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Superheroes in Darth Vader Costumes

As I was crossing the intersection of Main Street and Union Turnpike to get to Keyfood Grocery, an old lady struggling with her pushcart met me in the median divider.

“Sir, are there many cars on this side?”

I noticed she was visually challenged on her left.

“No worries, Ma’am, I’ll take you to the other side.”

As soon as I had escorted her to safety, I ran back across to beat the red light. Suddenly, the green light caught me right in the same median divider. So I stopped to let the cars pass by.

But the cars would not move. Two drivers signaled me to cross.

I hurriedly jogged across.

All of a sudden I heard cars blowing their horns behind me. God, I thought, they must have been annoyed by my having delayed their travel time. But the honks increased in number, so I turned around. To my surprise I saw the drivers with their windshields down and their hands waving at me followed by their thumbs up. I waved back.

They had been observing me all along, as I was escorting the old lady across, and they were acknowledging me for what I did. I walked on air. New York’s not so bad after all.

It amazes me to find out how many superheroes there are behind the Darth Vader costumes I meet each day. I literally have one myself, my son’s Halloween present to me with an electronic voice changer, a light saber, a black cape, and all. Each time I wear it the kids shriek and scream, but the beauty of it is they know it’s Uncle Manny behind the mask.

Those drivers were in their Darth Vader costumes, until they saw a good deed and removed their masks. That’s the beauty of it.

From the grocery I made a quick stop at the Te-Amo store beside Keyfood to buy myself a dollar lotto. On my way out, Kenny, one of the counter clerks, ran up to me: “Manny, you forgot your change.” In my hurry, I had pulled out a 10 dollar bill.

This was not the first time in that store. Kenny, Peter, Paul and Sammy are all store clerks at Te-Amo earning minimum wages. But their honesty--and our mutual trust--is worth a million dollars.

One time I dropped by Te-Amo to buy some Mentos and a birthday card when I realized I had spent all my cash earlier at the grocery and was down to my last dollar. I returned my goods.

“I’ll just come back tomorrow.”

Sammy and Paul would have none of it.

“Take them home, Manny,” says Sammy. “It’s okay. Come back tomorrow.”

“Or the day after,” says Paul. “No problem.”

That, coming from people who work at minimum wages. And I thought the word “trust” was obsolete.

When I was working as head of a customer service company at JFK Airport, one of our employees, Shaukat Ali, a short, slim gentleman from Pakistan, found a passport wallet containing 2,500 dollars lying on top of one of the luggage carts at Terminal 4’s parking lot. Without a thought he turned it over to the lost and found counter.

Shaukat was one of my hardworking employees. He worked to support his family, and sent money to relatives in Pakistan. Sometimes I would give him a free ride home since he lived near my place. He shared a small room with three other workers, and shared a bed with another employee who worked on the overnight shift while he worked during the day. Every dollar counted. But nothing could seduce him from the road of integrity.

A year later Shaukat saw a small traveling bag containing 5,000 dollars at Terminal 9’s parking garage. Again without thinking twice, he returned the bag to the lost and found.

Shaukat’s deed spread quickly. I personally saw to it that this honest man’s character reached the offices of the Port Authority of NY and NJ who oversee JFK Airport. A columnist of the NY Daily News was so impressed she mentioned him in her daily column. As a result, Shaukat Ali was included in the Port Authority’s yearly top three awardees for honesty.

We prepared a sit down buffet in their honor. Shaukat received a gift certificate of $300 and a plaque citing him for his honesty. But he was such a simple person that when his name was called to receive the award I had to lend him my coat jacket.

Shaukat was a superhero. He was a great employee and a loyal friend. He was a devout Muslim, but he’d always make it a point to give me a present every Christmas. Before I retired he went back home to Pakistan for a vacation. When he returned, he gave me a leather jacket made in Pakistan as Christmas gift. I wear that brown leather jacket only once in a while. I don’t want it to get worn out. It comes from a good man who’s made this “asphalt jungle” a better place to live in. It comes from a superhero.

This brings to mind another employee, Walter, a Haitian immigrant in his forties. Once I was talking to him while we were out in the field about his job responsibilities. I left him to return to my office which was about a mile. A few minutes after reaching my office, here comes Walter, out of breath and handing me a 10 dollar bill.

“You dropped it.”

I was flabbergasted. “Keep it, it’s yours now.”

And then there’s this guy in our neighborhood whose name I don’t even know. He’d knock on doors of senior citizens when the city is freezing and ask if they’re okay, if there’s anything he could do--and charge not single penny. Although he never gives out his name, everybody knows him and loves him.

There are too many to mention. New York is full of them. It’s imprinted in our genes. Why, for example, would we automatically “hold the door” each time we get out of the bus, or the store, or any door for that matter, if it’s not in the air?

There are many superheroes around. We don’t recognize them, because they, like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, come out with well-prepared faces “to meet the faces that you meet.” Unlike Mr. Prufrock, however, they are superheroes in disguise.

Menacing on the outside but compassionate in the inside. Like that old Darth Vader costume my son asked me to wear.

The man inside is no Luke Skywalker.

But that old lady and the honking drivers sure did make me walk on air.

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