Sunday, July 11, 2004

adbul was ponderous

working from seven to eleven really makes life a drag. abdul had his brothers for companionship, though they didn't talk much. when the customers heard arabic, they grew visibly annoyed. so habib had a lot of time to think. none of his tasks required much thinking. the avenues of thought were always smooth-flowing, even while he was making change or deciphering a cigarette brand request from a mushmouth.

the store was in a nice neighborhood, actually, one of the five or seven in detroit that hadn't been ravaged by the holy trinity of riots, depopulation, and crack. white people still lived there, though most of the store's clientele was black. in the eight years his family had owned the party store, they'd been held up twice. not a bad average, his cop customers reminded him. habib's uncle thought it wasn't yet necessary to install bulletproof glass.

abdul and habib and mohammed knew who stole and who didn't. sometimes they judged wrong, but they never admittted this to those under judgment. for years they had seen the number of crackheads grow. they seemed to live on sweet drinks. grand river was a major thoroughfare; the bus took them to the northwest side from downtown. when habib looked at the date on the budweiser calendar on the wall behind the cash registers, he could think of little but degeneration. the beginning of the eighties was rough enough. in what state would the city exist at the end of the decade?

there had always been winos, of course, the maudlin and angry drunks who bought fortified wine and food items like sunflower seeds and candy. what rot for their teeth and stomach - all the sugar from the bright wine and from the red and orange cellophane packets of gummi worms and fireballs, two for a dollar or 59 cents each. he knew their habits, and he kept them all under half-conscious surveillance.

closer than even the drunks and drug addicts he watched the little kids from the neighborhoods. many were thieves themselves. but of graver concern, with their parents at work or elsewhere or sitting at home, these 80-pound boys and sometimes girls, both white and black, strolled the same aisles as the erratic chemical dependents. abdul stocked most of what the latter needed close to the counter. around the four aisles of the store, toys grazed the lower shelves - army men from taiwan, action figures that were knockoffs of popular cartoon characters.

he knew these kids, coming on allowance day and blowing five dollars in creative ways. or keeping it for bigger and better things, and stealing merchandise. boys wore big baggy shorts with pockets that summer. the short shorts of summers past had become rejected hand-me-downs that were kept in the attic or left on the front steps for the purple heart guys to toss into the back of their truck.

it wasn't hard for abdul to catch a thief. the boys usually got away with it the first time or two. they would snatch a few things, make a beeline for the door, and abdul would watch with a resigned look. the next time they came in, abdul would confer with his cousin and his brother. "keep an eye on that one. be ready to move. catch him in the parking lot before he gets on his bike."

so they caught most of them eventually that way. rehabilitation was key with these boys. he wanted to keep them as regular customers; he just needed to let them know that they could not get away with the pilfering. their parents shopped at the store for beer and ice and lottery tickets. if he got through to them, it was enough. so he asked for phone numbers. most of them were fake, he knew. but the ordeal of being caught was usually sufficient deterrant for future episodes - the barking, the repeated command to look into abdul's enormous eyes, and the condescending, amused looks from the other customers. once the boy looked sufficiently scared, abdul's manner would soften. he would relax his shoulders and pat his pockets. "i won't call your parents this time. next time i won't call them either - i will call the police. look, the next time i see you in here you better buy something."

the boy would start breathing again and disappear into the neighborhood on his bike. abdul would turn back to his thoughts and to some task.