By: Bryant-Jon Anteola
November 26, 2020 —
Who would’ve known recording homeless people in Fresno would lead to viral videos?
That certainly wasn’t the intention of Akram Mohsin, manager of the Tower Gas & Mini Mart, when he started recording the homeless traffic passing through the store on East Olive Avenue.
He simply wanted to showcase some of the personalities that he was encountering and share the videos on his TikTok account.
What’s happened next, though, turned into a pleasant surprise, and it all started by Mohsin treating those homeless not like nuisances but as neighbors.
Some of the homeless that appeared on Mohsin’s social media feed suddenly gained a fan base, the panhandling problem at the store has decreased significantly, and millions of viewers got to enjoy a collection of funny, crude and sometimes surprisingly heartfelt videos.
It’s a reminder of the power of social media.
But also the power of kindness and humanity.
“It started off as me just trying to post funny content of my customers,” Mohsin said. “Then my viewers started growing a lot and people started asking ‘Who’s this guy? Who’s that guy? Or what’s that person’s story?’
“I try not to get too deep with these guys’ full backstory. I try to keep it more lighthearted. It’s not always about what’s happened before, but what they’re doing at the moment to have fun.”
MAN SLEEPS IN DUMPSTER
In one of his first viral TikTok videos that reached 1 million views, Mohsin filmed a homeless man named Gilbert who was sleeping in a dumpster located behind the gas station.
Mohsin said that prior to recording the video, Gilbert agreed to throw out the store’s trash in exchange for a beer.
But after Gilbert didn’t come back to the store upon taking out the trash, a concerned Mohsin went out back to check on him.
There, he found Gilbert asleep inside the dumpster bin.
“No don’t put that on me,” Gilbert says when he wakes up briefly to the camera’s light and sees Mohsin recording him. “I’m Bat Man.”
“Bat Man lives in a cave,” Mohsin replies.
“Not today,” Gilbert quickly answers back.
Then Mohsin decides to have some fun.
“You want it to be a cave?” Mohsin asks beforing closing the dumpster lid over Gilbert’s head.
A smiling Gilbert laughs and bellows: “I am Bat Man.”
As of Thursday morning, the video had generated 1.3 million views.
In a later video with Gilbert wearing a Bat Man shirt, 3.9 million viewers watched his reaction to receiving gifts from random people who’d sent Mohsin packages to distribute on their behalf.
Mohsin said Gilbert grew such a huge following that some viewers eventually got in touch with a few of the homeless man’s old friends.
Those friends came to the gas station to visit Gilbert one day and offered him a home to stay in, as long as he tried to get sober again.
“As of today, he’s probably been sober three to four months,” Mohsin said. “He’s staying with them at their home. He’s planning on getting a job at the neighborhood thrift store.
“It was good for him. And it was a good wakeup for me — that I can really do some good work with this.”
DANCING HOMELESS MAN
Since he was a kid, the 23-year-old Mohsin remembers seeing a homeless man come in and out of his family’s gas station and mini mart.
Mohsin never forgot that man, whose name is Chris, because he’d never seen a homeless person randomly flash dance moves.
So when Mohsin started overseeing the family business and recording videos, he knew Chris was someone he had to feature on his TikTok account.
“I had a feeling that if I could get him to dance on video, people would want to watch more,” Mohsin said. “Chris is really good at dancing.”
Chris’ dance performances have since become a staple of Mohsin’s videos.
Sometimes, he’ll bust out a freestyle move in front of the cash register.
Other times, Chris dances outside to a catchy beat.
During one video, Chris appears to be heading out the door then suddenly dances to the 50 Cent rap song “In Da Club” and the chorus “Go Shawty … It’s your birthday … We gonna party like it’s your birthday.”
Chris’ brief performance ends with him on the store floor, doing the worm.
“We got 7 million views the other day,” Chris said. “That’s like six Fresnos.”
Mohsin, who has become friends with some of the people he’s recorded, said he isn’t quite sure why Chris is homeless.
Mohsin doesn’t like to ask them too many questions.
But eventually, some of them open up on their own to Mohsin and share their backstory. Usually, it’s never on camera.
Mohsin said Chris has a college degree, once taught at Fresno City, had a corporate job, got married and has a daughter.
“Then drugs took a toll on him,” Mohsin said. “But, he’s really filled with life.
“This guy is not causing any trouble. He’s funny. He’s had some tough times. Everyone has a story. I don’t judge.”
READY TO SING
Though Mohsin has befriended some of the homeless who patronize his store, he also is cautious about interacting or filming others.
“You can tell who you should be aware of,” Mohsin said. “This guy is kind of off, so I’ll stay away.
“But sometimes, it feels like people are so quick to judge because someone is dirty. So they stay away and never get to know the person.”
Among the homeless Mohsin also got to know on a more personal level was an older man named Lloyd.
