American Dream?

Twenty-six years ago, Ghenet Hailelassie left a war-torn Eritrea for America, the land of milk and honey. As it turned out, the cows are mad, the bees are disappearing, and the natives are armed and dangerous

The place where Shamrock and Eastway drives come together is a busy intersection in east Charlotte that, like a lot of others in this city, is dominated by the automobile. A constant flow of traffic creates a rushing sound, like the ocean. This intersection is not a destination. It’s merely on the way to someplace else. A variety of businesses surround it. There’s a Shell gas station/car wash/convenience store that seems to get most of the business, a janitorial-supplies store, a do-it-yourself car wash, a fire station, a laundromat, and a small convenience store named Midtown Foodmart.

The windows of the Midtown Foodmart are plastered with posters advertising Newports, Mavericks, Marlboros, Speedy V Tax Service, money orders, money transfers, bill-payment services, ice-cold Slushies, Buzz cell phones, Monster energy drinks, and RC Cola. All the signs and logos create an urban camouflage, obscuring the store itself.

It’s a Friday evening. Two weather-beaten men hang outside the entrance, their ball caps soaked through with sweat and body oil. They smell of alcohol. One of them asks me for money; the other follows me into the store. I hold the door open for him. He walks to the coolers, pulls out a twenty-four-ounce can of Icehouse beer, walks up to the elevated counter, and jokes with the woman at the cash register. She puts the can in a small brown paper bag and takes his coins. She looks like Lena Horne, with a thin nose, high cheekbones, and a beautiful lustrous light chocolate skin tone. She speaks with an accent. Her name is Ghenet Halielassie. She looks down at me skeptically. Since I’m a stranger, I’m here either to buy something, sell something, or steal something. An immigrant from Eritrea, a small country about the size of Indiana, that borders Ethiopia, Ghenet is a widow. Her husband of twenty-one years, Mehreteab “Mehary” Woldeghebriel, was shot in an attempted robbery two years ago on the same spot where she now stands.
It happened close to midnight on New Year’s Eve 2005. Mehary and an employee, “Bennett” (he doesn’t want his real name used), were getting ready to close. It was an unusually mild night, so they had propped open the front door. Bennett was crouched down on the floor counting money, which he would then drop into the safe. Mehary was standing behind the counter doing some paperwork. A guy wearing black baggie pants and a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head walked in pointing a weapon and said, “This is a holdup.” Bennett thought it was a customer joking around. He stood up, saw that it was a kid holding a sawed-off shotgun, and dropped back to the floor. The sudden appearance of Bennett surprised him. He fired, peppering Mehary with pellets, fatally wounding him. The robber ran from the store. He didn’t take anything. Police arrested a suspect, but no one could ID him at the scene. The case remains unsolved.

Ghenet pulls some shirts away from a wall, exposing an area scarred by the shotgun blast that killed her husband. She’s run the store since her husband’s death, but she doesn’t like it. “Every person who walks in that door is a killer for me. Especially young boys fifteen to twenty-five years [old]. I hate them so much. I hate working here. If it wasn’t for my husband….” Her eyes dampen and a tear rolls down her cheek. “I feel his presence here.”

The mailman comes in, grabs some Little Debbie cakes, says “Hey,” leaves the mail, pays, and exits. A teenager hangs around the glass case under the counter. Ghenet asks, “You wanna shirt?” He wants a black one. She sells black and white 6X and 5X Chino shirts, the long, baggy shirts popular with gangbangers. She also sells white and black bandannas. Her store is cleverly stocked with what people want.

Ghenet came to America in 1981, fleeing the thirty-year border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. She married Mehary, whom she had known since childhood, in Dallas and moved to Charlotte in 1993. Her husband drove a cab for a while. She worked at Selectron. They started their business in 2001 across the street from Piedmont Courts on Seigle Avenue and later expanded with two others.

The night manager, Ogbay Ghebray, walks in with a smooth gait, nods at Ghenet, mumbles something, then comes around and steps up behind the counter. He has a black goatee and wears a two-tone blue ball cap with no team allegiance. He has a way about him, a coolness that says he knows the American game. An Eritrean, he’s forty-three. He takes over the cash register, bantering with the customers. He calls them “amigo,” “my friend,” and “girl.” He says “wanna” and “gonna.” He works efficiently, with no wasted movements. He’s very alert, in a sly way.

“We keep all eyes open, check to make sure nobody steals,” Ogbay says. “People spit in my face many times. They say, ‘Why you gotta be lookin’ at me?’ I say that’s my job—gotta keep my eyes open. They spit in my face. They scream at me, especially since I’m from another country. ‘You’re from Africa,’ they shout, ‘what do you know? You not from here.’ ” He smiles. His upper canine teeth have gold caps. “Well, I know a lot.”

What happens if he catches somebody stealing? “We take it back and tell them if you gotta habit like that then you don’t come back.” A pack of young kids comes in, swarming the candy aisle. Ogbay moves over for a better angle, watching them like an umpire. One kid drops a bag of Skittles. “Hey, pick it up,” Ogbay tells him. The kid acts like he doesn’t hear him. “Pick it up.” “Huh? Wha?” The kid picks it up without acknowledging Ogbay.

“Here, the laws are too easy,” Ogbay says. “In Ethiopia years ago, they had a crime problem. People stealing stuff. And so they decided to start cutting people’s hands off. They’d ask you, which hand did you use to steal? And cut it off. You see a lot of people walking around without hands. Crime went down.”

