the uninitiated, the prices at Fresh Fields are eye-opening.
“This is for the rich and famous,” says June Augustin, a Trinidadian local who wanders in to check out all the excitement. “Like, this okra is $6.99 a pound. You get it for $2.99 a pound at Giant. Look at the tuna! $17.99 a pound! I’ll go to the wharf.”
Even some of the most devoted customers express concern over Fresh Fields being plunked down in this neighborhood. And yet here they are, shopping basket in hand.
“All my friends have been debating this place,” says Lida Husik, an artist who is white. “It makes me nervous to see this gentrification. At the same time, this is the best black bean vegan soup I’ve had in a long time.”
“I have mixed emotions about this place,” says Lori Harris, a legal secretary and African American who works downtown and stops at Fresh Fields on the way home to Hyattsville. “Yes, it’s nice to have Fresh Fields here. But the flavor of the neighborhood starts to change. It’s admirable, it’s cool that they hired local workers, but when the workers can’t afford to shop here, what does that say?”
In her own basket, there rest lobster Newburg in phyllo and Yukon Gold potato chips.
“It’s that pull,” Harris admits.
Other shoppers dismiss the hand-wringing. “There were porn shops and hookers here 10 years ago,” says Kevin Callwood, an international business consultant who is African American. “That’s the kind of heart of the neighborhood they want? This store represents that era is over.”
Not totally over. Duron Paints across the street is still used as a labor pickup point, and when work doesn’t come the men sometimes drink beer in the bushes, which often devolves into shouting matches at 11 in the morning. The others sun themselves against the brick wall of Metro Supermarket, the small grocer across the street from Fresh Fields that sells frozen ham hocks and tortilla husks. In the shadow of Fresh Fields, the Metro market is a grimy orphan, but it has been the neighborhood grocer for years.
One cold morning, an intoxicated man curls up in the men’s room at Fresh Fields. When he awakens he begins pestering customers in the Jamba Juice bar. He’s asked to leave, and then proceeds to pass out in the entrance, as a groomed standard poodle looks on. Shoppers step around him. D.C. police are called.
“Oh, this one again,” sighs the cop. “And he’s heavy. You always drunk, baby.”
Before the P Street store opened, management wondered about the Fresh Fields custom of offering free samples. Would the homeless nosh their way through the chocolate babka? As it turns out, the most aggressive samplers appear to have homes.
There is the woman in a boucle coat who reaches for a toothpick and begins spearing cubes of Madrigal Baby Swiss. Stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, until she has a decent kebab. Standing at the platter, she goes through three toothpicks.
There is the man who stands over at the hot bar and repeatedly dips his spoon into the communal serving pan of lamb stew. The entire pan is tossed as soon as he walks away.
“You’d think they’d be discreet, but they just get to eatin’ like they at home,” says Ron Wilson, in prepared foods.
There is the regular P Street grazer, a distinguished 60-ish man with silver hair, who one night begins his circuit in produce, tossing a fistful of complimentary cherry tomatoes into his mouth. Walking with hands behind his back, regally strolling, he approaches the bing cherries, which are not complimentary but sell for $4.99 a pound. He enjoys several. Then he serpentines back to the hot bar for minestrone soup. In cheese, a few cubes of Gouda. And then a piece of hearty prairie bread. Next stop: butter pound cake.
The employees aren’t supposed to scold. Occasionally, another customer will do it for them. A woman in the bakery once pointed at an abuser and shouted, “HE’S TOUCHING THEM WITH HIS HANDS!”
As time passes, the employees are less afraid to draw the line. One day, a woman comes to the prepared-foods counter with her own bowls from home. Dubious of recycling, she insists her own containers are the solution.
“Ma’am,” says employee Linda Holmes, citing sanitation rules, “we are not going to lose our jobs to save the earth.”
THE CULTURE OF FRESH FIELDS — the hippie vibe, the organic emphasis, the peer review that substitutes for bureaucracy — is often lost on the immigrant strivers. They walk by the in-store yoga video, impervious to the yoga master’s calming instructions. Breathe. Open your chest. Many hold two jobs, and Fresh Fields is just Act II in a very long day. Those speaking the least English start in the kitchen. New tasks are pantomimed rather than explained. One Eritrean woman escaped from her burning village. Another fled to a Sudanese refugee camp. Now both assemble turkey-and-muenster wraps at Fresh Fields for $8 an hour.
Martha Claros had never heard of Fresh Fields when she saw the ad for the new store on P Street. She lived nearby in a highrise called King Towers, where the dim hallways are filled with the sounds of Spanish cartoons and forks scraping against plates. Languid Africans in sandals share elevators with Salvadoran girls carrying Britney Spears book bags.
For the last 13 years, Martha Claros had worked as a housekeeper, most recently at McLean Gardens, where she and her team cleaned 27 condos a day for $6.25 an hour. A job in the Fresh Fields bakery for $8 an hour with medical benefits was beyond her dreams. And no more catching the bus to work. King Towers is five blocks from Fresh Fields.
Martha, from Bolivia, had nearly perfected her English but had no real knowledge of bakery work. She knew biscotti softened when dunked in hot liquid, or so a doctor whose house she cleaned had told her.
Her face is coppery with two dark eyes. She wears the sort of spongy-soled navy shoes worn by a 47-year-old who has lived on her feet. They are her splurge: Easy Spirits. She has a 7-year-old son named Javier. After she puts him to bed at night, she reads up on prairie bread, muesli, pane paisano, pecan raisin, oatmeal rustic, rosemary sourdough, spelt, dairy-free vegan muffins; the list is endless.
“I want to show them all my appreciation,” she says, explaining her diligence. “This is the first time in 13 years that I will have something. I already started saving for Javier’s college. I think age 7 years is a good time to start. Fifty dollars a month.”
At the bakery counter, Martha works with five African American women, a woman from Senegal and a white guy from Annapolis. The bakery is often under siege. It’s wedged between the juice bar and the sushi area and sometimes the very calm Salvadoran sushi chef just smiles as he shapes his rice balls, watching the customers bunch up in impatient hordes for warm baguettes.
