Author: Elizabeth Moser
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Elizabeth Moser writes poetry, fiction, essays, book reviews and memoirs. Her chapbook, Spirit Pond and Other Maine Poems (Goose River Press 2004) focuses on mid-coast Maine . She is one of four Maine women who published a collection of poetry, Leavings ( Bay River Press, 2005).
Other published works reflect her Maryland upbringing. She received a 2003 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference fiction award for a short story, and The Potomac Review’s 2002 Poetry Prize, as well as fiction and poetry awards in Baltimore Writer’s Association contests.
Her work is in national and regional journals and magazines including Off the Coast, Wolf Moon Journal, Northwoods Journal, Down East, The Maine Times, Goose River Press Anthology, Passager and The Urbanite. Two of her poems are in the Poets Against the War website anthology, and a memoir, “Growing Up in Two Families,” is published in Generations (Jewish Museum of Maryland).
She has been an Editor of The Baltimore Review since 2003.
Reaching Out: September 2001
I live in a downtown neighborhood of red brick townhouses that nestle comfortably with the unregenerated formstone row houses and public housing units of nearby blocks. We meld easily with the longtime blue collar residents (mostly white), the families in the projects (all minority), and the new Americans— Latinos, Russians, Indians and other Asians—who stand behind the counters of the neighborhood mom-and-pop shops, drug stores and gas stations. We say “Good morning” when we pass one another on the sidewalks, and chat when we’re in line at checkout counters. It’s friendly territory.
At least it was until September eleventh. In the days that followed, our fears were tangible in hunched backs and quicker steps as we looked behind and above to make sure nothing was going to rain down or envelop us. We prayed that something wouldn’t happen again tomorrow. Slowly we learned to live with the personal chaos of vulnerability and tried to recapture the human values and civilities we’d taken for granted.
I was very much aware of the skin colors, accents and the Arab language newspapers that lay on plastic chairs in the little store at the gas station three blocks away. The young man at the pay booth was always pleasant. His name tag, a white plastic bar with “OSMAN” handwritten on it, was used by two or three of the other attendants. “My” Osman was in his early twenties, small build, dark hair, and usually on duty when I gave in my $20 in advance for a fill-up. He and I had maintained a please and thank-you relationship for a couple of months before the World Trade Center bombing. But by the weekend after, I’d been reading stories of insults and assaults against obviously Arab-looking individuals and I was concerned. As I turned in my cash, I said, “Osman, are you all right? Are people treating you well?”
He seemed surprised, “Oh, yes, ma’am,” he said, with his slurred soft accent, “This is a good place. No one would hurt us.”
Thinking of the down-and-outers and school-age toughs who hung around the payphone outside the store and the number of transient cars that used the station, I said, “Don’t be too sure. Watch out. These are terrible times.”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” he said, with a puzzled flicker of a smile.
As I filled my Subaru, I wondered why I needed him to hear my own uncertainties. I guess I wanted to involve myself in tikkun olam, repairing the world.
“Don’t be too sure,” I said, back at his cubicle taking my change. And then, as I pushed open the door to leave, I turned toward Osman, and added, “besides, I’m Jewish!”
His mouth fell open. I think he was wondering what it was that this crazy lady was telling him—that not all Jews hated Arabs, or that he better be careful of all the potential enemies he had acquired since 9/11?
A peculiar bond sprang between us based on my declaration of faith. He wished me a happy (Jewish) new year, and I continued to ask how things were going for him. As the autumn progressed, we chatted about the city, baseball, and football. I would shake my head at the rudeness of the customer in front of me and he would give me a ‘what can you do’ smile in agreement. I learned that he was going to college at night and was hoping to be a full time student at one of the local universities.
Our first snow fell shortly after Thanksgiving, and it jogged me into my annual holiday frenzy. Every year I buy ten pounds of pecans and spend a day baking trays of nuts tossed in a mixture of egg white, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. I cover old margarine containers with silver foil, load in the nuts, stick a shiny bow on top and take them around to the cleaners, the pharmacist, the post office, the tennis group, my neighbors. I was making my rounds and handed Osman one of the containers full of candied pecans.
When I pushed it through the cash window, he gave me the same bewildered
look I’d seen when I’d told him I was Jewish. “What is this about? I really don’t understand!”
“What do you mean?” I asked, put off by his lack of appreciation, “it’s the season of giving and I’m giving you a present because you’ve been nice to me.”
“But” and then he laughed, “don’t you see what you have done? You are a Jew and you’ve given me a Christmas present—during Ramadan when I can’t eat anything!”
My misguided bridging attempt firmed our friendship till he left during the summer. I haven’t seen him since. Somebody else with a handwritten “SHREE” on his white plastic name bar sits inside the office now. When I ask him about Osman, he gives me a blank stare. He can barely speak English. I hope I have the energy and grace to look on him and those who follow as my compatriots, who will share with me the uncertainties of our respective futures.
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