Given that I’d seen him around, I was expecting Reyad Farraj to look about thirty years old and slightly gangsta, with a shuffling step punctuated by the clip of gigantic Timberlands and shoulders steeled under a heavy parka. I’d noticed him on the stoop of John and Judy’s apartment, smoking a cigarette as he mulled a plumbing problem with a tenant over in his mind.
The Reyad Farraj who showed up for breakfast wore a navy blue cable-knit sweater. He’s thirty-six and gently jowly with fluffy coiffed hair, soft kind eyes and a lot more common sense than the boy described above. Reyad remembered meeting me too, except I had glasses then. I don’t wear glasses, so this is unusual, but, you know, maybe he met my niece or something. Stranger things have happened in New York City.
We met at the Carroll Gardens Classic Diner, which looks, both inside and out, like it was built long before the fever of gentrification now whipping up both its Smith Street flanks. A waitress handed us twelve-page laminated menus that telescoped vertiginously from the simple to complex: first fried eggs, then fried eggs with bacon, then fried eggs with a bonanza of bacon, links and country ham; pancakes with maple syrup; then blueberry pancakes with fruit compote; then chocolate-chip pancakes with yogurt, walnuts and summer fruit. Both of us ordered something mid-level: Rey a Greek frittata, I a waffle with yogurt and blueberries. A platoon of Mexicans with very short forearms refilled our coffees as soon as they fell below half full. This they communicated via an elaborate system of hand signals. Behind us, the television blared Dr. Chipper infomercials. It was a very sunny day.
“The producer is the guy nobody knows,” Reyad tells me. “Currently my role is limited to that, but I hope to expand my company so it encompasses finance, production, management, and distribution.” After his transactional law business folded, for reasons described below and to which he refers in verbalized capital letters as The Eleventh, Rey began producing independent films. “I was repping writers and directors pro bono, and going to these film festivals, and I met this gentleman by the name of Mad Mathews,” he recalls, “who, by the way, has just been named one of the top 25 to watch by Filmmaker magazine. He did, oh, he did Groupie, Lush Life, Planet Brooklyn—formerly Men Without Jobs—and we worked together on Jellysmoke, an urban drama, which just won the L.A. film festival!” This last fact makes him very happy, and his lips curl slightly upon hearing it aloud.
Rey is a classic American businessman in the mold of a Frank Sinatra song, only more of a lateral thinker and buoyant about what potential the future holds. The son of Palestinians who ran two clothing stores in Brazil for fifteen years until the country’s economic collapse in the fifties, he was born and bred in Brooklyn, a word he expels from the back of his throat as “Bruh-k-lyn.” Rey’s parents settled on Flatbush Ave in the early 60s, and Rey spent his prepubescence fist-fighting the ten-year-olds who grew up in Carroll Gardens households that blamed the neighborhood’s Arab-Americans for any ills committed by men with moustaches: Iran-Contra, the Pope being shot by Turkish Muslims. “Nothing actually bad ever happened,” he reminisces. “It was just, oh, ok, we’re gonna have to fight today. What’s the big deal? Things were nice. And then the Eleventh happened.”
Oh, we’ll get to it, okay? Calm down.
Rey started with a premed degree at NYU, and then studied political science. He followed this with a master’s in molecular biology, and, noting emerging opportunities in licensing law, finished with law school in Long Island. “I’ve always been interested in intellectual property,” he tells me, his hands at folded rest on the Formica, his gaze earnest and composed. “Do you know what that is?” I nod; he follows: “I became an international business transaction attorney. We’d take the biotech firm technologies and license them out to Saudi and Gulf companies. You know—power systems, petrochemicals, circuit breaker factories, sand blasters.” He was an American who spoke Arabic and at the same time an Arab fully fluent in American, capable of easy straddles. “The foreign market, that’s where the money is.” He had an office in Abu Dhabi and another on Broadway and Broome. (“You know Silicon Alley?” he says. “Alley, not Valley.”)
Nearly the whole sentient world has a September 11th story. Mine’s not very exciting; it takes place in Providence, overhearing scandalized librarians at the checkout desk of the science library, and huddled around televisions with friends, frozen, for much of the week. But one of the startling things about moving to New York, even five years into the aftermath, is noticing how fresh wounds still are, how much was lost even by New Yorkers unconnected to dead people. My roommate, for instance, lost his girlfriend to the September-11th-prompted realization that she wanted to be with someone else. Restaurants folded; weddings were canceled; hotels stayed empty for months.
Rey’s business effectively imploded. Oil and gas continued trading, but all other deals were stuck in a holding pattern. The Saudis started doing business with Malaysians and Indonesians instead. “They still call on the holidays,” he says, grinning wanly.
The ‘tudinal waitress who’s made the same loud wisecracks to every table in the room brings us our food, which is much better than I’d expected, having prematurely judged the coffee. Rey’s frittata is meaty in the middle and lacy on the edges, and the fruit on my waffle is surprisingly ripe for February, crackling with flavor. The waffle is seared crunchy on the outside and captures the maple syrup in limpid pools that sink in at an imperceptible pace.
So Rey removed his intellectual-property expertise from industry and applied it to show-biz. He now says things like “Mary Harran, just iconic to the New York independent film scene. You know her?” and harrumphs, a cigar and potbelly about four years away, about what “a wonderful, wonderful woman” she is.
“I’ll stay in Brooklyn for ever and ever,” he says at one point. “There’s tolerance and diversity here you don’t see anywhere else.” This is a surprising statement coming from someone who got beaten up on the way to school every day, but he’s an optimistic guy and the conversation’s on an upswing.
Reyad, who (in his spare time, evidently) is currently advising a foundation helping to form a dual-language Arab-English academy named after Khalil Gibran, hopes to run for Brooklyn Borough President one day. I tell him I’d vote for him, and I would—his intelligence veritably crackles and he talks to people in a level, mellow, Bill Clinton kind of way. “You can trust me,” say his eyes. Clumsily, I spill coffee all over my crotch, and it burns briefly, then makes me feel like I both need to and have just peed my pants.
On our way back to his apartment, the snow crunches and glints under our feet and he tells me landlord horror stories about appalling tenants, like the ones who didn’t pay for a year and still refused to leave. The spilt coffee is now frozen and makes me feel I’m walking around in a parka top and wet bikini bottom. “Being a New York landlord, well, it’s a wonderful asset class to have, but it means you meet a lot of weird people,” Rey says, shaking his head. One might expect a writer who interviews strangers to meet a lot of weird people too.
Sometimes, though, they’re just normal and nice. Back at John’s I wonder aloud whether the guy we see smoking on their stoop is Reyad Farraj. No, John says, that’s his nephew, then after a beat, follows: Oooh, but he’d make a great interview!