In May 2005, I graduated from New York University with a degree in journalism. That fall, I got a job off Craigslist working for a twenty-nine-year-old Afghan man named Richard Zaher, who was creating a jet charter company called Paramount Business Jets, seemingly by himself. He lived in a dark, bare apartment in Lower Manhattan with his sister. I went there zero to four times a week over around three months. In his bedroom, we worked on his company’s website.
The website’s purpose was to entice customers to call the company, which for a fee would facilitate travel by private jet. My job was to (1) copyedit the text he’d written; (2) find and Photoshop images of jets, jet interiors/cockpits, limousines, mansions, cruise ships, champagne, and other things to put on the website; (3) collect statistics and write descriptions for a hundred-plus types of jets. My work is still online, I recently learned. This sentence made me laugh a little, reading it in 2023:
Richard was also an actor. His acting name was Baktash, which seemed to be his birth name. He’d been in two movies. He’d starred in FireDancer—the first Afghan film submitted to the Academy Awards, a film assistant-directed by his sister, Vida, who when letting me in the apartment a few times had seemed quiet and stoic, like her brother—and he’d appeared briefly in Spike Lee’s Inside Man.
At events for Inside Man, which was released during the time I worked for him, Richard got Angelina Jolie (who’d earned a pilot’s license in 2004), Clive Owen (who’d starred in Inside Man), and Michael Rispoli (The Sopranos) to agree to provide quotes for Paramount Business Jets’s “accolades” section. All three celebrities told Richard he could write the quotes himself. I remember Richard pretending to be Owen while working on the Owen quote, saying variations of it aloud.
I worked seated on the edge of a futon—Richard’s bed—in sofa-mode, using an Apple desktop computer that was in front of me on a tiny square table. Richard sat facing the same direction I faced, four feet ahead and two feet to the right of me, at his desk. I saw his back most of the time. I liked not being looked at. His bedroom had only his desk, the futon, the square table, and a closet. Taped high on the walls, near the ceiling, somewhat comically out of view, going around half the room, were pieces of computer paper with motivational statements printed on them. I didn’t notice them until several days in the room. I don’t remember what they said.
I was impressed by Richard’s sustained, patient focus. He would stare at the website for hours, inspecting it for slight improvements. I related to this method. While working on my own writing, before and/or after work, in NYU’s library, I would stare at the computer screen silently with a blank face, reading my writing as if I were reading it for the first time, trying to gauge how it made me feel and why, due to which words, images, commas, et cetera. Richard’s ability to do this not with creative prose that he was emotionally invested in but with a website about jets impressed and moved me.
Sometimes he’d read parts of the website aloud in a voice unlike his normal soft-spoken one. Sometimes he’d ask me what I thought about a passage of text. He seemed to trust me, which made me feel good, because I had low self-esteem. He’d occasionally call the person doing the website’s HTML to tell him what changes to make. The website, though still in development, looked very professional. If I had seen it on my own, I wouldn’t have suspected the company to be two people in a bedroom.
While Richard stared at the screen and I described jets in friendly, balanced prose in which I tried to maximize readability—while also attempting to vary my focus and syntax—we often listened to my mix CDs, which featured indie bands like Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes, and Jets to Brazil. One day we listened to a Neva Dinova song that began with these drawled lyrics: “I can’t stand this anymore / When you scratch away the layers, there’s nothing there, and I don’t give a fuck / You can’t hurt me anymore / Chop off my arm, there’s a hole in my heart / I don’t give a fuck.”
Richard laughed and stopped the CD and said he was sorry but it was too depressing. I was surprised he’d been listening to the lyrics. Then I was surprised I’d assumed he hadn’t been listening to the lyrics, which were almost all about sadness, low motivation in life, unrequited love, and other topics that didn’t seem good for business. The Neva Dinova song that we (fortunately, for Richard) didn’t finish ended with two minutes of this group-sung chorus: “The world’s a shitty place, and I can’t wait to die.” Lyrics like these pleased and consoled me back then. My own writing featured similar sentiments.
We also worked in silence, and sometimes we listened to his CDs, most of which were soundtracks to epic movies set in the remote past. We listened to the soundtrack to Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe, many times. Richard was built like Crowe—six foot one, strong. Personality-wise, he seemed calm, quiet, taciturn, almost a bit autistic, which I liked. We rarely talked, and never about our personal lives. He was born in Afghanistan in 1976, fled war as a child, and arrived in the U.S., in Virginia, when he was ten, I knew from IMDb. I was born in Virginia in 1983, grew up in Central Florida, and had a writing degree, he knew from my résumé.
After I finished writing the jet descriptions, I stopped going to his apartment but continued working for him remotely—gathering photos, writing celebrity bios, updating his IMDb page, making an IMDb page for his sister. Then, sometime in early 2007, I worked for him in person once or twice more, at his new apartment in, I think, Queens. His company was opening. He offered to pay me a salary. I declined because working full-time for a jet charter company seemed dreary and stark; I was focused on my writing, and would soon get a part-time job at a restaurant whose food I liked. Our last communication was on October 13, 2007, when Richard emailed me asking for his IMDb login info.