Martha’s brow is damp with perspiration as she hustles around taking peanut bars from a large pan and placing the singles in plastic containers. As she cuts pumpkin bread for samples, a woman in a leather jacket approaches. “Hi, can you make a recommendation? I’m having a dinner that will be largely a Thai Asian dinner. Would a sesame semolina be your best recommendation?”
Martha scrambles to remember her bread book. “You know,” she says, with slight nervousness, “French baguettes go with everything.”
Another customer wants to know the difference between sourdough and rosemary bread. “Well,” Martha ventures, “the sourdough is plain and the rosemary has rosemaries in it.”
A woman in a hurry cuts in front of the waiting bakery customers. “Excuse me,” she calls out to Martha. When the other customers turn in disbelief, the woman flashes a winning smile and apologizes. “I’m very focused on a chocolate torte,” she explains.
When Fresh Fields first opened, the women in the bakery were astounded by the money being spent. But by month three, they are dulling to the pageant. “They may not eat the $20 cheese every day,” Martha points out, in defense of expensive cheese. “Maybe a slice every other day.”
Senegalese-born bakery employee Fatou Dieng regales her co-workers with tales from her days at Dean & De Luca, the gourmet market in Georgetown. Fresh Fields is nothing, she tells her rapt crowd.
“The raisin pecan bread is $9,” Fatou says, in her lilting French accent. “Go there and say, ‘Hello, I’m looking for raisin pecan bread, how much is it?’ They will tell you. The jalapeno cheddar corn? Eight dollars. And the brioche loaf is $9. You say $9 and they don’t even listen to you. The money is there. Strawberry shortcake? $38. They don’t care, $38, $58, they don’t care.”
Martha’s eyes widen. “Do they pay in cash?”
Fatou folds her arms over her white bakery smock. “Sometimes the customers come in with their housekeepers and just throw it in the cart!”
The women shake their heads. Fatou goes on. “Before I came to America, what I was seeing on TV was the best place in the word,” she says. “The big houses, the malls. You didn’t know, except the dream they show you on TV.”
Martha offers the immigrant creed. “Fatou, you work hard, your dreams come true!”
But Fatou isn’t buying it. “It’s like, ‘You come and jump in the money. The money is waiting for you.’ “ Then she is quiet.
Martha punches off at 8. “Hasta la vista, ladies,” she tells her bakery colleagues.
“Same to ya, sweetheart,” a co-worker waves.
On her walk home, Martha passes Logan Circle. It is practically bucolic under the moonlight. Five years ago, Martha wouldn’t have walked this strip alone at night. “Now,” she says, “thanks God, all those things are in the past.”
She hasn’t noticed that the refurbished crack houses with crown molding around Logan Circle are going for $499,000. Nor does she realize that real estate agents are using Fresh Fields as a selling point. But lately she sees the newly painted walls in her own apartment building, and a spruced-up lobby. Twice in the last year her rent has increased; now it’s up to $460 a month. To stay ahead of the curve, she cleans houses on her days off.
When she tries to remember her last real day off, she pauses, counts in Spanish, and then announces a date four months earlier.
“IF YOU’RE A GUY, what do you want, a steak with a bone or without?” asks the sleek blonde with the Kate Spade purse.
His red apron strings tied around his waist, Sean Lucas leans over the silver counter. “Get a thick one with a bone in it.”
The two rib-eyes go into a basket next to the asparagus. The wine is waiting at home. It’s Tuesday night.
The concept of “celebrating life” is something else again at Fresh Fields. Every night is a celebration, as Sean is learning. Behind the meat counter, he thumbs through Saveur magazine for recipe tips so he can bond with the customers.
When he works mornings, he stumbles onto his porch at 3:30 a.m. and buckles his belt in the cold. The birds are still hiding in the branches. He lives off Benning Road, east of the Anacostia, and he hoofs eight blocks to the bus stop for the 4:18. His main hope is to not get robbed on the way. When a car with a fender-rattling bass beat goes by, he lifts a wary head. “I haven’t heard too much about robberies lately,” he says. “The main thing is shootings.”
At 25, Sean knows how to glide anywhere. He used to be a concierge for K Street lawyers, shagging their dry cleaning and flowers. Before that, he graduated from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts and did a year at the Corcoran art school until he couldn’t afford it anymore. Not much about his new job at Fresh Fields makes him think about his favorite painter, John Singer Sargent, but he sees pride in his work. “Like in the movies, like ‘Rocky,’ you know the scene where the man moves to the city and he’s struggling? He got a job cutting meat.”
Behind the meat counter, Sean is helping another new guy get the hang of the good life.
“See, Donis here, he’s got good intentions but he’s not in the routine of thinking and doing,” Sean explains one Friday night.
Donis Arias came in off the streets to work at Fresh Fields. He did a brief stint as an anti-gang counselor, but mostly the corner was his thing. He is short and husky, with a tufty goatee. He wears a delicate ring a girl gave him on Valentine’s Day, and a bracelet that says “EL SALVADOR.”
Donis didn’t have money for dinner three months ago; now he lords over tens of thousands of dollars of Coleman beef. Cattle fed the best grains. No hormones. No antibiotics. Yet none of it appeals to Donis. “To me, I can’t eat this kind of food,” he says. “My mom got me used to Giant.”
Sean shakes his head in disappointment, and says of Donis, “All of us are limited as far as what we can expound on.”
But it’s Friday night, and the carnivores are knocking, so Sean and Donis try to serve. Donis weighs out a pound of chicken maple breakfast sausage. Sean wraps four lamb chops in butcher paper and then a porterhouse. “Y’all gonna eat good tonight,” he tells his customer.
“It’s not all for tonight,” the customer says, a tad defensive.
Donis is bent over some chicken when he suddenly straightens. Thumping over the storewide sound system is a song by the teen rapper Lil Bow Wow. This may be urban P Street, but Lil Bow Wow? Donis wigs out. “Listen to that, man, it’s ghetto music in a Fresh Fields!”
