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High-Octane Dreiser

If you look friendly, gas station attendant Gengiz Babaev might ask you what you think of his favorite U.S. writer. He's often disappointed. But sometimes . . .


On a recent rainy day, opting for full service at a local Texaco station, I was waiting for my tank to fill when the attendant leaned toward my open window and asked in a foreign accent: "What do you think of Theodore Dreiser."

I didn't believe I'd heard it. How often distraction mashes words in curious ways. Maybe he'd mentioned my visor. I flipped it up and down. No problem. I looked at him, annoyed. I saw brownish eyes beneath a baseball cap, a slight man gripping closed the collar of a jogging outfit. It had to be a linguistic mirage. I lifted my credit card into view.

Like a bird trying to catch its own tune, he asked again: "Do you like Theodore Dreiser?"

"Yes," I stammered.

An ecstasy of shared delight spread across his face. "Yes, I do, a lot," I said. I don't remember who said what next. We talked a long time. I told him I'd read and reread Dreiser since my early 20s, seized by the sensitive way he wrote about people riding the frightening arc of success and failure. Finding someone out here amid the Jiffy Lubes and Blockbusters who also honored Dreiser was joyous, amazing and eerie.

This was Gengiz Babaev. He's helped out at Manhattan Beach Texaco for the past seven years. His uncle, Essie Nayebdadash, owns the station; with him, I'd chatted before. I hadn't noticed Gengiz, probably because I mostly used self-service pumps when I pulled in from Manhattan Beach Boulevard, where it crosses Sepulveda Boulevard on a hilltop nearly within sight of the ocean.

Gengiz is 55, slightly built, with an elegantly long nose and eyes that touch you like velvet. The accent is that of Baku, his native city in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Since then, we've talked whenever I stop for gas, about many writers, Lev Tolstoy (he uses the two names), Mark Twain, Balzac and Gogol. But the author of "Sister Carrie" and "An American Tragedy" is the one he asks others about.

"How many people have you asked?" I inquire when I return on Gengiz's day off. I've brought copies of several Dreiser novels with me, and we sit and talk at a small metal table inside the garage while mechanics work on cars.

"I don't ask everybody," Gengiz says. His English balances precariously atop the stack of other languages he speaks, Russian, Iranian, German and Turkish. "If they look friendly, then I ask. Not every person looks like they want me to ask about Theodore Dreiser."

We settle on fewer than 500, but more than 100, people he's polled.

Why does he ask?

"I want American people to be proud of Dreiser," says Gengiz, who read Dreiser in Russian. He looks forward to mastering English well enough to read novels. "They should know of him and read his works."

"How many knew Dreiser well enough to have an opinion?"

"Five," he says. "No more."

I ask if this sign of his customers' lack of gusto for their cultural monuments dismays him as much as it does me. "They're busy," he says. "People don't have time for everything. But I want them to know." The most enduring impression of Gengiz is the dignified charm with which he avoids saying bad things about anybody.

I describe to him the full strangeness of his asking me. He laughs when I tell him about my habit of asking people what they think of Theodore Dreiser, and how upset the wrong answer can make me. I almost came to blows with an English professor I met at a party who called Dreiser unrefined, a literary barbarian, while I defended his rare mix of intensity and delicacy. In Baku, Gengiz says, "Dreiser was popular for the same reasons as Dostoevsky. He's a psychological writer. In Azerbaijan, we like a psychologist. We like to investigate what people are thinking."

He learned about Dreiser when he was 16, from his mother. "She loved especially the character of Carrie." He pauses to absorb the emotion of remembering his late mother's attachment to Caroline Meeber, known to her family as Sister Carrie, who makes her way into Chicago in the opening pages of Dreiser's novel and emerges as a hard-bitten actress.

Batul Babaev read the novel repeatedly, as she sat on a divan beneath an old lamp in their home in Baku. She followed Carrie's life during the "hard, tough times of the war" against Hitler. "Carrie was tough," Gengiz says. "I think my mother liked that. It was a tough life my mother had then. It was not an easy war."

Putting the Flute Aside to Make a Living

Gengiz was a professional flutist in the former Soviet Union. From the age of 9, he attended special schools in Baku for gifted musicians, and he arrived here in 1994 with a single suitcase and his instrument, as part of a touring orchestra from Azerbaijan. Sometimes, when things are slow at the garage, he takes out his flute and performs for the rows of tires and the empty seats of cars under repair. I've listened to him play music by Bach and Prokofiev, and Poulenc's wonderful flute sonata.

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