Abdul turned 80 years old last spring. He still resembles the serious young man in his old passport photos, but now he has a white mustache, rounded shoulders, and tired eyes.
“I waste too much money,” he says, “$10,000 I spend.”
Too much money on what?
“Sign. Shaheen Sweets.”
His grandson comes over to help translate. He speaks to his grandfather in Urdu, then says, “He’s saying that he wasted too much money putting signs up in stadiums.”
Salam, who had studied marketing at Queens College, bought the ads in the early eighties. One ran on the scoreboard inside Yankee Stadium; the other flashed on the Yankees electronic billboard next to the Major Deegan. They were an idea Abdul never liked and apparently has never forgotten.
He rattles off a litany of other regrets. There was the $10,000 he spent on the Pakistani Day Parade. There was the 10,000-square-foot factory they set up in East New York in the eighties—a $1 million–plus investment—which was lost by 2001. “One machine: $75,000. And one machine: $250,000,” he says, referring to the packing equipment his sons bought.
“My idea is just to bake sweets,” he says. “That’s it.”
Over the past four decades, the Hamid family has more than quadrupled in size. Abdul’s sons and daughter have all married—and all but one had arranged marriages to members of the family’s sect. (The only one who didn’t, Tahir, married a woman who used to frequent the family’s restaurant in Jackson Heights, but he eventually divorced her and remarried, to a fellow Ahmadi.) The youngest sibling, Tariq, says that in his early twenties, he was opposed to the idea of arranged marriage. “I became too Americanized,” he says. But he changed his mind as he grew older, and when he was 28 he went back to Pakistan and married a woman chosen for him by his mother.
All five Hamid children now have children of their own. There are fifteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The third generation includes an NYPD officer, a computer engineer, an IT manager for Entertainment Weekly, an M.B.A. student at Johnson & Wales, a Columbia graduate student in physics, and a freshman at Brooklyn Tech. One grandchild has entered the family business: Salam’s oldest son runs a Shaheen restaurant in Hicksville and, this past summer, opened a second place next door that serves halal Chinese food.
The name Shaheen is still above the red-and-white awning outside of 72-09 Broadway in Jackson Heights, but the family no longer runs the restaurant on the first floor. Tariq leased it out a few years ago; now he just oversees the sweets operation in the basement. Abdul still shows up for work most days, and on a recent Wednesday he arrives at 8:30 a.m. He enters through a grate on the sidewalk to get to the basement, taking the stairs very slowly. Ten days earlier, he fell on his way home from the dentist.
He shuffles through the kitchen, past the three chefs, all men in their forties or fifties, leaning over giant woks atop a hot stove, dark spots on their forearms left by droplets of frying oil; past two women seated on plastic crates, stuffing and folding samosas; past a few more women packing sweets into plastic containers. Some days, Abdul joins the workers in the kitchen and peels carrots or potatoes for samosas. Or he’ll roll into perfect balls the gulab jamuns—a sticky sweet resembling a doughnut hole, made with milk and flour, then deep-fried and dipped in sugar syrup. Other times, he sits at his desk in the small office he shares with Tariq and fields calls from customers, giving out prices and taking orders, talking in Urdu and English. And, of course, sometimes he tells Tariq what to do. Does Tariq listen? “He’s an American boy,” Abdul says.
Abdul still has visions of empire. “When I feel better, I will start making Shaheen American Bakery,” he says, describing a new line of American-style pastries to sell alongside his Indian-Pakistani sweets. But today the focus is on filling the order sheets that cover the wall in the basement packing area—one for East West Foods in Sacramento, California, another for Mideast Market in Manchester, Missouri. Everyone is working a little faster than usual. With the upcoming arrival of Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, grocery stores have begun doubling their orders. For Shaheen Sweets, it’s the busiest time of the year.