Last Saturday I met Charles Bukowski at a Starbucks in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Antonio, Texas. He was arriving just as my wife and I had finished up our coffees and were gathering our belongings to leave.
Because he could see that we were getting ready to take off, he walked right up to us and asked, “Are you finished here?”
“Yes,” I answered as I stared at his acne-scarred face and misshapen nose—the bulbous proboscis of a wino.
“I ask because you’re at my favorite table, and I want to claim it if you are leaving.”
“You can put your stuff here if you’d like while we get ready to head out. By the way, has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Charles Bukowski?”
“Charles who?” he asked gruffly.
In fact, he was a spitting image of the renegade poet-madman-drunkard.
Because we’d bought books and had to put on coats and scarves to gird ourselves against the cold, it took us awhile to get our stuff together. During this period, a conversation began to blossom. “So you come here often?” I asked him.
“Every Saturday. You see, I’m retired, but I give private lessons on the side to people who want to learn English. Right now, I’m working with three young girls from Djibouti. I always teach them at this particular table.” After saying this, he leaned in to me and whispered, “Their English is very weak.”
Azza, my wife who speaks Arabic as her mother tongue, is not really a shy person, but she sometimes has a hard time inserting herself into a conversation between Americans when they are speaking a hundred miles an hour.
“I bet they’ll learn very fast, though,” I told him. “They will probably be better at learning our language than we would be at learning theirs.”
“Maybe. But who would want to learn whatever it is that they speak?”
“Ask them to speak their language to you and really listen to what they say. I bet what you hear will sound beautiful if you open your ears and mind. It’s my opinion that more Americans should learn a second language.”
He kind of frowned and then said, “So many people from crap countries want to come here. They are just flooding in. They have to learn English because it’s the lingua franca.”
I could feel the hair stand up on my neck. Only days earlier, Donny Trump, the Hairpiece, had called African countries “shitholes.” I had the feeling this old fart was likely a Trumper, and a part of me wanted to snarl.
“By the way, I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Azza. She’s from Africa. Her country and the people who call it home are beautiful in many ways.”
“I’m sure it is and that they are,” he said a touch snarkily.
“I think Americans should be a little more careful about judging others. Don’t you think this country has its share of problems?” I asked him.
“Compared to other places, America is el paradiso,” he said, suddenly shifting to a foreign language. “By the way, where, in Africa, is your wife from?”
“Egypt,” she said, finally asserting herself.
The man’s face suddenly changed and he started speaking Arabic to her. As it turns out, he was born in Egypt and lived there as a child. He asked her where, in “Misr,” she was from, and she said Cairo. He, as it turns out, had been born in Alexandria.
From that point forward, I faded into the background because the language shifted to Arabic. At one point, he asked her what her religion was and she said Islam. He then called himself a “Yehudi,” which means “Jew,” and explained that this fact had played an important role in why his family left North Africa. He shared some stories about how they had been victims of religious persecution under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Hearing these personal accounts saddened my wife.
We ended up talking until his three students showed up. They were sweet girls. Before they arrived, we found plenty to laugh about—the irony of an Egyptian Muslim and Jew meeting at the same table in a Starbucks at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Antonio. We were reminded how small the world really is and how big it is too. And how much we have in common despite our superficial differences.