San Francisco’s Arab-operated grocery stores are living on borrowed time.
They’re located in dismal, dangerous sectors of town much like their Korean and Indian counterparts in other American cities.
These Mideast flavored, family operated businesses sprang up like desert flowers following a rain shortly after the immigration floodgates were thrown open in the1960s. Most came from Palestine and they measured success in two ways: How soon can I bring a family member to join me in San Francisco? And, when can I have my own store?
These little bastions of free enterprise survived in the most hostile environment, often in the middle of a battleground. In those days, before Starbuck’s and Krispy Creme, there weren’t many American merchants anxious to commit economic suicide by locating in the ghetto.
These hardworking Palestinians, toughened by decades of danger back home, would be amused by the observation that what they do is brave, or that they were satisfying a market need by serving a community shunned by others.
But these bubbly, intrepid folks are facing more danger now than ever before.
I can’t remember the first time I sold a Palestinian a coin, but it was more than 30 years ago and a gold dealer could not ask for a more ideal customer. They are totally suspicious of paper money and always pay in cash. Once the dealer gains their trust they remain eternally loyal.
Unlike most customers, they are not frightened when gold prices drop, viewing cheaper gold as a buying opportunity. And they make life easy for the gold dealer since there’s only one gold item they favor.
“How much is the COIN today?” they ask on the phone.
The COIN is a British gold sovereign. To those unfamiliar with “the coin,” it contains a bit less than one-quarter ounce pure gold, and was produced in seven different mints on five continents. The gold sovereign reflects the span and wealth of the British Empire from the late 19th century through the1930’s. It was the closest to an international currency the world had ever experienced.
It is obvious that Palestine under the British Mandate — an island of freedom and free enterprise as compared to rule by Istambul or Tel Aviv — led its citizens to a love affair with the gold sovereign that becomes more entrenched with time.
The women, colorfully attired in billowing silk dresses and head scarves, do all the gold buying. Cash is secreted in every fold and hem and it’s amazing how much paper money could be concealed in one garment.
I don’t know how they run their grocery stores, but it’s a safe guess that the women wind up with all the proceeds at the end of the day.
I haven’t mentioned the one tedious aspect of dealing with my Palestinians. Negotiating the price of “the coin” is an agony that is part of every transaction. Late one Friday afternoon, Mary, one of my favorites, called, agitated, with the usual question about price.
The dialogue went like this:
Burt: “Mary, it’s too late. It’s three o’clock now and you won’t get here until four and since our dealings are always slow, I’ll never get home. Why don’t you come in Monday when we have more time?”
Mary: “No, it can’t be Monday. We have family here from Cleveland and they’re going home tonight. I promise we will buy fast so you can enjoy your weekend.”
Burt: “All right — but I want you to promise that we will get it done quickly with no bargaining. You know my prices are always fair, so no haggling this one time. OK?”
Mary: “I promise, I promise.”
True to her word, Mary arrived breathlessly, in record time from San Francisco to our shop in San Mateo. As usual she was accompanied by her array of family members. I sat the entire crowd down in my office, and proceeded to exact a pledge from every family member present, from grandpa, to Mary’s six- year- old nephew to her husband, his two brothers and the guests from Cleveland.
“Does everybody agree that there will be no negotiation, that you’ll trust my fair pricing and that we will get out of here quickly?” I went around the room until I obtained everybody’s reassurance, even the six-year-old’s.
“Okay,” I said to Mary. “How many coins do you want today?”
She said, “60.”
“Terrific,” I said, pulling several tubes of gold sovereigns from my desk drawer. “Mary, the price today is $82 each.”
Dead silence around the room.
Mary, as if struck in the solar plexus, gasped, “But you sold some coins to a friend of mine this morning at $80 each.”
Bolting out of my chair, I shouted: “Everybody out! You gave me your pledge, no negotiating! Out! Out!”
Stunned, and in a state of shock at my outburst, my little bevy of Palestinians staggered out of the office. I had never seen them so forlorn.
Standing in the hallway, I opened negotiations, and we proceeded to establish the price at $81 per coin, and my group, now restored went happily on their way.
Even before 9/11, I detected a change in my Palestinians. Although there is hardly a week that passes without one of their stores being hit, crime figures in San Francisco are somewhat improved and spending a night in an Arab grocery store isn’t as hazardous as it used to be.
7-Eleven, and other chain-operated convenience stores, succumbing to political pressures began opening stores where they had previously feared to tread, thus providing new stiff competition.
Worse is the coming of the food marts that are part of the current generation of giant, 24- hour gas stations. The ghetto customer has far more choice and feels less confined. The day of the neighborhood Arab store seems past — but 9/11 may provide the final death knell for these little dots of Middle Eastern culture in San Francisco.
My Palestinian pals always seemed to be returning from or planning their next trip to Jerusalem or Amman. It is as if they have two homes. They go back and forth with regularity, and if air travel has become an annoyance for the rest of us, can you imagine the problems these Mideast commuters face?
One fellow I know cancelled plans to attend his brother’s wedding in Cleveland. I started to suggest a strategy he might use to overcome the airport bureaucracy.
“Carry the wedding invitation with you and show it to every airport employee in sight,” I said. He smiled, thanked me for my advice and asked, “Would you look forward to traveling if you looked like me?”
Such problems aren’t exactly new. Another of my Palestinian favorites, Eddie, had an experience that he laughs about to this day although the incident reeks of tragedy.
Eddie had prospered in San Francisco. He had his very own grocery store, and it was time to visit his family in Jordan and proudly show-off his success. He bought a brand new red convertible, making arrangements to ship it by freighter to the Port of Eilat on the Red Sea. He would then drive to Jerusalem to visit friends before making his grand entrance in Jordan.
Those were his great plans. After all he was rich and carried a US passport.
Everything went smoothly. His red convertible survived the long voyage without a scratch, and he enjoyed every minute of the drive to Jerusalem. He kept imagining the faces of his family in Jordan as they saw him pull up in his red beauty.
Poor Eddie could not have predicted the Yom Kippur War. All hell broke loose hours after he checked into his hotel in Jerusalem and he was confined to his room, along with most of the other guests.
For days the war raged about them and the hotel was actually hit by an errant shell. When it was over, an Israeli Army Major told him his car had been commandeered by the state, and that he would find it in some parking area on the edge of town.
His pride and joy was a total wreck. There was no appeal or remedy open to Eddie. To the Israelis he was just an Arab to be looted despite his US passport. To the Jordanians he was suspiciously viewed as an American. Finally, he got permission to leave Jerusalem and headed for Jordan.
I don’t recall whether the bridge across the Jordan was out, or if he was barred from using it, but poor Eddie, trousers rolled up, had to wade across the River Jordan. An Israeli youngster carried his heavy baggage to the edge on that side, with an Arab kid waiting to help him with the bags on the other side but there was no help in between.
Loaded down, Eddie stopped in the middle of the River Jordan, looked around, considered his circumstance and started to cry. But it wasn’t Eddie’s nature to cry too long.
In recounting the story he admits that the tears soon turned to laughter when he realized how ridiculous he must have looked.
My Palestinians haven’t been calling much lately asking the price of the COIN. Their future doesn’t look too bright, but they have survived horrible oppression in and around Israel, and, maybe, just maybe they will persevere.
Meanwhile, I fear I’ve lost some terrific gold customers.