Keeping the American dream alive

By Tim Trenkle


Saturday closing time at the American Pawn on Central Avenue in Dubuque is 4 p.m. It’s not an arbitrary time — it’s time for rest for its tired entrepreneur. He suffers long hours of indenture.

On this Saturday, Stanley Samuel waves the customer through the door because he cares. He learned his business at a nearby pawnshop where a food mission fed the poor. He understands that people need help, that Sunday comes, that a break from the ever-present pain of an economy that hasn’t recovered is good business. He uses the “Rocky” mantra about going the extra round.

Research suggests that the stress of poverty affects health and development, including the intelligence quotient. It’s like a virus. Children in poor neighborhoods develop slower and often don’t catch up.

The shop owner has six children. He tries to accommodate his customers.

“What can I do for you today?” he asks.

Samuel has watched people with cancer unable to pay for medicine. He has known those who can’t pay rent. He has listened to those who don’t have enough to eat. He has been asked if he could lend a $5 bill because someone needed a meal.

The American Pawn shop serves every socioeconomic group but the wealthy.

Stan works long hours, the 70- to 100-hour-plus weeks that make his eyes water, that make bags form in tiny, black half moons of fatigue, draped below each eye. He’s from India and says he chose the name he uses because, “You couldn’t pronounce my given name.”

He will sometimes give a loan for an heirloom he knows has little value because he sees the hurt in his customer’s eyes, understands they need a meal or the extra money to pay a bill.

Today the pawnshop is the business that loans to the impoverished. There is an army of impoverished souls. Stan understands. India has many poor.

“Come on down” he tells a customer on the phone, sounding like Monty Hall of the old TV show “Let’s Make a Deal.”

His empathy in an economy admitting to 40 million souls in poverty may handicap the short, civil man from India. Customers say he has a big heart.

He came to America to study at Emmaeus Bible College. He met his wife there.

“The thing I learned, the thing that matters, is that you have to care,” he says.

Everyone on the street knows him. Each day, someone calls as they enter the door, asking from a distance if he can give them 50, 100. “You know I’m good for it,” they say, carrying jewelry, a drill press, a reciprocating saw, a computer under an arm, pushing a bike, a lawn mower.

“What have you got?” The gentle man asks. “What can I do?”

Youth saunter to his counter wearing a dozen tattoos, skulls on their hands, Bible passages on their arms. Bikers stand at attention, waiting to ask the shopkeeper if he’s interested in a unique item they found in storage. A white-haired, ponytailed man uses a walker. He wants to trade. A young African American asks if his computer needs repair and how much for the white one at the jewelry display.

At 4 p.m., a dozen people are standing. Stan waits on an elderly woman who’s looking for a present for her grandson. Stan spends a half-hour searching through his cabinet. He finds a silver bracelet with diamond crosses etched along its coupled ringlets.

“How much?” she asks.

“Thirty and it’s yours.”

The biker with the tattooed knuckles whispers that it’s $200, new.

The poor survive without home equity, without collateral, without insurance, without enough to manage their bills. Research shows they would pay their bills if they could.

The dream at the American Pawn in Dubuque is a simple one: stay even with the bills. Sometimes, for 40 million people, that’s all that matters. In Dubuque, a simple Indian immigrant helps to keep that historical, eternal and difficult dream alive.Tim Trenkle of Dubuque teaches psychology and writing at Northeast Iowa Community College and is a freelance writer. Comments:

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