“This is why I like it here,” said Bazzi, taking a ten-dollar bill and making change.
“There’s always something happening. I like the communication, the friendship. Here people talk, and we laugh.”
Bazzi has uncles and cousins in Baghdad who own a grocery store. Ray’s is very different, but the warm give-and-take between customers has a similar “old country” feel.
Behind the cash register hung an old calendar dated 1965, the year Ray’s underwent a major remodeling. Thirty-five years later, Bazzi felt it was time for another face-lift. He had plans to work on the inside as well as change the faded butterscotch color to something brighter. “But it’s still in the planning stages,” he said, and refused to give more details.
Suddenly a young man jumped the line and hurled himself against the counter, his head a mass of dreadlocks writhing like snakes. Cursing, he threw down money and demanded a bottle of brandy.
“I’ll give it to you,” Bazzi said, but he warned him about his language.
“Man, I’m in pain! My tooth is killing me! It’s tearing up my whole head! Hurry up with the brandy! MAN, HURRY UP!”
Bazzi suggested that the man take painkillers rather than brandy. “I took ’em,” he howled, “and they ain’t done SHIT! Man, hurry up with the goddam brandy!”
Bazzi gave him the brandy and the man rushed out of the store. A moment later we heard someone screaming at the top of his lungs. A woman stepped into the store and looked back over her shoulder. “There’s a guy on the phone outside,” she said, “and he’s going crazy.”
In 15 years, Bazzi has never been robbed. There are convenience stores in which the man at the cash register operates behind a cage and the customers pass their money through a slot. Not here, but Bazzi admitted that he kept behind the counter what he needed to defend himself. “Thank God I never had to use it,” he said.
While the man outside screamed on the phone, a customer suggested to Bazzi that the guy go to the emergency dental-care unit downtown. “They’ll take care of him,” he said. “The only thing is, it closes at eight on Fridays, I know that.”
When Bazzi recalled the weirdest moment at the store, strangely enough it concerned another man and his teeth.
“Maybe eight years ago,” said Bazzi, “this guy parks his car and comes in and leans over, spits out all this blood and teeth on the counter. It was a gang thing. Somebody must have shot him in the mouth with a BB gun because he spit out the BBs too.”
When the police arrived, they closed the shop for two hours while they investigated. Now Bazzi wondered if he should call the cops for the fellow outside. The cops, he said, would at least get him to a hospital. But he was not much inclined to make a phone call, and this turned out to be a good thing because five minutes later the man stepped inside the store. Clearly the painkillers and alcohol had kicked in. He leaned on the counter. “Give me another bottle of brandy,” he said, his features relaxed.
Bazzi told him about the emergency dental care, then looked over his shoulder to check the clock. It was now five minutes to eight.
“That’s okay, man, just give me the brandy.”
Bazzi shrugged, gave the man what he wanted, and took his money. The young man apologized for making an earlier disturbance, and in the course of his apology, as he described the pain of his abscessed tooth, he resorted once again to the kind of language that Bazzi had warned him about. But this time, Bazzi said nothing. Later he explained that the fellow’s pain was gone, and that was the main thing.
“You see what I mean? Always something happening,” he said and laughed.
Twelve hours later. Eight o’clock on Saturday morning and three blocks south of Olive Street — a distance defined in large part by the 30th Street overpass — the customers at Rebecca’s on Juniper Street were already lined up out the door. Most had the glazed stare and frayed aspect of those desperately in need of their morning caffeine fix. The line for service moved slowly, but there was nothing untoward here. Patience was the mantra; the smell of baking scones and freshly ground coffee (the superb Italian espresso called Illy Espresso) were a promise of what patience would in time bring. Ray’s is a convenience store, open on Saturdays until midnight for the catchall needs of a large and varied community. Residents of Olive Street shop there when they have forgotten something or perhaps wish to indulge in a late-night orgy of Häagen-Dazs and Oreos. Rebecca’s is different. It is a class act — and the woman who owns the coffee shop, and for whom it is named, cannot figure out how it happened.
“I fell in love with the building,” said Rebecca Zearling, speaking in the tiniest of voices. The 48-year-old blonde not only has the voice of a child but her blue eyes have a child’s clear depth. I leaned close to hear her. “People ask me if I did demographics before we opened. I didn’t. I just fell in love with the building and I wanted to do something here, in it.”
In the early 1900s, she said, the building had been a cracker factory, and more recently it was the home of the Mongols Motorcycle Club. Seek-N-Find, a thrift shop, was located on the corner when Rebecca moved in. Now there are renovations taking place across the street and shops nearby that offer pretty bibelots to those with the taste and cash for such things. Rebecca’s has brought the people. This corner is thriving.
At the time she first thought of opening, Zearling worked as a bookkeeper and secretary in Kearny Mesa. Today she works part-time for Bode Enterprises, a technical consultation service in Mission Valley.