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At mid-morning on a hot summer day, the customers filing into a convenience store on the edge of downtown San Diego hear an enthusiastic “Hello, boss!” or a “How are you doing?” from the gray-haired man with thick dark eyebrows behind the counter.
The nametag on his black logoed polo shirt reads simply “Frank.”
He greets each customer this way even though he’s been here since before 6 a.m. Some grunt a response. Others laugh. He shows no sign of pacing himself as he spends energy, even though when he’s done a full day’s work here, he’ll head to Mira Mesa for another eight-hour shift in a factory.
Monday through Friday, he leaves his house at 5 a.m. while his wife is asleep. When he arrives home at midnight, she has already gone to bed. He eats dinner, plays with his white poodle, Barfi — named for “barf,” the Persian word for snow — for a few minutes and goes to bed. Three or four hours later, he wakes up to do it all again. All of this to pay his bills and make his mortgage payment on his home in Rancho Bernardo.
These details of Frank’s life take longer to tell than the few seconds we typically allow for chatting with someone behind a counter, a person we often reduce to the hands that count our change or the responses to our directives issued in short sentences.
We want to pump gas: “$20 on three.” We want to buy cigarettes: “A pack of Marlboro Lights.” Perhaps a half-hearted “please” tacked on.
Not that my relationship with Frank was any different. I’ve known Frank for three years. For a year-and-a-half, I visited his Tiger Mart nearly every day when the voiceofsandiego.org offices were located across the street.
I always said hi to Frank and made small talk. I’d stay long enough to feed my Diet Coke habit, maybe buy some gummy worms or cashews or sunflower seeds for office-mates and walk back across the street.
I knew nothing of his story. I didn’t even know until last week that his name isn’t Frank.
Turns out he is Farrokh Yadzani, born in Pakistan to Iranian parents. He works 80 hours a week, leaving Tiger Mart at 2:15 p.m. every day and driving to Mira Mesa where he starts work at 2:45 p.m., assembling boxes for blood tests sold by Biosite.
I didn’t know any of this.
In each except one of the last 36 months, I have spent a day with a San Diegan in his or her job. I delight in discovering unexpected stories of people. I’ve received some really great e-mails from readers who’ve suggested the People at Work series has given them a new outlook on some of the daily relationships they have with people who remain somewhat anonymous to them.
All the while, Frank remained somewhat anonymous to me.
When we moved offices last year, I told him I’d come back to visit. I finally walked in the door a month or two ago after the frustrations of an afternoon searching for elusive documents at the courthouse. He recognized me, shouted, “It’s been a long time!” I wondered why it had taken me so long to go back.
Two weeks ago, I stopped in again. “I want to write a story about you,” I told him.
“Thank you very much,” he said without hesitating a second.
One morning last week, I stood behind the counter while he priced a beer shipment, enabled gas pumps, made change and joked with his manager and customers. In spare moments, he shared the story I nearly missed.
Though his parents were Iranian, Yadzani spent the first 23 years of his life in Pakistan. He began working when he was 13 for his father’s restaurant. He earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce and bought his own restaurant.
Then he lost everything to a gambling habit — “horse race, cards, everything.”
“I lost my life then,” he says.
But he soon reinvented it. He moved to Tehran, met his wife, began working at a hotel and was promoted within three months. That’s when the Islamic Revolution came in Iran, in 1979.
Society in Tehran changed. His boss at the hotel, a British man, left the country along with many other foreigners. Yadzani’s superiors and neighbors pressured him to change his religion, he says.
Yadzani is a Parsi Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that influenced today’s most popular faiths. It has been more and more marginalized as Islam has grown in Iran, especially so with the last revolution.
“They like only Muslims,” he says. “We were suffering.”
He moved from Iran to San Diego in 2001, on June 26, claiming refugee status. His two kids, aged 28 and 26, live here, as does his wife. He is 55 and became a U.S. citizen after five years in the country.
He started going by “Frank” nearly immediately. “Farrokh is very hard for people,” he says.
Yadzani said he maintains respect for everyone who comes in. “If you make good friendships, people come back,” he says. “I keep respect for everybody. I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown. God created all of us. It doesn’t matter.”
A gray-haired woman wearing a blue blouse and a white skirt steps slowly into the store, helped by her granddaughter.
“Hello, Maria,” Yadzani says, turning to me with an aside. “She’s my darling.”
She asks for some lottery tickets and focuses on scratching the papers to see if she has won. Yadzani runs the numbers through a machine.
“If you win, I give it to you. If you don’t win, I’ll say bye bye to you!” Yadzani quips. The first card is not a winner. Neither is the second.
“Maria, your luck is like my luck — no good,” he says. He kisses her hand before she leaves the store.
Yadzani is scheduled to have shoulder surgery this week. He’s not sure how he became injured, but he shows me how he can’t lift his right arm up above his shoulder on its own. He’ll have to take unpaid leave from this job for his recovery. When a customer asks about what will be involved in his surgery, Yadzani shrugs and answers.
“I don’t know anything,” he says. “If I’m dead, I’m dead. God knows. I’ve done my life.” If he is being hyperbolic, there is no sign of joking on his face.
Yadzani has worked for the convenience store for eight years. He’s one of seven employees at the store, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Manager Rigoberto Juarez is a former government worker in Mexico who’s juggled a variety of jobs in the United States, from running a bilingual newspaper in San Ysidro to taking the helm of some Burger King restaurants for 14 years.
Now, at Tiger Mart, Juarez tries to ease his employees’ load, while dealing himself with a 60-hour work week. He schedules Yadzani for 15 minutes overtime every day to help him earn gas money.
The pair calls themselves “brothers from different mothers.”
Juarez says he’s seen Yadzani grow.
“At the beginning, he was a little grouchy with the customers,” Juarez says. “He used to fight, to argue with the customers. But he’s really learned a lot. I taught him to be friendly. Ever since, he built up a lot of friendships. That’s why he’s my No 1. He’s my right hand.”
Yadzani says he sees one giant difference between his work here and in Tehran. Here, he earns $10 per hour at Tiger Mart and $12 per hour at Biosite. In Iran, he says, he could save money. Here in the United States, he can’t.
“They don’t give us money to save,” Yadzani says. “They give us money to spend and to pay taxes and to work. We can breathe.”
Close to noon, a customer buying armfuls of snacks approaches the counter. Yadzani tries to hawk him a little plastic bottle of energy drink. “It will wake you up, shake you up!” The customer declines, but I ask Yadzani if that’s what he uses to stay awake.
“No, I use my own energy,” he says. “I have good energy.”
A few minutes later, I ask Yadzani if he’s happy. He says he is, thanks in large part to Juarez, who treats him well, and to the freedoms of religion and social behavior in the United States. His wife works full time at Biosite in the morning shift. But Yadzani says he’ll always work as hard and as much as necessary to take care of his family.
“I’m used to it since when I came to the States,” he says of his schedule. “To be happy in my life, you know.”
I can’t help my embarrassment that I’ve never asked Yadzani more about himself. He brushes my sentiment off. His life story just doesn’t usually come up in this context, and he doesn’t ask his customers much about themselves, either, he says.
“Nobody asks me this stuff, and my habit is not to ask these questions,” he says. “But if somebody needs help, I will help. I want to keep everybody happy.”