I will never forget that day. The white sheet cake. The snobby gallery owner. The Iraqi man at the liquor store. All came together that day, teaching me a little something about the selfishness, generosity, and resilience of the human spirit.
I had asked Maricela, one of our clients, to make finger-sized, Tres Leches cakes for the C.E.O. Women fundraiser so we would not need knives to cut the cake and serve it to guests. Mousumi, my advisory board member, was in town doing a small trunk show of high-end jewelry and was donating some of the proceeds to Creating Economic Opportunities for Women (C.E.O. Women), a non-profit organization I founded three-and-a-half years ago to economically empower new immigrant and refugee women.
At 11 a.m., Maricela called to tell me she hadn’t been able to finish the cake in time so we were already off to a late start. I finally managed to get hold of the white sheet cake for 50 people with “Sikara,” the name of Mousumi’s business, written on it.
Crossing the Bay Bridge from Oakland into San Francisco, I arrived at the small art gallery owned and operated by a 30-something South Asian woman. It was located on a quiet, slanted San Francisco street amongst other small shops and alternative clothing boutiques.
As I walked in, the owner told me I could not bring the cake or any of the drinks I had just purchased into the gallery. The day was so hot that I could not possibly leave the cake in the car. I tried negotiating with her to put it in the back room of her narrow gallery, but she refused because she was afraid it would damage the art. “Where are you going to do that?” she barked at us. We even suggested putting it outside, on a small table so it wouldn’t be in the way at all. “The street is slanted! It won’t work! You can’t serve food out on the sidewalk. I don’t want to get into trouble if someone chokes. We didn’t sign any agreements. You’ll need to take the liability for this,” she snapped. This woman did not want to bend one inch to accommodate any exposure of our non-profit organization even when I had helped promote the event and the gallery. When I asked if I could put some marketing collateral out on the floor, she made a big deal about that too, saying there was no real room for it except on the ledge of the window. We ended up making some room on Mousumi’s table, but I was still stuck with the cake.
Totally frustrated at the situation, mostly because this was supposed to be a collaborative event promoting all three businesses founded and led by South Asian women entrepreneurs, I proceeded to walk up the street to the corner liquor store and deli, hoping to find some way to cut and wrap the cake so it would not spoil. Behind the counter sat a man in his late 30s. I did not say much to him but he must have noticed the look of desperation in my eyes. I initially asked him if he carried plastic wrap and paper plates. As he walked me to the back of the store, I ended up telling him of my dilemma with the gallery owner. He immediately told me to bring the cake in to the deli counter and offered to help cut it and we could saran wrap each piece to give out to our guests. Thankful for the opportunity to not waste the $40 cake, I brought it in. He even refused to let me buy the paper plates, forks, and wrap. He handed me a knife and I was on my way, happily cutting slices of the white sheet cake.
The storeowner’s name was Rod and he was from Iraq. I learned that he had left his country two years ago to come to America for business opportunities and had bought this store with his cousin. He was in the baking business back in Iraq too, importing cookies and other sweets from the United States and Britain. I gathered that he had his own shop in Iraq as well. I spoke of C.E.O. Women and our programs to help immigrant and refugee women start their own micro-enterprises. I thanked him incessantly for being so generous and letting me take refuge in his corner store.
He asked about my family. I told him my parents were immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan and I had one brother and a sister.
He seemed to relate to me. “I had a brother and a sister too,” he said. I started to ask him about them when he interrupted me: “They were killed six months ago in Iraq from the bombing,” he said somberly.
I did not think I heard him correctly. “What?” I said. My heart sank the way it did after I watched Dirty Pretty Things. This is the type of story I hear on the news, but here it was so raw and in front of me. As I continued slicing pieces of the cake I could not even fathom what his reality was like. Do you have family still in Iraq? Who killed them? How? How do you stand to live here in this country knowing America bombed the hell out of your brother and sister for the sake of oil and greed?
We talked a little more and I was about halfway through the cake. The table we set up outside the gallery could not fit any more slices so Rod offered to keep the extra pieces in the fridge under the deli meats.
Five shops down, at the gallery, people trickled in throughout the day. I managed to talk with a few guests about our organization and how we try to empower women to realize their creative and economic potential.
As people walked out of the door, I pointed to pieces of the cake. I told them that Maricela had baked it for the event and that she was working hard to start her business. She had come here to this country 15 years ago. Her husband was a professor of business in Mexico and ended with a job as a meat packer here until he became very sick, and had to take on several other menial, low-wage jobs for years to come. I told them how this was a dream she had that was in line with her skills and talents and that for her, it represented the ultimate American dream. People seemed delighted and took a piece of this dream with them.
As the event neared completion, I helped Mousumi break down her displays and pack her periodots, garnets, amber, and other semi-precious stones in their plastic bags. Tired from all the running around, I went back to the liquor store to take care of the leftovers.
When I got there, Rod had left and his cousin was behind the counter. He looked at me and asked, “You have cake here?” I nodded and went behind the deli. Before Rod left, he had sliced the remaining third of the sheet, and set the 10 pre-packaged cakes in plates for me in the fridge. I took what I could and told his cousin to please offer the extra pieces to his customers tonight, and to thank Rod for helping me out in a pinch. I gave him my business card and told him that if they ever needed help with their business or advice on financing and other resources, they could feel free to give me a call. Relieved that the event was over, I left feeling grateful for the kindness of this person. The small, simple things from an unknown stranger saved my day. These small, simple things I think are what will save the world.
Farhana Huq is the founder and CEO of C.E.O. Women