by Elaine Muray

Story Summary

An unlikely friendship is formed in a small-town barbershop. The friendship is not one that can openly flourish due to racism in the town. The story illustrates how one stands firmly and humbly in the face of racism while always willing to give back.

Discussion Questions

  1. Have there been any changes in the past 50 years - would Jimmy be more accepted into the community today?
  2. What do you know about the culture and religion of Lebanon? How does this play into the story?
  3. If you were Jimmy, how would you have handled the different ways in which he was discriminated against?
  4. Is there anywhere in the US that the discrimination against Jimmy would not have likely happened in the 1960s? Why or why not?
  5. Is it possible that if Jimmy had a different job, that he wouldn't be treated as he was? What kind of job would that be?
  6. Do you think there is a reason that Jimmy had the job as a mobile vendor?

Resources

  • Looking West: The Journey of a Lebanese-American Immigrant by Albert Nasib Badre

Themes

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing/Neighborhoods
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript
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Hi, my name is Elaine Muray.

Jimmy Nessar was a hefty, olive-skinned, Lebanese immigrant who hung out in my father’s barbershop on his business rounds. He had a large gray step van and, on the side of it, was written, Nessar’s, we have what you need.

It seems like all kinds of things came out of the back of that van. It seems like all you had to do was think of it and Jimmy would disappear into a jungle of swaying hangers, half-opened boxes and flying tissue paper and, then, he emerged just minutes later with exactly what you needed. From tea towels to shoes to baseball mitts, to sleeping bags, Jimmy’s was the place to get it. And as a gift to my father, behind his barbershop chair was a large mirror. And in the upper right-hand corner of that mirror was a sticker that said, “Look your best.

And every Saturday night, my Dad would clean out the talcum powder out of his nose and ears. He would splash on some Trol aftershave, take out a three-piece suit out of the barbershop closet and he’d walk out the door going who knows where.

Now when Jimmy came into the shop, he would place his large frame on the green and white metal chairs with a stogie perched on his lips and beneath his black mustache and, there, Jimmy would wait. He would wait until my Dad was cutting the customer’s hair, had tossed off the clippings and the talcum powder from the covering, had rung up the customer and only when my Dad had a push broom in his hand and the customer was putting on a jacket, would Jimmy ask the customer if there was anything that he needed.

You see Jimmy was old school. If you wait long enough, they will come and they will buy.

Now, it wasn’t until many years later that I learned that my Dad and Jimmy were actually very good friends. Although, you wouldn’t know this from their barber shop interactions. Nor would you see Jimmy down at the VFW or the American Legion places my Father hung out. For these were places where Jimmy was not welcome even though he, too, had served his time during World War II.

You see, with his Middle Eastern ancestry and his dark skin, he just was not a good fit in our Southwestern Pennsylvania town. And, even though he gave back to the community by donating his time to Meals on Wheels and his money to Goodwill, the community did not give back to him, although they always looked for a good deal on the back of his van.

It also was not many years later since my Dad has passed to the other side. He passed away about 10 years ago. And we never knew what happened to Jimmy. And I went home around Christmas time to see my sister and brother. One night we all went out for dinner and as we were waiting outside the restaurant, it was my sister that noticed Jimmy first coming down the hill – now 100 pounds thinner, frail, leaning on his son’s arm. We ran up to him and asked him if he remembered us and, of course, Jimmy smiled his broad salt and pepper mustache broadening above his lips. And his eyes were twinkling as they always did.

We talked about my Dad; he talked fondly of him. He asked how my Mother was doing. And we, of course, asked about his magical van.

Inside the restaurant, we sat at separate tables, but every time I looked over at Jimmy, he was always smiling with that twinkle in his eyes.

When we finished eating, we went over to him. My brother warmly shook his hand and my sister and I gave him a kiss on the cheek, something we never would have done as children.

The next day my sister and I went over to relieve the caregiver of taking care of my mother and it took us a good 45 minutes to get her up in her chair and ready for the day. And when she was, we told her about running into Jimmy. And she told us a story that we had never heard.

She said it had been a particularly difficult year and Christmas was approaching. And she did not yet have any presents for us even though she cleaned out my Dad’s pockets every night but only coming up with enough for scrambled egg dinners that never seemed to end. She was even sending my brothers down to the shop to see if they could get any money off my Dad before he went and spent it out at the Christmas parties.

Still, it was Christmas Eve now and she did not have any presents. So, she did something that I’m sure must have been very difficult for her. She called up Jimmy and asked him if there was anything on the back of his van at this late date. She said she didn’t know when she would get to pay him, but if he would give her some time. And he said he had time.

So, unbeknownst to us, my mother had sent us over to our cousins that afternoon to play and while we were gone, Jimmy delivered. By the time we got home, the presents had been wrapped and were hidden.

That night my Dad staggered in and it was the one time we were guaranteed to see him, because as we came to know as children, there are no bars open on Christmas Eve.

The next morning, we sat at the top of the steps as we always did, waiting for my Father to get up and put on his bathrobe. And only then, could we run down the stairs and underneath the aluminum tree with bright blue balls was a present for each of us. For my sister – a pair of shoes and the matching purse. For my brothers – bats signed by Roberto Clemente and for me – a French doll with her own sketchbook and beret. My Dad even got a gift of a couple shirts and my Mother a string of pearls, a gift that I know she would never have allowed herself.

Now, it’s been many years since I came to believe in Santa Claus. But when my Mother told me this story, I became a new convert. And maybe there’s a Santa Claus in your life. Maybe he does not drive a red sleigh. Mine drove a large gray step van. Maybe he does not come from the North Pole. Mine came from north of Nazareth. But there’s one thing you can always be sure of: they always have a twinkle in their eye and they always come bearing gifts.