Dawit Gebreslassie, thirty-five, the other clerk, watches a bank of video monitors. One camera is mounted outside, one shows the beer coolers, and another the back aisles. Ogbay is constantly moving between the counter and out into the aisles, always restocking, always mingling with the customers. He steps outside for a smoke every now and then. There’s a constant flow of customers. Most people head straight to the coolers. They sell a lot of beer: twenty-four-ounce cans of Natural Ice and forty-ounce bottles of Miller High Life, each $1.19. They sell a lot of cigarettes: Newports and Riches—the bargain brands. People walk around with a far-off look, or with cell phones to their ears, absent-mindedly grabbing Lance snacks, bags of pork rinds, Zebra cakes. Young kids go for sodas. A smooth middle-age guy in a leather jacket buys a twelve-pack of Michelob Light. A young girl with pink streaks in her hair opens a jar of pickled eggs and grabs one. She wears a pink coat and too-tight jeans with the letters “PACE” embroidered in pink across her booty. Two young guys in dreads and gold bling come in several times. Ogbay and Dawit eyeball them. Ogbay makes small talk. He knows everybody. If a stranger comes they both get a little nervous. It’s never the locals who rob the store.

He shows me the gun under the cash register, a 9 mm Walther. He’s never had to use it. He tells me the rules. You have to leave it under the counter—not in your pocket or the back of your pants like some cowboy. You use it only in self-defense. “You can’t take it outside the store. You shoot somebody in the store you’re OK, but if you shoot somebody outside you’re in trouble.”

He tells me all kinds of stories about people being robbed. One story is about him. This guy came in and asked for change for a dollar. So Ogbay opens the drawer, and the guy reaches up and over the counter and hugs the cash register, trying to pull it down. “Now, I was working for this Indian guy, nice guy. He had a gun under the cash register. You can’t kill a man for trying to steal a cash register, but you can scare him. So I reached under the table and showed him the gun to his face, and he threw up his arms and ran out.” He’s been working in convenience stores for fourteen years. “You don’t need no skills to work in a store, just experience. Don’t need no education. It’s not a good job.” He makes $7 an hour. “It’s for family.”

People buy a lot of different things. Straight razors, Advil, NyQuil, condoms, international phone cards, money orders, Tums, baby formula, ’do rags, batteries, and car air fresheners. Most of the customers walk from the adjoining neighborhood, which is composed of low-income rental apartments and 900-square-foot brick houses with packed dirt yards. It’s all shot through with Briar Creek and railroad tracks. This is where poor people live.

Early in the morning, Ghenet walks the aisles. She’s looking for things to reorder. “I hate empty spaces.” She’s worked here every day since her husband’s death. “I have to make myself go on. I never thought I’d be alive this long after my husband died. . . . We had beautiful children, beautiful life. It’s gone. The dream we had together is gone.”

She has two teenage kids who attend Myers Park High School. When her kids settle into their own lives, she says she’ll probably go back to Eritrea. Her husband built a villa there. But for now, her family is here and her children are Americans, and so her life, what’s left of it, is here.

“As soon as my kids finish school, have a career, have their families, then that’s the only dream I got. To me, my life is over. I don’t see any future for me other than that I don’t really care about life no more. It hurts so much.” Ghenet has joined a group called Families of Homicide Victims and says she has made some good friends with people who can understand and share her grief. But she has given up on the American dream.

“All my hope, all dream is gone. What kind of dream is the American dream? The American dream is just to be rich. . . .

“When I hear people say they want to open a store, I say who would wanna open a store after what happened? Aren’t they aware at all? It’s just a nightmare.

Van Miller is a regular contributor to this magazine. 

It Gets Worse
In 2002, Mehary Woldeghebriel and Ghenet Halielassie opened another Midtown Foodmart with a man named Kebrab Gedrehiwot on Berryhill Road, off Freedom Drive. The store had problems from the beginning. Not because business was bad. In fact, a steady flow of customers came from the low-income housing across the street. The trouble came from the convenience store up on the corner.

One night, Kebrab says, he was locking up when a man named George Diri drove up and asked, “Are you closing?” Kebrab replied politely, “Yes.” To which Diri said, “You will soon close forever.” Then he sped off. A few nights later somebody threw a Molotov cocktail through the window, and the store burned down. The fire department called it arson. People started spreading rumors that Kebrab did it for insurance money. “Why would I burn my place down,” he says, “when business was good, and then put all the money back into the same place? That’s crazy.” So why didn’t he just take the insurance money and move on? “This is my livelihood. I have a lot of people who depend on my business. I help support a whole community here and back in Eritrea.”

After the store reopened, there were several drive-by shootings. Somebody even tried unsuccessfully to burn the place down again, by throwing another Molotov cocktail on the roof. Kebrab’s son, Aron, points to bullet holes in the walls. One pierced the chest of a beautiful Bud Light model. Next to the coffee maker there’s a bullet hole in the countertop. “Our employee was standing right here drinking coffee.” He leans against the counter inches from the hole.

One night when the store was closed, someone backed a stolen conversion van into the store, smashing through the glass door. It was caught on video. Two people wearing hoods jumped out of the vehicle, and fled without stealing anything. The FBI solved the case using informants and undercover agents. George Diri and Ahaissam Nashar from the competing convenience store had hired two thugs to do their dirty work. Diri and Nashar got seventeen years.

While all this was going on, a young man named Jamie Moreno robbed the store. The clerk, Bereket Yosuf, gave the robber $30—all that was in the register. Moreno left, but he came back for more. When he walked in, Yosuf was waiting for him with a 9 mm. He shot Moreno in the neck, killing him. The police determined it was self-defense. Yosuf was so freaked out that he went back to Eritrea and stayed indoors for three months. He now lives in Boston, but has never worked in a store again. —V. M.

Categories: Opinion, The Buzz, Van’s World