Ishrat Ali hasn't been rich since he was a baby. Now he's on his way back, challenging the odds.
He's doing it in San Pedro, with hamburgers and french fries and cups of cola, not at all the way the scion of a prominent, status-conscious family is expected to make his mark.
Ali manages a Jack-in-the-Box.
His riches-to-rags-and-part-way-back story began when he was an infant, 37 years ago, in Gorakhpur, an Indian city 300 miles north of New Delhi. The nation of Pakistan had just been founded, and Ali's father, attracted by the idea of being part of a new country, decided to move with his family to Karachi.
Ali proudly describes his father as a successful, wealthy attorney. But, Ali said, his father made bad business investments in Pakistan and in less than two years, he had lost his money.
In India, the Alis had lived stylishly and comfortably in a huge house with half a dozen servants. In Pakistan, the family found itself crowded into a tiny house on a plot of land less than 27 feet square. That's where Ali grew up, sharing a single bedroom with his parents, three brothers and three sisters.
As a boy, Ali said, "I only had one shirt. All I ate was bread."
He didn't eat well, but he studied well. "My parents emphasized one thing," he recalled, "They said, 'We will not eat, but we will learn.' "
Ali's father became a government clerk and scrimped to send his children to school.
Ali graduated from college, and became a clerk in a soda ash factory. That position led to a supervisorial office job in an import-export firm, which developed into sales work requiring travel in Europe, Australia and the Far East. In 1976, Ali quit that job to start his own import-export business.
The business flourished. Still, Ali was not happy. He said that, though he had grown up in Pakistan, the Pakistanis looked upon him as an Indian, "and therefore a second-class citizen.
"I said to myself, 'If I have to be a second-class citizen, I'd rather come to the United States to be a second-class citizen."
He arrived eight years ago, a 29-year-old college graduate with a visa that forbade him to work in this country.
He concedes now that he ignored that restriction when, on June 19, 1978, he found a job at a Jack-in-the-Box on Santa Monica Boulevard near Veteran Avenue.
Ali was thrilled to have found work in the United States, he said. But before finishing a day on the job, his thrill turned to humiliation and doubt.
"The first day when they sent me to clean the bathroom, I literally cried in there," Ali said, tears of emotion welling up behind his steel rimmed glasses. "In India, very lower-class people clean the bathrooms. They live separately."
Nonetheless, Ali cleaned bathrooms. And grease traps. And pots and pans.
"What got me through those days were three things my father told me, three things that guide my life," Ali said, an earnest expression replacing the smile that so often graces his round face. "He told me never to boast that a rich person is my relative, but rather to become a man that those rich relatives boast about. The second thing was that it doesn't matter if your father is the king, you will be treated for what you are. And last, he said that one thing nobody can steal from me is my education."
Two other factors that got Ali through those difficult days were his perception of the United States as a land of opportunity, and his innate desire to provide opportunity for others as well as to take advantage of opportunity himself.
'I Can Help Somebody'
"In Pakistan you have to have a connection to go up. Here it is different. This country has absolutely more opportunity to grow than anywhere in the world," Ali said, adding, "I feel thanks to God that I can give the opportunity to grow. . . . I can help somebody."
Ali started out at $2.65 an hour. "He liked to help everybody," said a co-worker from the early Jack-in-the-Box days. "I was just here from Mexico, and I spoke almost no English then. Ali showed me how to work, how to serve the customers. Sometimes my friends and I used to have to sleep at the Jack-in-the-Box if we got off too late, after the last bus had gone. When Ali found out, he would drive us home, all the way downtown."
The co-worker's name was Silvia Morales. Today it is Silvia Ali. She and Ali were married five years ago. They and their daughter, Yasmeen, 4, live in an immaculate Culver City apartment with Jack-in-the-Box plaques on the wall recognizing Ali's work for the fast-food chain.
Ali and Silvia worked side by side at the Santa Monica Boulevard restaurant. Within four months Ali was night-shift manager. "It was the biggest achievement of my life, to do that in America," he said.
Two years after arriving in the United States, Ali was managing a Jack-in-the-Box in Santa Monica, and a year after that, Ali said with pride, he was in charge of the company's busiest outlet in Los Angeles: the place where he'd started out as an illegal worker mopping bathrooms.
Ali no longer was illegal. After wasting $1,000 on one fast-talking lawyer, he had found another attorney who helped get his green card.
In February, 1985, Ali was asked to rescue the San Pedro Jack-in-the-Box on Western Avenue, a notoriously difficult location that for years had been plagued by teen-age crowds that often numbered 200. They demonstrated their respect by plugging the sink and flooding the restaurant, getting drunk and smashing furniture, Ali said.
Ali replaced some of the staff and retrained those who were left. He closed the dining room at night, cleaned the place up, hung new plants from the ceiling and planted flowers in front.
When he took over, income at the San Pedro restaurant was 60th in its district, Ali observed. "Dead last," he said. "Now it's in the top 15."
Ali's style is to treat his employees as family members. Like a good father, he can be tough; his tone often is firm and he says he frequently fires rude employees. But before he gets tough, Ali is gentle. "My employees are my family. I have to take care of them," he said.
"Everything is people," Ali said. "That is one thing I learned in America." Recently, Silvia sat on a big, red, overstuffed couch in her apartment and talked about her husband's favorite pastimes. First, she said, comes playing with Yasmeen at a nearby park. He also likes to talk on the phone about work with other Jack-in-the-Box employees. And it has become a ritual to spend an hour each Wednesday night watching "Dynasty."
"Do you know why I like 'Dynasty,' " Ali asked. Not waiting for an answer, he continued, "I like 'Dynasty' because of the John Forsythe character, Blake Carrington. When he talks about business, he's a very, very strong man. And when he talks about family, he's a very, very kind and gentle man. That's how I want to be."