I had heard about Gyan Prasad Rimal from Potomac's Anne Samit, who called with one of those happy customer service stories that tend only to reinforce just how bad customer service is these days.
But what I thought would be a straightforward good Samaritan story turned out to be something richer.
The story begins not long ago when Anne's 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra, went to the Subway at Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery for lunch. She paid for a meal for herself and a friend with a $50 bill. On the way back to Churchill High School, Alexandra realized she'd walked off without picking up her change.
That night, she sheepishly told her mother that she'd spent $50 on lunch. It seemed like this would be an expensive lesson. But Anne decided to call Subway, expecting to wheedle and plead to get her daughter's money back.
"And he said to me, 'Well, have her come back in and get the money from us,' " Anne said.
He was Gyan Prasad Rimal. He didn't ask for a receipt. He just asked what Alexandra had ordered, and when Anne showed up the next day, gave her the change, about $34, no questions asked.
"Everybody passes the buck," Anne said. "Even when it's time to say 'sorry,' everybody blames everybody else. . . . It was just good-hearted, you know."
One morning this week, before Subway opened, I told Gyan what Anne had said.
"Honesty is my principle, sir," Gyan said. "All Nepalese are very honest. Naturally."
We sat in the mall's empty food court. A map of Nepal that I had brought was spread out on a table in front of us. Five of the six people who work at the Subway are from that Hindu kingdom between India and Tibet. I asked Gyan and his co-workers to show me where, until recently, they had lived.
Gyan pointed out the capital, Kathmandu, where he had a house, and Dhading, where he once had another house. Ramsi P. Bastola traced his finger to the west, to Pokhara, Nepal's second-largest city, where he sold clothes. Shes Kanta Paudel also lived in Pokhara, where he worked for Nepal's road department. Prakash Shrestha worked at a restaurant in Kathmandu's tourist sector. Karki Govind pointed out Janakpur, where he grew rice and beans on his farm.
We don't often think about the men, or women, behind the sandwich. We interact just long enough to get our food -- fast -- and then scoot on our way. We seldom think about the sacrifices they made to come here, or the complicated longing they must have for the lives they left behind.
For 21 years, Gyan ran Ganesh Himal Trekking, a company that arranged hiking vacations in Nepal for foreigners. He's climbed as far as 7,500 meters up into the thin Himalayan air. But he said he had to flee the country when Maoist rebels made things unsafe for him. The rebels took his house in Dhading. They started demanding money from Karki, the farmer.
"They attacked me," Karki said, raising his right hand to show a jagged scar that ran across his palm. On Tuesday, three men believed to be Maoist rebels detonated a bomb in a government building in Kathmandu, injuring at least 38.
Now all five men live together in an apartment within walking distance of the mall. They have their green cards, but they don't have a car. They've been here less than four months.
"We are very new." That's how Gyan describes what it's like to go from the land of snow-capped peaks to the valley of the malls.
I asked if they missed Nepal, surely one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
"We normally live in a mountain country, of course," said Gyan, "but our feeling is very good with America. We are quite happy."
Gyan said there are actually a lot of Nepalese in the area. A movie star is working in Maryland, though they've heard she's going back home soon. Some singers have sought refuge in the area. Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery itself has a small Nepalese contingent.
"In the evening, we make our own food from Nepal," Gyan said. "In the day, we eat light from Subway. It's good for us also."
Gyan's wife, mother and three children are still in Kathmandu. He was a politician there and ran unsuccessfully for parliament. He hopes to go back when things cool down, but for now, he'll work as much as he can and send money home.
"I have three children I have to take care of," he said. "If I don't work hard, I can't survive."
We had been talking for a while when the Subway's owner joined us. Kanwal Sandhu's family moved to America from the Punjab region of India 11 years ago, when he was 14.
"It's hard in the beginning, but everybody wanted to come here," Kanwal said. "It means there are more opportunities here than there."
Kanwal is the first in his family to become a businessman, he said. He's been working since he was 16, when he worked at a CVS in Laurel -- a job he eventually left when they wouldn't give him enough hours. He runs five Subways in the Baltimore area and one in this area. The Montgomery mall location is his first down here, and he'd like more. His customer service philosophy is simple: "I just tell them, whatever a customer wants, do it."
I said my goodbyes when it was time for the men to open up. In the car on the way to work, I heard a radio ad for a new reality show. Shallow people hoping to work for British billionaire Richard Branson were going to have to dangle from a hot air balloon and go over a waterfall in a barrel.
I decided I'd rather work for a boss like Kanwal Sandhu, with co-workers like Gyan Prasad Rimal.
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