Stories of kindness and the profound effect that one act can have on our lives.

December 11, 2013

Remembering Karim: A Lifetime Of Kindness

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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.

Kind World is produced for radio by Michael May and Lisa Tobin. It was created by Nate Goldman.

  • Jemimah Stambaugh

    How simply and truly beautiful. It is SO much easier to be kind and the return–though that’s not why one does it–is immense. Karim knew that and through him, so do all his friends…and all of us!

  • Jasoturner

    That is a great and moving story. Thank you very much for reporting it!

  • Sarah DeLisio-Downs

    This story had me in tears this morning, so beautiful. What a kind man & it truly is a wonderful world.

  • Aaron Voog

    I wish I had known him. He is just beautiful! These people who formed his circle and pulled together to help him are incredible. Some people bring out the best in others. I didn’t know him but I want to be like him.

  • jonfarrell5

    This really does send a ray of warmth running through your spirit. So uplifting. Peace.

  • Sara Piazza

    I vaguely remember when people – myself included – acted this way.

  • wareinparis

    What a wonderful reminder that we all have something precious to offer.

  • disqus_OZSCw45Ncm

    I’m with Aaron Voog (below). This story challenged me to want to live my life like Karim lived his. Truly caring for other people. As I get older, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that this is the only way to find happiness.

  • Michael_May

    The lovely portrait of Karim above was drawn by Susan Siris Wexler. Thanks for sharing your work for this story.

  • Whitney Davis

    What a surprise to see the wonderful drawing of Karim, and read about the community that cared for him on the anniversary of his death. I met Karim many years ago when we shared memories of Lebanon as he filled up my car, and went out of my way stop by from then on. After checking in about my life he would try to guess how many miles I had traveled based on how much gas the car took, all this while greeting runners and walkers, and providing treats for all of the children and dogs who passed by. One night I pulled in as he was closing with a loaner car about to explode, and he insisted on taking me in, helping me call a tow truck and a taxi (pre cell phone days!), and waiting with me until they arrived, and this after what must have been a very long day. On hearing he hd cancer I offered to help him go home, but he wanted to stay and fight the disease. I was glad to be able to help return his body to Lebanon after his death, a small price for many years of knowing this dear man.

  • Kim Neal

    This was one of the most moving and inspiring stories I’ve heard in a long time. What a beautiful person–and what a community. Thank you for this kind of reporting. I commuted to work that day with tears streaming down my face…but thinking of that question, “What would happen if you offered little acts of kindness seven days a week for 25 years? What would that do? In this case, it brought out the best in everyone around him and brought him together. Awesome.

  • Joshua Levin

    Finally real news is being reported. Things that matter. Perhaps its because I am looking for it, tuning into it and doing it on the Internet. A simple gas station attendant left a legacy. He inspired and changed peoples lives while he lived and will continue to impact future generations by how he lived. I don’t live in the area, never met the man and yet he has inspired me. This is going on my blog, theawesomenessreport

  • Ting

    I remember watching a film about a lighthouse keeper who’s death brought together strangers with his will. I cannot remember the title of that film, but this story reminded me of it.

  • Eva

    Please don’t stop this series! It’s as important as these stories of people who connect simply and meaningfully. I need this.

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