Driving down Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, you pass Nick’s, a nondescript, two-pump gas and service station that you hardly notice. But if you talk to regular customers, they’ll say they go out of their way to fill up at Nick’s, even if it means getting just a gallon of gas somewhere else to get them home.
That fierce devotion is in no small part due to Karim Alagha, who pumped gas at Nick’s for more than two decades, until shortly before his death in December 2012. We spoke to his friends and longtime customers as part of a WBUR radio series, Kind World, featuring stories of kindness and the profound effect a small act can have.
AUDREY ZABIN: I live close by and I went by that gas station every morning and I would beep my horn, and he’d run out from the station office, screaming, “We love you! We love you!” And I wasn’t even stopping for gas.
LARRY TISH: Your first interaction with Karim is him filling up your gas, saying, “How you feel?” and you sign the thing and you’re off. Alright, so, okay, I remember the guy, kind of. And then the second time, your wife’s in the car—”Oh, is this your wife?” So it kind of builds and then, just, he’s like your brother.
JOANNE CIPOLLA MOORE: He’s cooking dinner for you.
TISH: Yeah, he’s cooking dinner. He had a hot pot and he put it on top of the tire fixer machine, you know? This one area, it’s sterile. And he would just make this food and call me whenever it was done.
MAURINE STRAFFORD: He’s kind of like a gas station therapist. He didn’t talk much, but he listened deeply. I’d be sitting getting my car filled up with gas, and he’d say, “How’s your mother?” And I’d start crying because my mother was in the hospital. He just let you say what was painful.
TISH: Basically that’s all he did, all day. While he pumped gas, but pumping the gas, there’s an automated thing there, right? You just put it in and start it, right? That takes about six seconds. And so, really, the rest of his day was really all about just offering little acts of kindness.
STRAFFORD: I was very worried about him, because he was losing weight. And he would brush it off, and I was really getting worried. And then we went away and when I came back it was like, oh my.
LIBBY LODGE: When I found out that Karim had cancer, I felt we had to, as a community, show him how much we cared about him, how wonderful he was. I certainly felt that way, I hoped that other people felt that way, but I wasn’t sure. We sent out one email to the neighborhood, “Karim has been diagnosed with lung cancer,” and the money just started pouring in. I mean, I can’t tell you. The cards that came with the money, from all over the world, people who had moved away years ago and somehow found out about it.
CHARLES SACRE: He was afraid to be a burden on the others, and I had to reassure him that he is not a burden. Let them do—you deserve it, you are a person that is loved by everybody—let them do what they are doing.
LODGE: Someone actually offered an apartment to Karim, because previously he had been living in Watertown, I believe, in a third-floor walk-up that had no air conditioning. So this apartment was very close to the gas station and was very comfortable for Karim. And he gave it to Karim rent free for the rest of his life.
BILL WARNER: All the sudden I started hearing about what people were doing and started to hear more of the story about Karim, that is he was married and is married and his wife and kids were in Lebanon and he supported them from the U.S. and he wanted to be buried in Lebanon.
And here’s a man who really had worked his whole life but given his money to his kids and his wife, and how in the world could you afford $15,000 to send his body back to Lebanon? And it started to become apparent that this was going to happen, people were going to make it happen. And it did.
SACRE: I think this made his last days very peaceful, to know that he is going to Lebanon.
STRAFFORD: There was this invisible community that we had no knowledge of, and Karim was at the center of it. And it was only in his dying and in his death, really, that we became aware of each other.
LODGE: I mean, he had more visitors than I think anyone who’s ever been in that nursing home.
CIPOLLA MOORE: His side of the room was filled with cards, flowers, food, everything. And his roommate, Bart, nothing. Nothing. And Karim told me, “Bart has no one.” So he’d always offer him things, talk to Bart. And even though Karim was suffering, you know, he was taking care of Bart, too.
ZABIN: I would always whisper to him, “Thank you for letting me take care of you.” And he would just tap my hand. But it was an honor to take care of him.
STRAFFORD: Watching this very special man confront death with this amazing dignity and grace was a gift. What Karim taught me is never forget the day to day. That there is this incredible beauty in a kind word, a gesture.
TISH: I think one of the things that’s important is, I think, he had a painful life. Everybody has pain in their life, and it affects people in different ways, but somehow Karim just turned it into love. What would happen if you offered little acts of kindness seven days a week for 25 years? What would that do? It would do a lot, and it has done a lot.
Karim Alagha died of lung cancer on December 13, 2012. Through the efforts of these friends and many others, his body was sent back to his town in Lebanon, where he was buried beside a church, as he had wanted.