A co-worker dismisses the notion. “That’s not ghetto music.”
Donis gestures toward the aisles. “That’s the way they see it.”
A slender man breathlessly appears at the counter. “I’m looking for a meat hammer,” he says. “I’m making veal scaloppine and it needs to be thin.”
Donis tells the customer they don’t sell hammers. The customer gets a sad face. Donis just looks at him. The customer wonders if someone could thin out the veal. Donis goes in the back and starts pounding. When he returns, he hands over the package. “Here you go,” he says. “Nice and beat up.”
Sean rides Donis, trying to make Donis have better customer contact. He gets after him to pronounce his consonants. “Don’t forget, Donis,” Sean says, holding up a rib-eye. “Tell ‘em to rub some oil on it and season it well.”
Donis grins mischievously. “Tell ‘em to put some barbecue sauce on it.”
Sean has flecks of meat on the sleeves of his white smock. He doesn’t keep his sleeves rolled up old-school style with rubber bands like his boss. But he wants to learn all he can. He makes $8 an hour and hopes to move up in the company. One day he’d like to be on the other side of the counter.
“I wish I had the money for that kind of steak.” he says. “I wish I could make that amount of money to entertain guests.”
He’s working solo one evening when a man and a woman shopping for a dinner party try to decide. This time, it’s Wednesday night. “How are the boneless sirloins?” the woman asks.
Sean holds up three monster steaks. The woman appraises them. “I’m feeding seven people,” she says. “Better do four.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Sean says, ringing up the meat: $68.68. To go with the steaks, there will be mushroom cream sauce, potatoes, endive salad and red wine. Sean surrenders the package. The woman needs both hands. “It’s like I’m taking home a mini-calf,” she says, smiling.
“Yeah, a calf, huh?” Sean says. The couple walk away.
Sean leans over the meat counter. “Hey,” he calls, “tell me how it turns out.”
EACH FRESH FIELDS customizes itself to fit what it calls the “palate of different markets.” By the third month of operation, the P Street store is selling high-end produce that no other store could (black trumpet mushrooms for $29.99 a pound), but at the same time it’s ringing up astronomical numbers of chicken wings on the hot bar.
The customers? Impossible to categorize. LeDroit Park mavens stand in line next to retired radicals living in group houses in Mount Pleasant. There are Logan Circle loft-dwellers buying beer like Tetley’s English Ale (“this can contains a floating widget”) standing beside Rasta vegans buying rice milk and red bananas.
But the store goes far beyond food. Gay men claim it’s the best new scene in town. Others say it can be the saddest place in the world when shopping for just one.
Some customers feel themselves inexplicably pulled toward the building. “I’m out and about, doing my thing, yada, yada, yada, and for one reason or another, I find myself here,” says John Grimberg, a political consultant who lives two blocks away.
The P Street store has become the utopia that management had been aiming for. The only requirement is money. Which is the one factor that cleaves the utopia, as far as the employees are concerned.
“What in the world are they doing with all that food?” asks bakery clerk Evelyn Lyles. “Are they buying for themselves or a houseful? Most of ‘em I picture being bachelorettes and bachelors, livin’ alone and eatin’ good. Kinda lonesome, though.”
In the bakery, Martha Claros now knows ciabatta from pane paisano. When a 35-ish man appears at the counter one evening holding a recipe, Martha is eager to suggest a bread. Her colleague, Gloria Pullen, who wears her bakery cap side-cocked, tries to get a peek at the recipe. Shrimp and fennel.
“Mmm, hmm,” Gloria says, though she has no idea what fennel is. “That should be good. You got to run that off for me.”
“Uh, yeah,” says the customer. “Can I have a loaf of the kalamata olive?”
Bread in basket, the man walks away, and Gloria is still trying. “You got your chardonnay?”
What do the women talk about during a down moment in the bakery, when the demand for bread and tarts momentarily subsides? Kids and money. All are renters and all have the anxious feeling lately the city is changing in ways that imperils their modest lives.
“Me and my girlfriend have been real good about trying to stay on top of things,” says baker Tracie Brashears. “We just conversate about it late at night when the kids are in bed. Some people leaving D.C. are going to Clinton, Maryland; Fort Washington, Maryland; Upper Marlboro. They have so many incentives to move you. I love my city. You are not going to run me out.”
On a busy afternoon, Martha Claros has gotten permission to use her 30-minute break to attend a parent-teacher conference at Javier’s elementary school, which is six blocks from Fresh Fields. But the bakery is getting slammed and the hours tick by.
“Do you have ciabatta?” a customer asks.
“Ciabatta? Yes, ma’am,” Martha says.
“Do you have ciabatta rolls?”
Javier’s teacher will only be at school until 7 that night. At 6:30, Martha tries to make a break for it when a regular customer appears at the counter wanting half of a tiramisu cake. “It was an expensive cake and I didn’t want to lose the customer,” she would later say. The whole time she’s walking to the freezer and then letting the cake thaw slightly before halving it she’s thinking, I’m dying to know how Javier is doing at school.
She hands over the tiramisu. The clock in the bakery says she has 23 minutes before her parent-teacher conference window closes. Martha hurries through the crowded store to reach the time clock, passing Sean Lucas at the meat counter, who is forcing some pearl of wisdom on Donis.
Outside, it’s misting. Martha has 15 minutes and five blocks to go. She does something she never does. She hails a cab, paying $5 to reach Javier’s school. The light is still on in the classroom.
Javier is doing well, the teacher says, but he talks too much.
As Martha walks home to King Towers that night through the puddles, the luminosity of Fresh Fields is a far-off candle.
WITH SILVER HAIR and a leather bomber jacket, Wayne Dickson proudly strolls past Fresh Fields. In 1986, Dickson and his wife moved into a four-story Victorian house two blocks away, and for the next decade they toughed out the bleak years of stepping over syringes on their curb. It was Dickson who helped power the campaign to bring Fresh Fields to P Street. Now he finds himself there every day.
