I buy gas regularly at the same “Fast and Easy” cheap gas station in Cloverdale. One day when I had gone inside to purchase a drink, as I was waiting to pay, I overheard the young male cashier speaking in Spanish to a Latino customer. I was surprised, because he appeared to be East Indian. When it was my turn, I said, “I’m impressed. Your accent sounds Indian, but you speak Spanish.” He smiled, and said that he was Pakistani, and spoke native Urdu. He told me that he had picked up a little Spanish since moving to the United States, since so many of his customers were Latino. We spoke briefly about languages, a topic that I love, and I told him my name was Michelle. He said he was Rasheed, and extended his hand. We shook, and smiled. In that small way, a simple friendship was born.
Often when I stop for gas, I’m in a hurry, and just fill up and go. But if I have time, and see Rasheed through the window, I step inside to say hello. We greet each other by name; he asks me about my job; I ask if he has decided yet to make the move from St. Helena to Cloverdale. It is nothing earth shattering, or monumental – but both of our faces light up with smiles when we see each other.
There is another regular employee at the gas station, an older man who I thought might be Saudi; he had an accent I couldn’t place. But I had also noticed several times that he was wearing shirts with Native American images on them, so I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. He was friendly, but in our exchanges I had never moved beyond the point of basic acknowledgements.
This morning, I was on my way to a medical appointment in Santa Rosa. It was pouring rain; I had been up the previous night until 5 a.m. after working nearly 18 hours on deadline day at the newspaper. I was nervous about the procedure I was about to undergo at the lab, and I was cognizant of time – I needed to get gas, stop at the ATM for cash, and get on the road.
At the gas station, after I turned on the pump, I decided to go inside to purchase a cup of coffee. As I stepped inside, I saw Rasheed to the rear of the store. I called out, “Hello, Rasheed!” Then I saw that the other man was also on duty, which was a surprise; usually there was only one person at the station at a time. In that moment, it suddenly struck me as unfriendly to greet Rasheed by name while ignoring the other man. So I turned to him and held out my hand. I said, “I’m Michelle. I should know your name.” He introduced himself as Gil.
While he rang up my purchase, we lamented about the unseasonal stormy weather. I mentioned that I worked for a newspaper in Calistoga, and that next week three outdoor school graduations were scheduled; I was praying that the rain would stop, so they wouldn’t have to be held in the high school gym. And with that innocent statement, a wonderful opening came. Gil said, “I went to my daughter’s graduation in San Diego last week. She got a 91 percent in calculus. She made the President’s List.” He was smiling broadly.
I pressed him for details. His daughter, a high school drop-out, had just completed a B.A. in Business in San Diego. She was returning to Sonoma County this summer, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Business at Sonoma State. He told me that as long as she had a C average, the casino would pay for her tuition. I asked, “You’re Native American?” He said yes; he was from Arizona, but his wife was a Pomo Indian. Their daughter’s education was being paid for by the tribe, with monies from River Rock Casino. Throughout the conversation, Gil was beaming. I congratulated him repeatedly, and told him how happy I was that he had been able to attend the graduation, and said he must be very proud.
With a final “Congratulations!” and smiles, we repeated our names one more time, and I turned to go. In that short five minutes, I had completely forgotten my anxiety about my appointment. I was no longer looking at my watch, wondering if I would be late. I was not worrying about the rain or the traffic. Instead, I felt buoyantly, exuberantly connected. It was an incredible gift to have been the person to receive Gil’s good news. I held it in my heart like a treasure for the rest of the day.
In “Zen Is Right Here,” there is this anecdote about Suzuki Roshi:
A student asked Suzuki Roshi if he kept an eye on his students to see if they were following the precepts, the Buddhist guidelines of conduct.
“I don’t pay any attention to whether you’re following the precepts or not,” he answered. “I just notice how you are with one another.”
For me, the experience today was a reminder to put aside all of my thinking and planning, my concerns about my own life, and whether or not I am a good person, or whether or not I will find happiness, and all of those other daily worries. Instead, slow down, pay attention, and look into the eyes of my brothers and sisters in the world. In those small moments of connection lie deep fulfillment and joy.