A little more than a year ago, I decided not to go to Starbucks anymore. It was partially because I was tired of drinking burnt coffee, and partially because I got sick of paying $5.00 for each cup of burnt coffee. We are a wasteful society. We think nothing of the fact that $1 can buy a homeless child a winter coat. $20 can put a child through school in Zimbabwe for a year. I try to do my part, in ways large and small to reduce this wastefulness. So much of it, after all, comes down to a mindset, and the question, do I really need that?
So this particular day, I decided I didn’t need Starbucks. Instead, I pulled through the Shell gas station to get some gas, and decided to get my coffee there. I had noticed the Shell station before. I pass it twice a day on the way to and from work. The Shell station is about half way between my home and my school. It lies on a frontage road just after the waste treatment plant and just before the several literal and figurative train tracks I cross. My commute is 30 minutes, one way, on a good day, 45 minutes on a bad one, and I don’t mind. I listen to audio books, sit in blessed silence with my thoughts, take phone calls. Sometimes, it’s the only time alone I have all day. My drive always serves as a nice transition between home, where one piece of my heart lives, and school which holds the other.
When I walked in to the Shell station that day, I’m not ashamed to say that all eyes were on me. Apparently they didn’t get a lot of folks in there that look the way I do. Apparently not too many school teachers know the secret of the $1.04 gas station coffee. I’ll share it. It’s delicious, always hot, never burnt. There is unlimited hazelnut creamer. Sometimes, it’s free.
That day I noticed the attendants were more friendly and less frenzied than a Starbucks barista. There was no line. I could make my coffee the way I liked it, so my order was never wrong. It didn’t take me long to determine this was my new spot. I am, in general, a creature of habit, so after that first day, I went every day to the gas station. It became something of a daily ritual.
- Pull up
- Grab keys, phone, and wallet
- Go inside and greet the folks behind the register
- Rinse out my mug
- Pay/or don’t (as I said, sometimes, it was free) The phrase indicating free coffee was coming up was when the attendant would say, “Just a refill? That’s it today? No charge.”
- Wish everybody a great day.
After doing this every day for almost an entire school year, I developed what I would definitely classify as a sort of friendship with many of the attendants there. I asked about their children. They asked me about teaching. They made fun of me when I bought donuts anticipating that it was going to be a rough day, and said, “Only one donut today?”
One day, I noticed one of the attendants had a name tag that said, “Azeb”. It was familiar to me because I had a student named Azeb from Eritrea, a small East African country many Americans know nothing about. My Azeb was an 18 year old refugee who wanted nothing more than to be a nurse. My Azeb was divorced at 17 years old from an abusive husband in an arranged marriage. We had formed a bond when she came to my school and entered the system as a high school Junior with little to no English speaking, reading, or writing ability. In spite of, or perhaps because of all of this, My Azeb worked her ass off and graduated high school in two years. When I told the Azeb at the Shell station that I liked her name, she smiled, thanked me and replied, “Everyone from Eritrea is named Azeb. It’s a really common name.” We laughed about it.
From then on, we made it a point to ask about the things that mattered most to us. She found out I was a high school teacher. I discovered she had a daughter who was a high school student. Though I know there was an immediate bond because she is a Black female, and so am I, there was more to it than that, and we felt it. We appreciated it. A bond of mutual respect was forged.
Though there are other attendants at the Shell station who know me by face if not by name, Azeb is my favorite. That is why, when I witnessed her dehumanization today, I felt her pain as acutely as if it were my own.
I was third in line when I heard the word “Trump” and my ears perked up. I assumed it was someone going off about what a horrible so-called President he is. Instead, as the conversation developed, I slowly came to realize it was the opposite. The men were at the register. Azeb was ringing them up. I’m sure she asked them how they were doing. She asks everyone how they are doing.
“….I’ll be so much better once they get that Donald TRUMP in office for another four after these first few years.”
He was taunting her
“Trump’s going to fix everything. He’s kicking those immigrants out on their asses right where they belong.”
“He’s building a wall that’s sure gonna fix a lot of problems.”
“‘aint no wall high enough to keep them out.”
“Just one look at the cashiers will tell you that much.”
It happened so fast.
I wanted to drop my things and chase after them. I wanted to demand they apologize. I wanted to hug her and make sure she was okay. In that moment, within earshot of the conversation there was myself, Azeb, a hispanic man, an African American man, and another cashier. We were all people of color. The two men having the conversation were outnumbered. Yet, we all stayed silent. I don’t know if our silence was the result of shock that someone could be so unapologetic with their hatred, or if it was the result of hundreds of years of social conditioning not to “cause trouble”. Either way, I, along with everyone else in that line, became a bystander. The conversation was over, and the men were out the door before I realized what happened. I know from experience, all it takes is a moment to diminish someone’s humanity.
When I got to the register, I saw there were tears in Azeb’s eyes. I asked about her daughter, which made her smile. I told her I’d be back soon, which I will. I’m going back tomorrow. But I couldn’t shake the anger, the rage that pricked just behind my eyes, making them burn, threatening tears. I still can’t shake it.
If only she could have refused them service.
If only I had dropped everything and confronted them about their hateful words.
This was not subtle racism. It was outright, flagrant, ostentatious hatred directed at the innocent.
Azeb is one of millions of immigrants who take positions of servitude working at gas stations, as custodial staff, as nail technicians, agricultural workers, for a country that has built itself on the foundation of white supremacy.
She does not deserve to be disrespected. Nobody does. Sometimes, something as simple as learning a person’s name can be the bridge we all need to cross to make social, economic, and cultural divides smaller.
So what can you do? For me, it always comes down to the questions. How can you use whatever privilege you have as a man, as a white person, as a native English speaker, as a citizen, as a person whose religion is not vilified, to make the world a more tolerable place for those who do not share your privilege? What amount of your safety, comfort, power are you willing to give up so that someone else can be liberated? If you become a bystander, what is next? Until all of us are free, who among us truly can be?
Her name is Azeb. Say her name. Learn how to pronounce it correctly. Take the time to read up about where she’s from. Carry the story with you. Don’t let those around you who serve you be nameless. Learn their stories. Make them a part of yours.