One day about three of four years ago, a car rolled up in front of the local convenience store downtown. The car had a sticker on the bumper that said, “I’m a trout sticker.” The proprietor of the convenience store and his son who are both avid fishermen spotted the sticker and had to know.
“Are you a trout fisherman?” the youngster asked.
Well, that, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
From that moment on, the proprietor at Circle K (Mac’s Milk), Ahmad Shah Golan, his son Jahid and the trout fisherman, Eli Garrett, became tight fishing buddies. They’ve fished on the Credit River, in the Kawarthas, at Fenelon Falls, wherever the water runs and the fish do too. And that’s just one of the extraordinary encounters that happen regularly at Shah’s store, principally because he meets so many people (not all fishermen) from behind the store counter. But what’s even more remarkable is that for all the years he’s run the store, he’s remembered nearly everybody’s name.
The other night a host of the folks who’ve known Shah and Rawza, his wife, all their years in town, showed up at the Seniors’ Centre to surprise Shah on his 50th birthday. And because Shah has his ear to the ground on just about everything, keeping this party a secret from him was no mean feat. For the past few weeks, Rawza has been sneaking around, slipping people notes, shaking the trees for cellphone numbers, and connecting with others only on the Internet, just to make all the arrangements for the Shah’s surprise birthday party.
“I was scared to death he would find out,” she said. “He knows so many people.”
That came in very handy about a decade ago when Shah approached some of us about supporting his initiative to assist some of his former neighbours back in Afghanistan. Over the course of about two years, hundreds of people in Uxbridge and area donated school supplies, winter clothing, bicycles, wheel chairs, money and something even more precious than all that—their time and concern—to pull all the rescue goods together for a shipment to the Middle East. Not only that, but Shah met the massive shipping container we had filled overseas and then he shepherded it to his former hometown.
“We saw a dream come true,” Shah wrote in 2009, “thanks to friends.”
Friends he has always known by name, whether they’re picking up a newspaper, a lottery ticket, a jug of milk, or stopping by to plan another fishing adventure. Some years ago, a regular customer named Phillip Kinton got talking to Shah. And didn’t you know he was a fisherman too. Well, Phillip introduced Shah and Jake to ice fishing. At Shah’s surprise 50th, Phillip presented Shah with a collector’s hockey card celebrating the life and career of goaltender Patrick Roy. Phillip said the card commemorated a recent fishing trip when Phillip caught lots of fish.
“But, you, Shah,” Kinton said, “it was like Roy, a shutout! No fish!”
As I sat with Shah’s family watching and listening to his friends and an array of customers all gently jabbing him at his 50-year milestone, I suddenly remembered that TV show from the 1980s, Cheers, and its opening theme, that celebrated a place, “where everybody knows your name.” And I considered how valuable an asset knowing people’s names can be in a community such as ours.
Because it’s too easy not to say, “Hello,” or to not stop to ask, “How are you?” or just not listen when somebody wants to share a feeling of joy or needs spill out a moment of sadness or disappointment. No doubt, in his 50 years, Shah has witnessed all of that and more. But by rote or by life experience, he’s learned to communicate with people and always remember their names.
“I’ve often told my kids,” Shah said at his surprise birthday party, “I can look out the storefront window and I know 80 per cent of the people who pass … by their names and their stories too.”
Yes, knowing that you’ll be recognized when you walk into Shah’s Circle K (Mac’s Milk) store sure makes for a more connected, more pleasant community. But there is one problem with being so well connected: If a member of the family, Shah’s wife Rawza, is trying to organize a birthday party without her husband finding out about it, it’s hard to keep it a secret. Rawza said she didn’t even tell their children about the party until late Tuesday, the night of the surprise.
“I just found out about it,” their son Jahid said.
“Oh, I couldn’t tell our daughter about it,” Rawza said. “Everybody would have known about it!”
Most everybody did know about it, but fortunately not Shah. It was that rare moment in his life that he knew everybody in the room, but not until the last second why they were there.