“Men love it,” says Dickson, president of the Logan Circle Community Association. “It’s got a lot of big stuff. Hunks of bread, big steaks, great big wide aisles.”
His wife likes it, too. “You can go and get a baguette and ride home with it in your bicycle basket,” says Carol Felix-Dickson.
Fresh Fields is great, but it’s just a start, Dickson says. He envisions a “Main Street USA” in these blocks and along 14th Street. A hardware store, a garden store, an upscale bicycle shop, a bakery.
The arrival of Fresh Fields has created a noble moment in the regentrification story. Carl’s Barber Shop three doors down has picked up new business, including first-time white customers.
And yet the moment can’t last. When Dickson stands in front of Carl’s Barber Shop, he spreads his arms joyfully.
“You can just imagine what this could become,” he says, surveying the drab storefront. “First-floor retail, living space above.”
Through the front window, owner Carl Lewis can be seen clipping hair and telling stories.
Dickson values diversity. But he is realistic. “It’s an economic fact that when there is gentrification that some people get squeezed out,” he says.
A week later, a large banner goes up across from Fresh Fields. Hung on the vacated Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind building, the banner is a 30-foot-high photograph of a luxurious loft with blond wood floors and contemporary furniture. Underneath the image are the words “FINE URBAN LIVING” and the name of a development company.
THE SAME AFTERNOON the banner goes up, Cecilia Crawford leaves N Street Village for her 3-10 shift at Fresh Fields. In the coming weeks, there will be unexplained absences. Like many of the new hires, she will struggle with the stucture and demands of a job. But today she’s right on time. She knows most of the regulars along 14th Street. She often smuggles soaps and shampoos from N Street Village, doling them out to the neediest cases. A few nights earlier, she was walking by the 7-Eleven when a man stepped out of the shadows. Cecilia knew him as the Duckman. She had promised to buy him gloves when she got paid. “Bring those gloves by soon,” the Duckman told her. “I got to sleep outside tonight. They’re full-up down the street.”
On this sunny afternoon, the Duckman is nowhere to be found. Not in front of the 7-Eleven, which will soon become a Caribou Coffee. But Cecilia spots another regular. Rather, he spots her. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk, he strikes a balladeer’s pose and begins to sing.
“Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart, breaking my confidence, baby.”
“Oh, quit that,” she says, allowing his fatherly embrace.
On 14th Street, she walks past Any Kind Checks Cashed and the novelty store that sells dusty teddy bears and Kangol caps. At Mid City Fish Market (“Fish morning special. 3 pc whiting 2.99 with 2 eggs and grits) she turns the corner for P Street.
As she makes the final stretch to Fresh Fields, the enormous banner catches her eye. The glossed wood floors. The sun pouring in. The luxurious couch.
“What is that?” she says, her face tilted up.
“I want my apartment to be so gorgeous,” she says.
Inside Fresh Fields, she takes her station at the end of the cash register. The items start coming down the belt.
“Paper or plastic?”
An American Dream, Slightly Apart: N.J. Muslim Family Feels a Separateness
October 27, 2001
PATERSON, N.J. — Mohammad Al-Qudah fires up his Weber grill and throws on a few lamb steaks. It’s a glorious October evening. He has prayed three times already and will pray twice more before he goes to sleep.
His wife, Nadia Kahf, third-year law student and mother of two, mixes hummus in the blender. She’s not wearing the hijab she usually wears in public.
They recently left an apartment for this sprawling split-level in the suburbs, proof that Al-Qudah has come a long way since arriving from Jordan in 1989 and cramming into a Paterson boarding house with several other Middle Eastern immigrants.
Yet, on the big-screen TV in the den, he and his wife toggle between CNN and al-Jazeera, wary of the American news filter.
“It’s news when one Jewish person dies,” Kahf says. “When they massacre 24 Palestinians, nothing. What really bothers me is when they bring on Islamic experts who are not Muslim.”
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and with the United States dropping bombs on a Muslim country, Kahf and Al-Qudah wrestle with their place in their adopted nation, a land suddenly rippling with American flags and a taste for revenge. The crosscurrents are especially strong in this part of New Jersey, where the FBI believes six hijacking suspects flowed through this year while plotting their suicide missions.
“Terrible, criminal,” says Kahf of the murder of more than 5,000 people.
Yet the seeds of the hijackers’ motivations are not mysterious to her. “People in a lot of places hate America,” she says. “It’s not hard to understand that.”
Born in Syria, Kahf arrived here 17 years ago, when she was 12. America seems to have been good to her. But her embrace is tentative. In a study this year titled “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait,” 82 percent of American Muslims strongly agreed that high-tech America offered opportunity; 28 percent said the nation was immoral and corrupt.
For Kahf and her husband — taxpayers, registered voters, law-abiding citizens — assimilation is not a goal. After she graduates from Seton Hall University law school, she hopes to specialize in defending Muslims in civil liberties cases. “There are so few Muslim lawyers, even fewer female Muslim lawyers, and even fewer female lawyers who cover,” she says, referring to the hijab.
“Throughout history,” she says, Muslims “will always be separate.”
But after Sept. 11, separateness became a liability.
“Do you know who your neighbors are?” a local news segment asked ominously after the Paterson terrorist cell was discovered.
Al-Qudah quickly attached an American flag to his wife’s car.
A Mini-RamallahWhen Rep. William J. Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) met Yasser Arafat in 1998 in Ramallah, the Palestinian leader asked, “How are my people in Paterson?” The city has one of the largest concentrations of Arab Americans in the country; 20,000 of its 160,000 residents are Muslim. Paterson prints its recycling rules in English, Spanish and Arabic.
The heart of the Arab American community is along Main Avenue in South Paterson, a mini-Ramallah, with halal butchers and men drinking tea and scarved women surveying bins of olives. Turkish techno music pumps from the hot-waxed cars of the Jordanian boys smoking Marlboro Reds.
