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From My Corner To Cairo

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I happened upon this neighborhood by chance. In late 2006, an e-mail arrived from my then- landlord notifying me that the building was being sold. Still fairly new to San Francisco, I had a few weeks to find a new home. I roamed the neighborhoods looking for the right fit. I couldn't quite describe it, but I was in search of something similar to the six-plus years that I lived on the Park Slope/Windsor Terrace border of Brooklyn. It was diversity yes, but something more. I bounced all over San Francisco and finally found myself in a tiny section called Alamo Square. I knew nothing about the neighborhood and everyone I asked shared in the unknown. Alamo Sqaure is squeezed in the middle of uncommonly diverse sections of the city. Just a few blocks each way and you'll find yourself either in the projects, amongst pot-blowing hippies, taking photos for tourists or trying to squeeze past the baby strollers. But these few blocks didn't seem to have an identity. It was everything from each of the surrounding neighborhoods blended into one. It seemed right.

I spent those first few months hanging around my local coffee shop. The place was falling apart, but I got to know the owner, "Mike." He hailed from Brooklyn by way of Palestine but for the past 20 or so years called San Francisco home. We talked world events, shared our mutual joy of the 2008 presidential election and gradually became friends. "Christopher!" he would yell every time I opened the door to a business I slowly witnessed fall apart. As the economic collapse took hold, Mike's business crept towards the end. We tried a fundraiser, a number of locals chipped in to paint the place and clean it up. Nothing seemed to work. Mike ended up selling the shop to his friend Mohammed. I figured my time there was up.

After a few weeks of renovations, Mohammed re-opened the cafe. Alamo Square Cafe it was re-named. In addition to coffee, they would serve sandwiches, and various homemade Middle Eastern dishes. I just wanted to hear Mike yell my name as he peered above the day's New York Times. Only a resident of the area for a little over a year, I felt as though Mohammed needed to gain my approval. And that happened in a matter of weeks. Just like Mike, Mohammed called Palestine home. But unlike Mike, he didn't talk as openly and passionately about world events. Probably better for business, I figured.

Becoming friends with Mike and Mohammed progressed into friendships with the guys who owned the local corner stores. There is Sabeel from Tunisia and Sari, also from Palestine. When picking up milk or fruit, I'd talk to these guys leisurely about the neighborhood, the football game on television, and on rare occasion, events back in their homelands. Similar to Mohammed, they didn't say much. Incredibly kind and patient with all customers, they liked to keep most of the conversation light. I'd ask how Mike was doing as they'd toss treats to my dog, Bennett. If I left my wallet at home, no problem. When the economic downfall impacted me, they near demanded that I pay less.

When events started rising in Egypt, I walked into the corner store one night and Sabeel was watching Al Jazeera on his computer. "Pretty amazing what's happening over there," I said sheepishly. "It all started in Tunisia. That's my country," he tossed back with gleaming pride. We talked for about a half hour about how it all got started. As the days passed, whether I was getting coffee at Mohammed's or paper towels at Sari's, we'd take a minute or two to catch up on Egypt. They were skeptical of the outcome.

This morning I made both stops. Mohammed was outside his store smoking and sipping coffee. As Bennett and I approached, his excitement and pride were palpable. Bennett sat down and Mohammed reached down to pet him, something I can't recall him ever doing before. "How about Egypt," I opened. "Mubarak is gone," he said as neighbors began to fill up his store. "It all started in Tunisia," I replied, stealing the line directly from up the block. "Yeah, you know Sabeel is from there." I nodded, shared a few laughs and headed for the corner store. As Bennett grew excited for the morning treats, I saw that the store was still closed. Just like the millions swarming the streets of Cairo, Sari and Sabeel were probably taking a little time to soak this one in. And despite having never been near Cairo, I could feel it all via these friendships, all formed in this few-block neighborhood I now call home.