In one of Mohsin’s more popular videos, Lloyd approaches the register to buy a few items.
Mohsin tells Lloyd that he can have all the items for free if he sings a song. A fellow co-worker requests that Lloyd sings “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a classic soul song by Bill Withers released in 1971.
Lloyd unleashes a wide smile then, with his deep voice, sings a few verses a cappella.
The video generated 4 million views.
A week later, Mohsin posted another video of Lloyd that generated another 4 million views.
This time, Lloyd humbly accepts an Amazon package that has a Karaoke machine inside, sent by a viewer.
“It’s all over now,” Lloyd tells Mohsin with a big smile. “I’m going to sing the blues for you now. Get ready.”
In other videos, Mohsin hands out cash to his homeless talent.
It’s money sent by viewers to Mohsin’s account, asking and trusting that the gas station manager will give them the cash.
“People want to help,” Mohsin said.
In a video that generated 3.4 million views, Mohsin talks to a homeless guy named Mike and asks how he’s doing.
“The cold’s getting to me,” Mike says. “Makes my skin bleed.”
Then Mohsin surprises Mike with an unopened Amazon box, which has deodorant and a jacket inside.
Mike also received $20, which the video shows him putting toward groceries.
“That means a lot,” Mike says while wearing his new jacket. “I’m going to do good tonight. Thank you.
“There’s still people that care. It means the world to me.”
THEY’RE NOT ALL HOMELESS
Mohsin’s videos have become so popular on social media, people around town have started visiting the Tower Gas & Mini Mart for the possibility of appearing on his TikTok account.
You never quite know when Mohsin is going to ask a customer to sing a song in exchange for a soda.
In one video that garnered 1.5 million views, a customer wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers hat is asked to sing to get the item he was about to purchase for free.
The Steelers fan bellows out a tranquil song in Spanish.
“That’s good, bro; go ahead,” Mohsin says while motioning for the Steelers fan to take the item for free.
More recently, two young men approach the counter to buy chips, sodas and candies, and Mohsin tells them they can have it all for free if they sing.
One of the young men encourages the other do it.
And the other young man delivers a few lines from an original song.
“Was not expecting him to be that good,” Mohsin wrote in the TikTok video caption.
The video pulled in Mohsin’s highest view count yet — 20.1 million.
“Usually, I’ll record them first, see how it looks like then ask them if it’s cool to put it on social media before I post it,” Mohsin said. “I don’t ever want a video to go viral and one of these guys tell, ‘That’s not cool.’
“I’m not trying to exploit anyone. I’ve seen some of them at their worst. I just like to keep it fun.”
In addition to those looking to be featured in one of Mohsin’s videos, some visitors have stopped by the store simply to meet the gas station manager or his homeless friends.
“The guys, they’re not always here, but some of the viewers will wait around for a while so they can buy them lunch or directly give them a gift,” Mohsin said. “The guys are genuinely happy when they see their fans.”
SOLVING PANHANDLING PROBLEM?
Mohsin, a senior economics major at Fresno State, said he’s developed such a bond with his homeless customers that the panhandling issue that was once a problem in front of the gas station has gone away.
Not only do the homeless who’ve been featured in Mohsin’s videos no longer panhandle by the Tower Gas & Mini Mart, but those same people have told other homeless people not to panhandle near the store, too.
“I think it’s a respect thing,” Mohsin said. “I respect them. They’ve come to respect me.”
Fresno police Sgt. Robert Dewey, who ran the city’s homeless task force for four years, said the viral videos might’ve helped Mohsin’s panhandling problem, but homelessness in the Tower District remains an ongoing problem.
In fact, the Fresno police officer wonders if directly giving the homeless food and clothing and money is hurting the surrounding area more than helping.
“We started getting complaints from other businesses of people delivering clothes, and these (homeless) guys sticking around and waiting,” Dewey said. “If you want to donate, if that’s on your heart, please do so. But do so through an organization that centralizes it and can get them help.
“Because the reality is: Those gifts and donations might make you feel good for helping them out, but it’s causing them to stay in their situation.”
Gilbert, the homeless man who was sleeping in a dumpster in one of Mohsin’s videos, believes the viral videos helped him in his continued recovery from alcohol.
The attention Gilbert received served as a much-needed reminder that people still care about his well being.
“He spread his love toward me and he got me out there,” Gilbert said of Mohsin. “And everyone started recognizing that there are people that need help.”
Mohsin is just appreciative of it all.
Of the gestures and generosity by his viewers.
Of his homeless talent who no long panhandles directly outside of gas station.
And of the all of the attention his social media videos has generated.
“All of it in general, it’s just a good thing,” Mohsin said. “It’s fun for a lot of people.
“It makes you laugh. Makes you smile.”
This article courtesy of the Fresno Bee
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