Love Your Neighbors

One night a couple weeks ago, Jeff and I stopped into a random liquor store on our way home from dinner in San Francisco to grab a gallon of milk to take home. Yes, for real, milk was the only liquid we were seeking on this night. We discovered right away, though, that what we thought was just an ordinary corner store, certainly was not.

We walked in through the front doors of Valentino Market on the corner of Buchanan and Filbert, and while Jeff headed toward the back refrigerator, I hung out near the register to wait for him. I certainly didn’t want to start grazing in the Cheez-It aisle, so I figured up front was the safest location for me. I’m a nighttime snacker, and even though I’d just had a dinner that was a little too good, I still could eat a solid box of Cheez-It’s all by myself before bed. So I stood in a location where my eyes could not see the temptation. As I nonchalantly looked around to every corner of the store other than the snack aisle, I began noticing photos of kids taped to the register. And the walls. And the shelves behind the head of the man at the counter. And the windows. And then I noticed the hand drawn art that was displayed on every other open area that could possibly fit a piece of paper on it. I started circling around, realizing that there truly was no wall space that did not have some kind of kid joy displayed. “Thank you Mr. Eli for the gift card for books” one piece of artwork read. “Thank you for the candy”, said another. Some looked new and some looked old, edges browned with time and moist ocean air that had been coming in through the open doors rolling over Crissy Field for 100 years into the store. But all had one thing in common-the artwork was all dedicated to “Mr. Eli”. 

I smiled at the man behind the counter. “Are these all neighborhood kids?” I asked him.

He smiled back, a bit shyly. “Yes”, he answered, as Jeff joined us at the counter. “I give the kids rewards that are nice to their parents and get good grades.” He nodded to the photos taped to the register, clearly the ones that had been displayed when he’d begun his support of the local kids. “It’s important for people to show the kids in their community that their behavior matters, it gives them a place to belong and feel important.” 


A lump formed immediately in my throat and I could only smile back at him. He pointed to a piece of artwork above the open door. “See that one? Someone came in last week and tried to buy it, but I wouldn’t sell.” 

Jeff asked him why someone wanted to buy.

“He’s on the Giants team now, but he used to bring his report card in here to show me and I’d give him candy. He lived right around the corner.” 

Jeff and I were both at a loss for words at this man.  

Elie Chahwan has owned the one hundred year-old Valentino Market for fifteen years, and was quoted at the 100th birthday celebration of the market last year, “"Nobody really spoke to each other at this store before I took over," he said. "But I saw beautiful people around, and I just introduced people to each other, and people naturally started creating community. (”

Valentino Market is so aptly named. Elie Chahwan has pinned love and belonging to every wall, shelf, and crevice of the store, so much that it cannot be contained and his heart pulses out into the community. 

We all have somewhere that we call ours, and from that place, we should be following Elie’s lead. Some of us may have a store front, some an office cubby, others a dinner table, perhaps even just a park bench that we frequent, but everyone has somewhere from which they can exude love and joy to others. Wherever your heart resides, share from there. Offer goodness and safety and belonging to those that you encounter. Elie has done this for fifteen years, and now he has “children of children that I gave candy to” coming back to collect joy and adoration from Elie, at their corner store. If we all give a little piece of our hearts to another, the giving will be exponential in its growth, and perhaps in years to come, we will see the difference kindness makes as the norm. Giving of ourselves does not require that we lose what we are giving away. A candle can light another candle without losing any of its light. Lighting up someone else just makes where you reside and where others are a bit brighter. Humans are flowing with heat energy, and that energy is the light that can warm others. The trouble is, though a candle can light another to make the room brighter, a candle that is lit and lights no other eventually just burns out and the light ends. The purpose of light is not for it to be extinguished. 

Fifteen year-old Ann Makosinski invented a flashlight that runs off the heat generated directly from our bodies, no battery necessary. She did this in hopes that kids in communities with no electricity can have light to read and do their homework. If our bodies can create enough energy on its own to light a flashlight, imagine what fuel our words and efforts provide. 

Elie and Ann have created love and giving from just doing. There is no magic formula or something that needs to happen first. They just felt what they needed to do and they did it. 

Our world needs this light. Our communities need this warmth. Our kids need this sense of belonging. As Gandhi said, we must “be the change you want to see in the world”. 

Jennifer Payne