This is where Mohammad Al-Qudah came when he arrived from Jordan. There was the food he knew, and the language he knew and the faith he knew.
Main Avenue is also where Hani Hanjour came looking for an apartment in February, choosing a $650-a-month one-bedroom unit over a mini-mart. It’s where alleged ringleader Mohamed Atta visited a travel office in July and bought a one-way ticket to Madrid.
When Kahf learned that a hijacked plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, 20 miles to the east, her first reaction was horror, followed by something equally desperate:
“Please don’t let it be a Muslim.”
The collateral damage from the attacks takes shape in a third-floor apartment over Main Avenue, where a woman named Ruby Santos pulls back her lace curtains and watches the sky for low-flying airplanes.
“I have nothing against Arabics,” says Santos, a Puerto Rican mother of three who grew up happily in the melting pot of Passaic County. “But I don’t trust them after what happened.”
When a bearded Middle Eastern man wearing an Army jacket boarded her bus, “all the way to Passaic I had a stomachache,” she says.
Her 13-year-old daughter, Melissa, rolls her eyes.
Santos folds her arms. “Melissa, you don’t get scared when you see an Arabic with a little scarf?”
“Ma, I see them every day, the lunch ladies in the cafeteria.”
Santos’s younger daughter, Deidre, pipes in. “Mommy, I thought some Arabics were nice.”
“Not all of them are bad, baby.” Her eyes go back to the window, the darkness beyond it, the place where she used to feel so comfortable. “Those hijackers, they just messed up everything.”
‘I Feel Guilty’With a day off from law school, Kahf joins a group of Muslim “sisters” to visit a friend with a new baby. All are covered from head to toe in hijab and jilbab, the smock worn for modesty. One woman pulls up in a black Lexus SUV, her hand wrapped in a bandage.
“How did you burn your hand?” someone asks.
“Not cooking,” says Dalia Fahmy, who is finishing her master’s in politics at New York University.
“Her stove is so clean, and she’s been married two years!” her sister, Dena, chimes in.
They settle around a table spread with baklava, tea, cashews and dried fruit. Talk inevitably turns to the tenor of life as a Muslim after Sept. 11. Immediately afterward, the imam at their mosque suggested that women stay inside, particularly if they wore hijab. Fahmy lasted two days in seclusion and then went to Gymboree. “I’m in line and I feel like everyone is feeling weird for me,” she says. “At the same time, I feel guilty for the situation.”
Sally Amer also stayed home. “Okay, I’ll let you lock me down for one day,” the pharmacist and mother of two told her husband. On the third day, she went to the mall. A Muslim friend of hers was not so lucky; someone shot an arrow through her child’s bedroom window.
Kahf couldn’t miss law classes. So her husband taped the flag to her car antenna, and off she drove into the anxieties beyond her driveway.
Not wearing their hijab would have made life easier.
“Would Oprah take off her skin color growing up in the ’50s or ’60s?” Fahmy asks.
The women oppose Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, but they are frustrated, too, by stereotypes of Islam. “Americans confuse culture and religion,” Kahf says. “With the Taliban, women are not being educated. That’s political, not religious, and it’s wrong.”
Yet Kahf objects to what she sees as American feminist arrogance toward the practice of covering, even among the Afghan women forced to wear burqas by the Taliban.
“Oh, they must be so hot in those tents,” Kahf says, mockingly. “Maybe they want to cover.”
Several years ago, Kahf applied for a teaching position in the history department at a community college. With a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in Middle Eastern studies, she thought she had the job. “The director was very happy until he met me and saw my cover,” Kahf says. She was rerouted to the ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) department.
From the baby shower, the women disperse into the afternoon to put children down for naps, to pick up children from school. Wearing their hijab, they move like silken ghosts down the sidewalk. The flag on Kahf’s Jeep whips in the autumn breeze.
A few days earlier, her son asked her why so many people were flying flags.
“Because everyone is happy to be in America,” she told him.
But not necessarily happy with the country’s policies. Kahf opposes the war efforts in Afghanistan. “America really does decide whose life is more important,” she says. “Think of it from the point of view of an Iraqi child, or a Palestinian child.”
Neighbor Avoids NeighborNot far from the heart of Paterson’s Middle Eastern community, there is a house where retribution is more easily understood. A sign on the front door reads: “Thanks to you for your concerns and prayers. Kenny still missing. I will be waiting for my son now and forever.”
Paterson lost one resident in the World Trade Center attack. Kenny Lira was a 28-year-old computer technician who worked on the 110th floor of the North Tower. A Peruvian American, he grew up easily among the Latinos and Arabic kids in this neighborhood.
Now his mother, Marina Lira, sleeps on the couch at night to be near the TV, as if it will deliver the antidote she needs. On CNN, the FBI announces its 22 Most Wanted Terrorists list. The colorful graphic “America Strikes Back” is stripped beneath the 22 photos of dark faces.
“I know that the Muslim religion is not what these people are practicing,” Lira says.
Yet she no longer walks to Main Avenue to buy dried cherries and pita bread. “I don’t even drive that way,” she says. “We drive the other way. A friend said to me, ‘I saw them and my anger grew inside.’ “
While Lira was in Manhattan putting up fliers for her missing son, a stranger came to her house and spoke with a relative. I’m Muslim, the woman said. My family is Muslim. We apologize for what happened.
“My niece told me this happened, but I did not see it,” Lira says. She looks out the front window. The neighbors who used to walk by covered in hijab and burqa no longer pass her house.
“Why?” she asks. “Why?”
‘This Makes Me Feel Good’The next night, while Lira holds a candlelight service at her house in honor of her son, Kahf is starting dinner.
“Finish your math,” she tells her daughter.
“Oh, Mom, I hate math,” says Mariam, 9, slumping over her backpack on the kitchen counter. “Fifth-grade math is a killer. Can I just get a zero?”
Kahf calls into the living room to her 5-year-old son. “Abdallah, you said you were just going to play one game of Nintendo.”
