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Originally published December 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 24, 2008 at 3:41 AM

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Danny Westneat

Showing up is a show of strength

The other morning the city was serene as a sleeping child. No planes whining overhead. Few cars jostling the streets. Seattle quiet under a...

Seattle Times staff columnist

The other morning the city was serene as a sleeping child. No planes whining overhead. Few cars jostling the streets. Seattle quiet under a thick white quilt.

At my house this lasted until my kids woke up. Loudly expecting food for breakfast that I foolishly did not have.

It was 7 a.m. The city was frozen. Which was when my thoughts turned, as they often do in a pinch, to Luel.

"I bet the Ethiopians made it in," I said to my wife as I headed out the door.

Sure enough, Luel's shop — the Madrona Market at 33rd and East Union — was open. As it always is. No matter what.

"Why are you surprised?" said Luel Mengistu, 36, the shop's owner, as he bagged up my milk, eggs and bread. "It is my principle. I am open every day. No exceptions."

That includes tomorrow, Christmas Day. But it also included last Thursday, the big snow day, when Luel ignored the storm and kept the store open until his usual closing time of 11 p.m.

He did triple his normal business. People walked from all over to sock away emergency six-packs of beer or bottles of wine.

"They said they came because they knew I would be here," he said proudly.

Sometimes Luel takes his always-open mantra to extremes. Two years ago the Hanukkah Eve windstorm knocked out power to his market for five days. He stayed open anyway.

I remember him standing in there in the dark, his front door propped to bring in the December air to chill his produce and milk. Customers shopped by flashlight.

Or take these past few days. Deliveries to his store have all but stopped. So he has been driving his Toyota compact truck down to Costco's business center in Fife to restock the store himself (while his wife, Selam, runs the register).

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They live in Renton (with their 4-year-old daughter.) One day last week it took Luel three hours to get to work.

So here's my question. How is it that our city is so paralyzed that mail service stops, the bus system collapses and the airlines run out of de-icing fluid, yet two Ethiopian immigrants, who grew up driving through dust, not ice, can manage to go from Renton to Seattle to Fife and back, every day, to keep a grocery store humming?

Luel laughs.

"Because we are strong, physically and mentally!" he shouts.

Joking aside, he says it's desire. He learned to drive at age 11, running parts for an auto-repair business in the Ethiopian city of Gonder. Ever since, he's been a do-it-yourselfer.

"We want it," he says. "We come here to this country for opportunity. People blame government for everything — for bad economy, for discrimination. Now they blame government for not plowing snow.

"It's not government. People need to try harder. If you want to work, you can work."

We've grown soft as a snowdrift (my words, not his). Eight inches of snow, and our world-class city curls up like a potato bug?

But the other, less carping reason I'm telling you about Luel and Selam is that I find them inspiring. This has been one brutal year. The job losses, the stock-market meltdown. There's been a sense that America, at least the version we've built up these past two or three decades, is crashing.

So along come fresh new Americans. Hopeful. Hungry.

Luel was jailed for 38 days and nearly deported because of a mix-up in his immigration paperwork when he came in the 1990s. He became a U.S. citizen in 2005 — and, despite the bad beginnings, one of our strongest boosters.

"It's still only country you can be whatever you want to be," he says. "Look at Barack Obama. Look at me."

I asked Luel how to succeed in America. Without hesitating he said: "Dream. Have a plan. Be decent person. But above all, show up!"

Yes, show up. Good advice whether you're a city digging out from a snowstorm, or a nation from an economic collapse.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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