Akbar's Shop

I parked my car in front of a sign slung across a shop filled with men that read “Live Chickens”.  I secured my top button, lowered my sleeves, rolled my long strawberry hair into a bun and tucked five years worth of saved prints, paintings, poems, fabric swatches and photographs under my arm before heading across the street. 

“Glass Crystale Mirror” It says above the door and inside giant pieces of dusty glass lean against walls that surround a carpeted tabletop.   The table is piled with frame pieces, tape, old receipts, general filth, glass and a black and white photograph of someone’s mustachioed uncle, softly blurred around the edges. 

While I discuss with Akbar which pictures would be best with a simple frame and which need a mat, a teenage boy enters the shop with a plastic cup of tea.  He pops a hole in a can of milk and pours half of it into the steamy cup before discarding the tea bag and handing it to Akbar.  I’ve come back a few times now, around the same time, and there is always a tea bringer bringing tea to Akbar and sometimes his friends that guard the entrance in their plastic lawn chairs.      

In my excitement to have these treasures framed – papyrus from Cairo, two handkerchiefs from Max’s Scottish grandmother (probably carried over the pond with her) marbled paper from a friend in Jerusalem’s surprisingly large paper arts community, and Max’s commission signed by the President of the United States – I left the painting I’d come to pick up from the day before.  When I turn around to confront the hurried footsteps behind me Akbar is scuffling across the road – painting in hand. 

“You give me 40 rials next time” he says.

An absurdly low amount for everything I’ve just dumped on his table.  I turn my mouth down at the corners and shake my head to indicate agreement – a serious agreement.  One in which he has offered me only slightly more than his normal price and I have only haggled a little bit. 

The picture he hands me is one my dear friend and college roommate painted as some sort of a value study in one of her watercolor classes.  It’s the face of David, painted in bold blues, greens and pinks.  Across his face in cheap pen she has written 

“Sorry for being Oscar this morning ” 

She left this next to my bed one afternoon when, evidently, we had had a rough morning. 

We used to stay up nights in our college apartment – across from each other in our narrow twin beds – and plan completely reasonable unreasonable trips to New York where we’d stay at the YMCA, spend everyday for a week or two in the MOMA, eat hot dogs from carts and walk everywhere.  We estimated that airfare and change would get us through one or two bohemian weeks in New York.   We established (she established, I seconded) the three essentials for a successful morning:  toothbrush, bra, eyedrops.  We made tapes for my now husband who was living in Brazil, we wore cut off construction orange sweatpants, and we listened to dozens, hundreds of new songs in our years together.  She worked in a candle factory  run out of the basement of two free spirited South Africans.  Our room smelled of lemon verbena, brown sugar, sandalwood and we learned how to remove exploded wax from carpet with an iron.   

I went back last week to pick up 30 more framed photographs from Akbar and with a flick of his chin Akbar sent four of his coffee mates out to my car carrying the load.  They fussed and fiddled about the best way to secure the glass frames in my car for the ride home.  They were silent and serious and, at the brief expense of my sex and bad stereotypes, I couldn’t keep myself from making a small joke.

“Make sure you secure them tightly”  I said, snapping the seatbelt they had just fastened around three 18x24 prints.

“I might be a bad driver.”

This procured the desired laugh from all four men and they returned to Akbar’s shop a little less dour.

Why did I say that?  I thought on the way home.  I don’t actually believe women are bad drivers.  I think I just wanted to find someplace that our seemingly different worlds could meet even if just for a moment.   Some place of common ground between the Pakistani coffee drinkers of Akbar’s frame shop and the American children’s librarian with diplomatic plates.  But in a weird way Akbar’s posse knows more about me than many of my colleagues from the almost 50 stories and places and people Akbar has framed for me this past month.  Each time I brought something new we talked about my family back home, his family here, my visit to the Dome of the Rock, how long he’s been in business, my dog, his neighborhood.  In his little frame shop next to the “live chicken” sign filled with men.  Where my stories and my places and my people meet Akbar’s.



  1. This was really beautiful. I love reading your blog and am glad things are going well for you guys!

  2. I really liked this post. And your joke was great :) love the might, keeps them guessing and securing the glass nicely!

  3. oh friend! I've been meaning to respond to this for a long time now, but I am finally getting a moment here. How nicely you weave your words and worlds. These far places are lucky to have you, and I was so lucky to have you for a time. I am beyond excited about the thought of reuniting this spring. xoxo