She hears the garage door open. “Daddy’s home.”
Mohammad Al-Qudah embraces his children. His wife takes the spinach pastries from the oven and kisses him. “How was your day?” she asks. His gas station business is down 15 percent since Sept. 11.
After dinner, a friend calls. President Bush is on TV. Al-Qudah grabs the remote. Bush is saying that Muslim women who cover their heads should not have to be afraid. Al-Qudah leans forward on the couch and points to the president. “This is very important,” he says. “You know, he’s been very good on this.”
More than his wife, he looks for the positive. He keeps several voice-mail messages he received in the days after the hijackings.
Hey, Mo, this is Jimmy. Want to make sure everything is okay. We’re thinking about you.
I know that with what happened, certain Americans will look on Muslim groups unfavorably. We’re thinking of you. Thanks, Mo.
“This makes me feel good,” he says.
They are part of America, but apart. Kahf does not see this as a contradiction. “This is part of living in a democracy,” she says. “This saying, ‘America, love it or leave it.’ I don’t buy it. True democracy is being able to question things, even to criticize things, but always wanting to make the situation better.”
The next day, Kahf irons her hijab and grabs her keys. A decade ago, local Muslims prayed in a rented room above a restaurant near Main Avenue. Now, the Islamic Center of Passaic County, a former synagogue, welcomes 800 Muslims on Fridays for 1 o’clock prayer. Kahf settles in the back of the mosque with the other women. Kneeling, facing toward Mecca, she bows, her forehead to the carpet.
The imam, Mohammad Qatanani, repeats that Muslims are against terrorists, against what happened at the World Trade Center, but also against “crimes committed against innocent lives in Afghanistan.”
From the mosque, Kahf picks up her daughter at the Islamic school. Mariam is standing on the blacktop with three of her friends, all of whom wear hijab. “She looks so grown up in it,” Kahf says, beaming.
At home, Mariam goes outside to ride her Razor scooter with a neighbor boy, who by now understands when Mariam is called inside for prayer time. “Come back in five minutes,” she will say.
Her father’s car pulls into the garage. In a few hours, he will go to the mosque for prayer. He has a business trip to Las Vegas coming up. An airline passenger named Mohammad Al-Qudah! A friend joked that he should show up at airport security wearing a bikini and handcuffs.
“I can’t believe you are going,” his wife says.
He smiles. “I’m going to do what the president says. I am going to live my life.”
Diamonds sparkle in his wife’s ears. His son prays beside him on the rug and goes to sleep in zebra pajamas. His daughter began wearing hijab to school this year. His business is expanding.
“I was born in Jordan,” Al-Qudah says. “But America makes me feel alive.”
In N.C., Anxiety and Animosity Put an Edge on an Old Dream
This is the first of a series of occasional articles that will examine the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on American life and institutions.
November 25, 2001
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Every flag, every “God Bless America” sign flashing at every barbecue joint reminds Alma Chavez that she is suddenly on the outside. Again.
“Something weird is going on,” she says, gunning her Chevy Silverado to work one November morning.
Chavez recently started a $9-an-hour job as a receptionist at a storefront law office in an industrial section of Greensboro. The lawyer wanted to tap into Guilford County’s exploding Hispanic population, so he hired Chavez, and one of her first duties was to make a sign for the window: “HABLAMOS ESPANOL.”
Now the Spanish-speaking men in cowboy boots and feed caps stack up in the lobby, pouring out their woes to the lipsticked 23-year-old behind the counter.
“Mr. Spaulding,” Chavez says, calling for her boss, “we got a client with a situation.”
No more factory work. Her English is as perfect as her blizzard-white Payless sneakers under the desk.
But her immigrant dreams lost their altitude when foreign terrorists struck America. After a decade of historic immigration, the United States slammed the gates on outsiders and began to reconsider those within its borders. No one knows how long these anxieties will last, nor the restrictions that have followed, but Chavez can feel the new chill in the air.
So she’s lying low, going straight home from work to eat eggs and tortillas with her family. They don’t venture out after dark, afraid that someone will mistake them for Arabs. Chavez is a legal resident, but her fiance is undocumented and, to make matters worse, out of work. Jobs were getting scarce before Sept. 11, and now the bosses want workers with papers. At 21, strong and ready to sweat, he stays home with the baby, his silent cell phone hooked to his baggy khakis. They’ve canceled a Christmas trip home to Mexico; he would almost certainly get caught trying to sneak back across the newly tightened U.S. border.
“I didn’t know who or what the World Trade Center was,” Chavez says. “Now I know.”
She knows, too, who was responsible. And when she sees Middle Eastern immigrants around Greensboro, her resentment rises.
“They messed it up for us,” Chavez says.
‘Am I Welcome Here?’When Yasir Hassan arrived last summer to attend the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, his mother and sister accompanied him from Pakistan, filling his cupboard with spices from home, labeled in Urdu in their delicate script. Greensboro was a strange land indeed. He noticed the wooden signs nailed to the hickories and oaks and wondered, “Why are all the trees named Jesus?”
Within a month, though, Hassan was living on Cocoa Puffs and watching Montel Williams before classes. On Fridays, he and his Pakistani roommate would cruise the strip between Wal-Mart and RaceTrac, “hollering at girls, just freaking out; it’s very luminous at night.”
But like Chavez, Hassan felt his place in America change after Sept. 11. He was no longer an international student in a FUBU sweat shirt who contemplated the benefits of titanium wire over gold in computers; he was dark and Muslim and studying in the United States on a visitor’s visa -- and in possession of a Pakistani passport that spelled his name Yasir, Yasser and Yassir.
“You cannot imagine the trouble this has caused,” he says.
Because one of the terrorist hijackers had entered the United States on a student visa, Hassan suspected that his file would be reviewed by school officials, and he was right. Of the 13,000 students on campus, 500 were foreign, with 24 from so-called terrorist-sponsoring countries. An FBI agent called to check in with the international student program director.