I didn’t think about Richard much until 2020, when I wrote the first draft of what you just read, and then checked and saw that Paramount Business Jets still existed, as it had the few other times I’d looked over the past thirteen years. It seemed to be doing well, with at least eighteen employees. Richard now lived in Virginia, I learned. He had at least two kids, and had founded a nonprofit organization, Best You Best Me, that was, according to its website, “based on the philosophy that ‘we are one’ and that by helping to alleviate suffering in another is helping to alleviate suffering in ourselves.”
On Best You Best Me’s YouTube channel, I watched a video titled “Helping the Homeless in DC – Jan 2019.” It started with Richard in a car, saying in his quiet voice, “Here we are in D.C. I’m about to go out there and … find … some homeless person … and give him some money … and some advice.” The video showed a long-range view of Richard approaching a man sleeping on grass in a park, wrapped in a blanket. As poignant acoustic-guitar music played, captions narrated what was happening, including the dialogue.
“Excuse me, sir,” said Richard. There was no response. “Excuse me, sir. Hello.” The caption stated, “He slowly pulled the blanket lower. I could now see his tired, red, blue eyes.” The man replied, “What do you want?” Richard said, “I just want to tell you God bless you, and I want to give you one hundred dollars.” Richard kneeled, and they seemed to talk some more, though the captions did not relate what they said to each other.
The video cut to the next scene. Richard approached “a gentleman sunbathing on a bench.” Richard asked, “What do you do when it gets really cold?” The man answered, “I go to a homeless shelter.” They talked more, then the video cut to a black screen showing a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Somewhere along the way, we must learn that there is nothing greater than to do something for others.” The video ended. He hadn’t given advice, at least not in the video. I felt endeared and touched by his video’s brevity, awkwardness, and earnestness.
I watched more videos. There were eight total. Two of them showed Richard and other people picking up trash in a forest and alongside a road in Virginia. The videos became longer, more involved. In the seventh, Richard said he’d wanted to help West Virginians, and that one of his organization’s directors had suggested McDowell County, one of the poorest counties in the U.S. After calling churches asking how he could help, Richard drove a truckful of food five-plus hours to the town of Welch, where he interviewed residents about their lives and stayed overnight in a church.
I was surprised that Richard had started a nonprofit and was posting documentaries of his charity work, not because it seemed unlike him—I barely knew him—but because it seemed unlike most people. His behavior calmed, interested, and, in a general way, inspired me.
When I next looked up Richard, three years later, earlier this year, as research for this piece, I saw that his organization now held an annual donation drive to McDowell County, and had posted a video titled “Saving A Turtle In The Middle Of The Road.” There were now thirty-one videos, including one at a school in Mexico, and one about helping a stranger in a snowstorm.
I printed and read articles and interviews to learn more about Richard/Baktash’s history. When he was five, he and his family fled from Russian invaders. Some of his family members were killed. He, his sister, and their mother survived. “We left everything,” he says in one article. “The freedom fighters took us out as there were jets flying by. We hid in the caves and went from night to night to cave hotels.” They lived in India for five years before moving to Virginia with thirty-five dollars. Richard’s mother, who’d worked in radio in Afghanistan, was hired by Voice of America, an international radio broadcaster. On the weekends, she worked in a convenience store.
When he was twelve, Richard started a business mowing lawns. Later, he worked as a dishwasher, busboy, costumed performer, and door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman. He graduated with a degree in aerospace studies from a flight school in Florida. Around this time, at age twenty-four or so, he also acted in the film FireDancer. Three years later, in July 2005, he founded Paramount Business Jets, hiring me a few months later. Inside Man, his second and last movie, came out in March 2006.
Paramount Business Jets struggled for around a year after opening, until 2008, when Richard put together a travel package to visit the Seven Wonders of the World by private jet at a cost of $356,250 per person. He knew it wouldn’t sell, but it generated publicity, attracting customers. In 2013, Paramount Business Jets appeared on Inc. 5000’s fastest-growing companies list, and five years later Richard founded Best You Best Me with the motto “Alleviating suffering through acts of kindness.”
One of my favorite Best You Best Me videos is from 2022. It starts with a black screen and gentle piano music. Text appears and fades, a sentence at a time: “One morning in 2018, I had a realization.” “The kindness I received and gave was key to living my purpose.” “That inspired me to start Best You Best Me.” “And weeks later, our first project began!”
The video cut to a shot of Richard explaining that he’s going to clean up a back road near where he lives. Brief, first-person-view clips show him buying tools and renting a truck from Home Depot. Next, the video shows the road, trees, and cloudy November sky as Richard drives the truck. “I’m overriding my mind right now,” he says, the words appearing on the screen. “Because my mind is telling me, ‘This is … stupid.’ But my heart says, ‘You have a purpose.’ ”
Tao Lin is working on a book titled Self Heal: How I Cured My Autism, Autoimmunity, Eczema, Depression, and Other Health Problems Naturally. He lives in Hawaii.