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A big fish in a small desert pond

To the people of Daggett, Calif., a tiny town on old Route 66, the Desert Market is part of their daily routine. To Jordanian immigrant Yousuf 'Joe' Khawaldeh, it's a steppingstone to a better life.

April 23, 2011|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Daggett, Calif. — The Budweiser truck is there waiting when Yousuf Khawaldeh pulls up in his beat-up '94 Lexus.

In an earlier version of this article, Yousuf Khawaldeh's name was misspelled as Yousouf Kwaldeh.

It's huge, that truck. It hides Khawaldeh's store and the abandoned wooden building next door, a onetime brothel.

Khawaldeh — Joe, to his customers — opens the door for the deliveryman. Pallet after pallet of cans come off the back, enough to quench the thirst of this entire desert town. Joe doesn't touch the stuff, but his customers buy 15 to 20 cases a day.

Beer, cigarettes, energy drinks and lottery tickets. They're the lifeblood of this tiny store that has been here for 130 years. It's managed to survive a fire, a population exodus and the loss of business after Interstate 40 was built and fewer motorists passed by the store on old Route 66.

To the people of Daggett, the store is part of their daily routine. They come to gossip, pay their utility bills or stock up on soda. To Joe, the market is a steppingstone to a better life.

The 43-year-old Jordanian immigrant at times spends 12 hours a day, seven days a week in the Desert Market, which is painted a faded turquoise, trying to earn enough money so that he doesn't have to come here anymore. He has saved enough to buy an off-road vehicle, take a day or two of vacation once in a while, pay someone else to stand behind the register now and then.

That's what he loves about Daggett, about the United States.

"If you are determined and you want to do something, you can," he says. "Trust me."

Daggett, population 200, is surrounded by desert, sage and dust; purple mountains and lumpy hills stretch into the distance. For most people, this place is little more than a blip on the map, halfway between Los Angeles and Needles.

The Desert Market is the only store for miles. Nearby, there's a trailer park, a junkyard and a truck repair shop — and not much else. The gas station is long since boarded up, and a dozen silent houses sag into piles of wood and metal.

It's peaceful in the mornings. The only sounds are the humming of the refrigerators and the occasional rumbling of freight trains.

The first customer of the day walks through the door. It's Danna O'Brien, who always stops by on the way to her waitress job at the Desert Springs Bar-N-Grill, wearing a hairnet and a bandanna tied across her forehead.

"Hey honey," she says with a drawl. She has come in to buy an apple juice — her fruit for the day, she jokes. Later, after her shift, she'll come back showered and smiling, her husband on her arm, to buy some candy. Joe is like family, she says, and she wants to support any business in the town, which she fondly calls "Dag-ghetto."

Next comes housewife Deena Franklin, a slight woman with glasses who buys a can of soda.

"I sit at home, on my computer all day, and watch soap operas," she says. "Story of my life."

"'Days of Our Lives,'" Joe interjects. "Good show."

"Shut up, Joseph," she says with a grin on her face.

Mike Francis, who is on vacation from his job at the solar power plant down the road, sits on the window sill for hours, glancing at his red Mustang parked outside, nagging Joe to take cigarette breaks.

Those are the easy customers. There are the tiresome ones, like the people who ramble on about their children, their parents, the government, using Joe to ease their loneliness.

During one customer's rant about the country's impending demise, Joe subtly reaches into his pocket, where he keeps his cellphone, and calls the store's number. The ringing that follows gives him as good an excuse as any to break up the conversation.

Days in the Desert Market are punctuated by peaks and valleys. Half an hour could go by without a soul, then a dozen customers will come in at once and become irritated at the line. They'll wander off to look for more things to buy, through the five aisles of canned food, lighters, packaged donuts, toward a corner where Joe sells household goods and a pair of used Rollerblades labeled with a yellow Post-it note that says, "For sale. Make me an offer today."

Joe greets each customer with "Hey man," or "How are you?" Even the ones who yell from the aisles, asking where to find the toilet paper.

"Am I blind or are you out of butter?" one man shouts frantically from the fridges that line the left side of the store.

"I hear you sell stamps here," says another, striding to the counter like a man who has better things to do than loiter in the desert.

Some customers Joe must shoo away. When a woman comes in to buy milk, he refuses her because her family has fallen behind on paying off its credit. Later, she sends her son.

"No, your limit is up," he tells the boy, who looks about 9. The boy scurries away, embarrassed.

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