“Am I welcome here?” Hassan asked his student adviser. The answer was yes, of course. Campus leaders beefed up security and held forums on Islam, co-sponsored by the 20-member Muslim Student Association. Hassan didn’t belong to the group but took comfort in its presence. The campus became his haven.
Beyond the university gates is where his real troubles started.
Late one Friday night, Hassan and his roommate, Kashif Khan, were visiting with two American women in the front yard of their house. Two trucks and two cars pulled up and several men unloaded. They asked where one of their friends was. He has already left, Hassan answered. The next thing he knew, he was surrounded and heard the words, “You dirty Pakistani bastards.” He looked over and saw Khan on the hood of a car, being beaten. Hassan was on the ground when a beer bottle crashed into the side of his skull.
Khan was still coughing blood the next day when a friend urged them to report the incident to the police.
“I covered my head and several guys kept beating for 2 minutes until the dad of my friend came out when they ran,” Hassan wrote in a criminal complaint Oct. 6. The two women identified one of the attackers; a magistrate executed an arrest warrant for him. A police officer advised Hassan to buy a cell phone for security.
A month later, Hassan still has the faintest mark on the right side of his forehead from the beer bottle. He is sitting in the scrappy apartment he shares with Khan, with computer parts stacked along a wall. One of the things he loved about Greensboro when he first arrived was the way strangers greeted him for no apparent reason.
“Now the only people who speak to us think we are Mexican,” he says.
‘I Don't Like It’Greensboro, population 224,000, is in the central piedmont of North Carolina, where candidates for office hold “pig pickin’s” and screen doors slam in the waning days of fall. The Shriners recently decided not to wear their turbans and blousy pants at the upcoming Jaycees Holiday Parade out of respect for the victims of Sept. 11.
But beneath the Andy Griffith Americana is a mini-Ellis Island with more than 120 nations and 75 languages represented in the Guilford County schools.
If any place was vulnerable to the aftershocks of September’s terrorism, this was it. Porous borders, student visas and refugee resettlement programs had brought the whole world here.
Of Guilford County’s 420,000 residents, between 30,000 and 40,000 are first-generation immigrants or their children, according to the UNCG Center for New North Carolinians. A flourishing economy and Greensboro’s progressive streak -- with five colleges in the area and a Quaker mayor -- helped light a fire under the melting pot.
And then Sept. 11 happened, creating an instant forum for anti-immigrant voices.
Outside the library on the UNCG campus, a Lebanese business major was assaulted by two white men shouting, “Go home, terrorist!” He withdrew from school and returned to the Middle East.
If Hassan’s only security was in being mistaken for Mexican, at least he had plenty of cover, thanks to the wave of immigration Chavez belonged to. No state in the country has gone through a faster Hispanic immersion than North Carolina, with a 655 percent increase in the past decade. Half of the state’s quarter-million Hispanics are undocumented, a distinction that mattered little in the low-wage, labor-guzzling economy of the 1990s.
But after Sept. 11, a re[acute]sume[acute] built on sweat was no longer good enough.
“There’s a broad public consensus that immigration is about more than plucking chickens and picking melons,” says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based anti-immigration group. “It’s about protecting communities . . . knowing who’s who in America.”
After Sept. 11, President Bush stopped talking about granting amnesty to 3 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States. Because of the weakening economy, U.S. employers lost interest in expanding the foreign guest worker program. In South Carolina, the state attorney general was suggesting that the Immigration and Naturalization Service should deputize local law enforcement to round up the undocumented.
“No one wanted to listen to Pat Buchanan in 1996 when he called for a moratorium on immigration,” says Charles Davenport Jr., an op-ed columnist for the Greensboro News & Record. “Now, people are willing to think about it.”
Davenport says he had watched his town transform overnight with immigrants, many of whom refused to assimilate. He wants Marines stationed every 20 feet along the U.S. borders.
“If you walk into Food Lion at 8 at night, you may well be the only English speaker in the whole place,” Davenport says. “I don’t like it. I feel like I’m in another nation. It’s not hostility; it’s a sorrow for the culture that I know.”
Bad TimingThat Food Lion is where Chavez often shops. On a Sunday morning in November, Chavez and her family are gathered around the kitchen table, eating bowls of menudo and folding together tacos and washing it all down with Cokes. Half the house is hung over from late-shift factory work. Chavez’s sister fills comforters with stuffing at an assembly plant; her mother wraps holiday gift sets at another. The family has come a long way since crossing into the United States at an unguarded border checkpoint in 1991, heads ducked low and bodies scrunched on the van floorboards.
In 2000, after years in Chicago and getting their legal resident cards, they moved to Greensboro, where they bought a $57,000 house in a racially mixed neighborhood. Now they’re practically home-grown, right down to the pacing Rottweiler.
But Chavez’s boyfriend, who asked not to be named, had the bad timing to arrive in the United States 18 months ago, paying a “coyote” $1,600 to guide him across the desert. In Greensboro, he got a $600-a-week construction job and met Chavez. She liked the spray of freckles across his nose and his hair, black as motor oil, which she cut in the bathroom with a towel over his strong shoulders. They exchanged rings and had a baby this year, cramming into a front bedroom in the Chavez house, where they live now, their door still taped with the pink ribbon that announces, “It’s a Girl.”
And yet there is the feeling that a moment has ended.
Until Sept. 11, the state Department of Motor Vehicles had one of the most lax residency requirements in the country. Illegal immigrants from around the Southeast would drive to North Carolina to get their prized piece of documentation. With a driver’s license, they could cash a check or open a charge account. It legitimized them beyond their under-the-table wages.
But with the discovery that at least seven of the terrorist hijackers had obtained identification cards through the Virginia DMV, North Carolina quickly passed a law requiring proof of residence, effective Nov. 1.
Unfortunately, Chavez’s boyfriend has neither a taxpayer ID number nor a Social Security card.
“He never got it; now he can’t,” says Chavez, frustrated by his procrastination.
