Sarge, the pit bull, wags while patrolling the fenced-in plot next to Obama Neighborhood Market, a Yemeni's monument to world peace at 40th Avenue North and Clifton.
Nudged against Preston Taylor Homes, Obama's is a hospitable refuge, a place to stop for Kools, quarts and conversation. But there's no Obama inside ... just Sonny from Yemen, who bought AA Market during the last presidential election, revitalized it, painted it neon yellow and renamed it.
"I named the market for Obama because he wants peace," says Sonny, aka Ahmed Albihani, after folding up the blue prayer rug he stashes on a shelf inside the rear storeroom.
Many customers think his name is Obama. Others call him Sonny. Regardless, they welcome the improvement the native of Yemen brought to this hard corner of Nashville.
Stephan Westmoreland, 21, says the market's "lot better now" than before. He's not shopping today, "just chillin' " — his primary activity since finishing at Pearl-Cohn. "I'm gonna try to get in the NFL," Westmoreland says. "I'm 5-11, 150. Wanna be a receiver. Gotta work out and get bigger, but I'll make it." He slides outside and toward the forest of townhouses covering hillsides once occupied by a brick wasteland.
Sonny's smile lifts the corners of his beard as he watches the dreamers, schemers and shoppers who help his shrine to Obama and world peace flourish.
"I like the president. He is very sharp. When he was running for president, he was talking about peace," says Sonny, who became an American citizen in time to cast his first ballot for that candidate. So far the 39-year-old, who moved from Rada'a in Yemen to attend LaGuardia Community College (part of the City University of New York), has been pleased by his market's namesake.
"When I was a kid, growing up in Yemen," Sonny says, "when you said you were going to America, everybody said, 'You are going to the best country in the world.'
"But then George W. Bush made America the enemy of everybody," he says, noting he quit bragging about his new citizenship with folks back home. "They don't like America so much.
"But President Obama, he wants peace. And things are getting better. I like the guy," he says.
Peace is often on Sonny's mind when he kneels on his prayer rug while facing Mecca five times daily.
"I put it right down on the floor here and pray," he says, motioning to the top of a ramp to the storeroom where a beer vendor is unloading his wares. On Fridays, Sonny sometimes goes to the mosque, which offers him his only sustained contact with fellow Yemenis in Nashville.
He says Muslims — at least in his circle — don't do much socializing, preferring home, family and isolation when the workday ends. "So when I see them at the mosque, I say 'Hi, how you doing? How's business?' But I don't go to their houses," he says. That's despite the fact he credits himself for an influx of Yemenis "living on Harding Place, Donelson Pike, out Dickerson Road, everywhere."
Sonny worked at a market like this in Manhattan for three years. It was at 43rd and Ninth Avenue, one street down from Times Square. He came south to visit his cousin, who works here, and he was struck by the contrast in living.
"The people are nice, respectful, friendly," Sonny says. "New York City is hyper, rush. People are not patient. Here they say, 'Hi, how's your day?'
"I liked it so much, I called my boss and I said, 'Listen, I'm not coming back.' "
After he moved here in 1995, friends from New York and Yemen "talked to me, they come ... and they stay here." When he's not working, he's spending time with "best buddy" Leila, his 12-year-old daughter. "I'm divorced," he says, noting his ex-wife "is white: half-Irish and half-German-Jewish."
Leila lives with Sonny off Murfreesboro Road. "I love it," he says. "But it is kind of hard to see her change to be a woman growing right in front of you."
While he relishes his time at home, he has deep affection for his clientele.
"The people in the neighborhood are very friendly," Sonny says. "And we have police around here all day long. I've never had any trouble."
On this afternoon, many customers wander in for a half-dozen of Glory Johnson's fried chicken wings and fries for $5.99. The market cook — she also makes burgers and pizza — custom-fries wings in 10 different sweet, hot and fried flavors.
"I was doing executive housekeeping," she says, lowering baskets into bubbling oil. "Ran out of work and Sonny had a job. I like him. "
Customer Sonny Claybrooks, 65, a lifetime resident of the neighborhood around the projects, wanders up to ask an opinion about what beverage he should buy.
"I got diabetes," he says, bypassing shelves of Kreature Kooler and other compounds. "Think I'm just gonna get a single Diet Pepsi."
The market is vital to neighborhood residents, many of whom lack transportation. Claybrooks praises the Yemeni and his brother, Abrahim, the register clerk who has just passed his citizenship test. "They treat everybody right," he says. "And the market has improved; it's all about selling good stuff to people."
Sonny the store owner is proud his market is valued in the neighborhood. He's also proud of his wide selection of beers and malt liquors.
"Sell a lot of quarts," he says. "It's against my religion, but you can't make a store work without selling beer. I didn't have it for a month and a half, and business was really bad. Now it's three times what it was."
The beer allows him to make a living, seven days a week, keeping the doors open for customers who have few other store options for their bread, toilet paper, hygiene products and other grocery items.
"I like to make my business convenient for people. Have what they want," he says. He shrugs out toward the neighborhood that closes in on his bright-yellow monument to world peace. "Nashville is a nice, quiet city."
Outside, Sarge barks as a siren cuts the afternoon chill. The dog, by the way, came with the market.
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