Babs is the owner of a fruit stand on Park Avenue. He is Pakistani, from the city of Lahore, a place made famous by its reputably beautiful women and mouth-watering cuisine. I tell him I’m cooking up an a Chicken-Biriani, a recipe handed down to me by Pakistani students I befriended in Manchester years ago. He produces a crescent smile that highlights his salt-and-pepper stubble to his clean-shaven scalp, and his beading brown, watery eyes widen with a rare glow. He cuts a ghostly appearance, with a skin complex ripe for battling scorching suns but now left without a battle to fight. “I work all the time,” he says, “and winters are too long. I need a vacation.” I nod with empathy.
This quiet and gentle man has a darker side to him; or so they say. Babs has been in bitter rivalry with a fruit stand just a few feet away, and that not long ago, when it went up in smoke, the mood was heavy with suspicion. Mere rumors I suppose. What I do see is a man whose eyes speak of struggle and sweat, of nostalgia for a sun-drenched land and its delicacies.
For a long time he had assumed the girl with whom I shopped was my girlfriend. When I told him she wasn’t, his eyes lit up, we smiled, and the ghost of his, at least for a moment, departed.