But unemployment is his bigger concern. When Chavez meets a woman whose husband works construction, she asks about a job for her boyfriend. Is he legal? the woman asks.
When the Sunday dishes are cleared away, Chavez and her boyfriend go out for baby formula. They drive to the newly developed part of Greensboro, a concrete hatchery of Petsmart and Super K and Service Merchandise. “You can tell which stores have the best prices,” Chavez says, looking out the window. “The empty parking lots mean prices are too high.”
In Kmart, they pick up a flier, studying a 40-piece dinnerware set in Summer Harvest for $19.99. “We love coming over here and checking things out for our new home,” Chavez says. But who are they kidding? On the drive home, they pass the China King buffet, where they used to go on Sundays when her boyfriend had a job. The parking lot is packed.
‘This is Their Life Savings’Hassan has still not told his family in Pakistan about the beating. Attending university in America is his father’s dream. A middle-class Pakistani annual income is the equivalent of $10,000. The University of North Carolina charges international students $5,500 a semester, more than three times the in-state tuition of $1,700. Last year, foreign students accounted for 3.4 percent of total enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities, but they paid nearly 8 percent of tuition and fees, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
“This is their life savings we blow away in two semesters,” Hassan says one November morning. He had stayed up very late with his roommate the night before, drinking black tea and eating boiled eggs, scheming how to get rich enough someday to repay their fathers.
But the mood is subdued. After the assault, Khan has asked his adviser if he could take a semester off, but the adviser warned that his student visa might not be renewed in this unpredictable climate.
With lawmakers talking about a moratorium on student visas, Hassan and Khan, like Chavez and her boyfriend, have scratched their plans to go home for Christmas. What if the United States won’t let them back in?
They are fighting homesickness and an end-of-semester shortage of funds. Their cable service has been stopped for nonpayment. “This is the darkness before dawn,” Hassan says.
The cell phone they bought after the assault makes them feel safe. One school night, they leave campus and drive to the Four Seasons Towne Center mall with another student of Pakistani descent. It’s wonderful being out, away from the library. They wander through Abercrombie & Fitch, beneath the posters of shirtless blond heros in football pads. At American Eagle Outfitters, one of them holds up a T-shirt with the word SOBER. “You should get this,” Khan teases Hassan, one alcohol-abstaining Muslim to another. At Dillard’s, they study a 10-inch Calphalon omelet pan. Eggs are all they know how to cook.
The next morning, on the way to campus, they pass the High Point Dinner Bell and its “God Bless America” sign and the Country Bar-B-Q with its “America Home of the Free and the Brave” sign. Flags were everywhere, red, white and blue against the Carolina fall.
“It induces the patriotic adrenaline; that’s great, every nation should come together like this,” Hassan says philosophically, taking in the landscape. “What I fear is they are all going to get together and beat us again. The worst part is they would be singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ while they are beating us.”
‘Just a Fight Between Boys’It was all a miscommunication, says the 18-year-old man whose name appears on the criminal complaint signed by Hassan and Khan.
Curtis Bridgman is sitting on his parents’ porch one sunny afternoon, holding a guitar in his lap. He wears a sleeveless T-shirt, a joker tattooed onto his right biceps and a silver ring in his eyebrow.
“This was just a fight between boys,” Bridgman says. “It wasn’t no hate crime.”
Furthermore, he says, “it wasn’t no seven, eight or nine people. Only four of us.” He says no one used a beer bottle as a weapon, and no one used a racial epithet.
His mother comes out on the porch. “We come from a multicultural family,” she says, citing a black and Hispanic who’ve married into their family. “So how could we be racialist?”
Then his father steps outside. “What’d you do, call someone a [racial epithet]?”
“No,” Bridgman says. “It’s about some Pakistans.”
“Some Hispanics?” his father asks.
“No, some Afghans,” Bridgman says.
Two High Point Police Department officers finally serve the arrest warrant on Bridgman, charging him with assault with a deadly weapon. He’s scheduled for a January court hearing.
‘Will They Know?’If some members of Congress have their way, Hassan may soon be carrying a card that includes his fingerprints, retinal scan or facial biometrics. The INS will start more closely tracking all of the country’s 550,000 foreign students.
“Will they know when I am at the Krispy Kreme?” Hassan asks.
On the same evening Bridgman is arrested, Hassan is leaning against the fountain on campus. The night is gentle. He has studied and e-mailed half of Pakistan from the computer lab. Still no word on whether he will be issued the student visa he applied for in September. He’s sure the school will come through, but less sure about the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.
Even with the restrictions, and all that has happened to him, Hassan still wants to study here. “An American education is highly respected in Pakistan,” he says. He would go back home and work in technology.
But America itself, that’s a different dilemma. When Hassan was a boy in Pakistan, he read Archie comics and imagined America as a magical place. “Later on is when the reality dawns on you,” he says. “The chances of meeting Betty Cooper are very remote.”
He pauses. “Sometimes life is so bad here that you only wish for an egomaniacal, cheating, low person like Veronica Lodge.”
‘All Because of Them’“Good morning. Attorney Spaulding’s office,” says Chavez, deftly juggling the phones in the law office the next morning. She punches another line. “Anthony, thank you for holding.”
A potential client hovers at the counter, filling out a narrative of his legal troubles. “How do you spell ‘revoked’?” he asks.
Chavez leans forward. “R-E-V-O-K-E-D.”
In a week, her mother will be laid off from her $9-an-hour third-shift factory job, making Chavez the biggest breadwinner in the house. Her boyfriend is still out of work. With winter coming, construction is slowing. Some of their friends have pulled up stakes and returned to Mexico.
Her brother was detained and searched at the airport recently. “All because of them,” he came home muttering.
The dream doesn’t feel so fresh anymore. Chavez leafs through a Harry and David gourmet Christmas catalogue that arrived in the office mail. She eyes the boxes of Royal Riviera pears. “You come over thinking you will just stay a while,” she says. “You get caught up in the American dream, which is expensive, and now all messed up.”
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