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Brian McGrory

A life filled up with love

Maybe it’s me, but life seems like one giant divide these days — the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent, the 47 percent vs. everyone else, black against white, men against women, Paula Broadwell against Jill Kelley.

Which is how I happened to arrive recently at the faded front door of Nick’s Service Station in Cambridge. Think of a sleek Mobil Mart, with bright lights and computerized pumps — and then think of the exact opposite, right down to the ancient sign on the brick building that says, “Master Mechanic on Duty.”

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That would be Nick Bourji, the owner, who wiped the grease off his hands to shake mine and proceeded to tell the story that half of Cambridge seems to have on its collective mind: The life and impending death of Karim Alagha.

Karim pumps gas, which is kind of like saying Steve Jobs made gadgets, because Karim, you see, might be the single best gas station attendant the world has ever known, assuming you judge it by friendships formed, people touched, and memories made.

“The mayor of Mount Auburn Street,” Audrey Zabin, a long-time customer and local social worker, said of him.

“People just love him,” Bourji said.

Karim has worked the pumps at Nick’s, directly across from Mount Auburn Cemetery, from 7 a.m. many days until 10 at night, often seven days a week, for the past 25-plus years. He came from Lebanon. He sends money home every week to his wife. Pumping gas has helped him put two kids through college.

For many of his regular customers, this unusual gas station attendant — short, balding, with the thick Lebanese accent — might have been the most enduring figure in their lives. He always had candy on hand for kids, treats for dogs, and boundless enthusiasm for the many regulars, whom he knew by their cars more often than their names.

“I ran into him at Star Market at 10 o’clock at night and he was buying lollipops for the kids,” said Libby Lodge, one of those regular customers.

A year-and-a-half ago, the indestructible, unwaveringly happy Karim was diagnosed with lung cancer. He checked into Mount Auburn Hospital. He underwent chemotherapy.

And what did his customers do? Absolutely whatever it was that he needed. One gave him an apartment in the basement of his house because it was closer to the station. Zabin gave him her expertise as a social worker. Lodge started raising money.

They put a handmade sign in the station window saying Karim needed help, and contributions came flowing in to help with medical bills and to allow him to continue sending cash back home. Lots of money, as in, $10,000, given by people in Chevys and Cadillacs, pickups and BMWs. Bourji continued to pay Karim, though he’s too modest to say it.

Karim would come back to visit with customers while a younger attendant pumped the gas. Three months ago, the cancer advancing on his body, he checked into a rehab and nursing home in Watertown, where all those regulars fill his room with food, cards, and flowers. They visit constantly and heard Karim express his final desire to be buried back in Lebanon, in a plot beside his father. He’s too sick to travel now.

So they’ve kept giving, these customers, but now it’s money for Karim’s body to be flown home when he’s no longer here.

Meantime, kids still look for him at the pumps. Dogs paw at the windows for treats. You can almost still hear his trademark declaration of “We love you, we love you,” as people drove away with a full tank.

And all these customers who have come to his aid? They’ve all gotten to know each other, forming friendships that will endure long after Karim is gone. “He’s brought all these people together,” said Zabin, the regular.

We just finished a multibillion-dollar campaign that was all about division. And here’s a gas station attendant who has spent the last quarter century bridging cultures and differences, even in his dying days.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.
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