It was not enough time for many to catch his name, ask whether he had a family or learn how he ended up, at an age when others were retiring, hawking copies of Express, the free tabloid that was produced by The Washington Post until it was shut down on Sept. 12.
If we pause and break down our days into minutes, so many are filled with these types of fleeting interactions with people whose names we may not know, but whose faces at some point became part of our daily landscape. People we saw yesterday and today and expect to see tomorrow. The parking attendant. The security guard. That woman behind the salad counter who already knows our order.
Jimmy Breslin, in a much-read column that surfaces every 9/11, wrote about a woman he passed for months each morning as he left a health club and she headed toward it. They never spoke, but after the attack, he realized he hadn’t seen her.
“She was not here in my morning,” he wrote.
When it was announced on a Wednesday that the last copy of Express would be handed out that Thursday, many of the commuters who passed Hassan every day realized that he would no longer be in their mornings.
They could have done nothing. They could have told him goodbye and wished him well. What they did instead has left him in recent days saying, “I’m so grateful to them.”
Hassan says he showed up for work that Thursday at 5:40 a.m. and didn’t realize it was his last day until he handed the paper to a bus driver. The 65-year-old doesn’t have a television at home, so he hadn’t seen the news. His supervisor, who had just found out the day before, also hadn’t been able to reach him.
“She said, ‘Don’t you know you’re out of work?’ ” Hassan recalls of the bus driver. “She said, ‘Look at the front.’ ”
Normally, he reads the paper he hands out. That morning, he hadn’t. On the front page were the words, “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones,” above an image of a toppled Express box.
Hassan had held that job for five years, standing in the same spot four hours every morning in the snow, rain and heat. In that moment, he says, he felt as if he had been thrown “in the trash.” Much has already been written about The Post’s decision to close the commuter paper after 16 years. I have no new insight into what led up to that announcement. But I can tell you what happened afterward.
Two sisters quickly started a GoFundMe for Hassan and spread the word by placing a poster board at the station, printing fliers and sharing the link on social media.
As of this past Friday, more than 370 people had donated nearly $12,000 to him. Many also left comments saying what he meant to them:
Hassan you were my favorite part of my commute!
Hassan, although you probably don’t know who I am, you brightened my commute every day! Rain or shine you were always there to hand us a copy of Express and you never failed to wish me a good day with a smile.
I didn’t even know your name Hassan but you really did make my morning better each day and you showed more commitment than I do to most things in my life.
Erin D’Amato, who started the GoFundMe with her sister, described him as going “above and beyond to just be extremely kind.” Since starting the fund, she’s been struck by how something that cost nothing has made people assess its worth.
“This was a free service that didn’t have a dollar value before it was gone,” she says. “But now, you can see how much it really meant to people that they’re willing to donate.”
She and her sister have since created a second fund for the other 74 hawkers who are also now out of work. That fund aims to raise $75,000 so that each will get $1,000. As of Friday, it had raised more than $8,600.
Bobby King Sr., who served as a supervisor to 17 of those workers, says for many, that was their only job. He says when he told them that they were losing it, some wanted to know, “Was it something I did?”
King and his wife run a business that employs people who deliver different publications to various spots in the region and people who hand them out at specific locations. He estimates that when the Express closed, he and his wife lost about 65 percent of their income. Even so, he says, he worries more about the people they employed.
The donations will help, he says, but ultimately they need jobs. Some were doing the work for supplemental funds. But for others, it was their main income, and they may have résumés and backgrounds that don’t immediately show their strengths.
“They’re third-chance, fourth-chance, sixth-chance people,” King says. “They walk into the average place and say, ‘I’ve spent the last four years passing out newspapers for three hours a day,’ and that employer is going to look at them and draw conclusions that aren’t accurate. That’s what they’re up against.”
When Hassan came to the United States from Iran in 1978, he wanted to go to college.
He started attending Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., while living off a scholarship from his country and $1,000 his sister sent him each month. But by 1981, he says, all of that disappeared. The political unrest in Iran, which saw its last shah pushed into exile, led to his funds being cut off.
That’s when he started working odd jobs. He worked for a printing plant, as a street vendor and for a florist company before he ended up handing out Express. For the last few years, he says, he has earned $12.50 an hour.
“So all my life is wasted,” he tells me as we go through that timeline. “I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do, like finishing my school and my master’s degree. And these jobs, they were not paying enough for me to save some money for my rainy days.”
He is now a U.S. citizen and receives social security. But he says that brings in about $800 a month and his rent is about $700 a month, leaving little for anything else. The GoFundMe, he says, will thankfully hold him over until he can find another job.
“Sometimes, I think if I didn’t have these two friends that went out of their way, and did that for me, what would I have done?” he says. He has no family in the area. “I would have been really stuck. At this age, 65, it’s really hard to get a job.”
Hassan says he enjoyed greeting people at the Metro every morning. Their faces had become familiar to him, too. Some would stop to talk to him, and one woman sometimes met him at Starbucks when he was done working. But for the most part, he says, the encounters never lasted longer than a minute — and that wasn’t always a bad thing. He points out one benefit of that in Washington.
“When they were getting the paper from me, they would never have time to ask me anything about politics, and that was a good thing,” he says.
He knows that many of the commuters are probably Democrats, and long ago, he vowed never to back a president from that party because of the role Jimmy Carter played in the shah’s exile. He identifies as conservative and says he supports President Trump’s policies. He recognizes that’s not a popular stance in the District, but he says he respects that “everyone has their own opinions.”
“All these people who got the paper from me, I didn’t care about their politics,” he says. “I cared about their personalities, their character and the way they carried themselves.”
None of them had to help him, he says.
They could have just kept going about their mornings, as if he had never been a part of them.