San Francisco, California
Louis wondered if the Muslim woman with the sky-blue scarf would call for a ride that day, and if he’d manage to talk to her without messing it up this time. He certainly wanted to. There was something about this lady – the way she stood with her back straight, ignoring the Civic Center chaos around her, but clutching her briefcase tightly.
He’d picked her up last Friday and the Friday before, on Market Street at Jones, just around the corner from where St. Boniface’s gave out food to the homeless, and in front of a smoke shop. There were always drugs dealers out there, mostly street toughs from Oakland. They came in every morning on the BART to sell dope, and went back on the last train. Commuters, Louis thought with a chuckle.
Both times the woman asked to be dropped off at 250 Montgomery Street, in the heart of the financial district. Louis wondered why she was out there in Civic Center, and what she did downtown. Maybe he’d ask this time.
But hey, a fare was a fare, right?
Money to pay your gate, money to tip your dispatcher and gas man, and money to take home.
It’s just that this lady tipped well. Five dollars on a fifteen dollar fare, which was nice. Twenty bucks was a quarter of Louis’ gate, so that was good.
The first time he’d picked her up, this attractive black woman in her late twenties – about the same age as Louis himself – wearing a dark blue women’s suit and a light blue hijab, Louis had said, “As-salamu alaykum ma’am!” Louis prided himself on how much Arabic he had picked up in Iraq. He’d thought maybe the woman was African or Arab. You never know.
The woman had eyed him cautiously and said, “Wa alaykum as-salam.”
“Kayf haliki?” Louis asked, and the woman laughed then.
“What are you, studying Arabic at City College?” she asked.
“I spent time in Iraq. Picked up some of the language.”
Louis glanced at the rear view mirror and saw that the guarded look had returned to the woman’s face. She fell silent. Louis watched her, going back and forth from the mirror to the road. He wasn’t normally like this – he was a very chill dude – but this lady was special. She had caramel skin and high cheekbones, and a small mole beside her mouth. Her eyes were a startling shade of hazel. She had natural eyebrows, which Louis liked. She was tall and slender, almost as tall as Louis’ own 5’10” height. She could have been a painting on an Egyptian monument, come to life and sitting in his cab. And she smelled nice. The scent was slightly deeper than floral, and conjured up images of spice caravans and tropical forests. Louis thought it might be the residue of some kind of incense, rather than an actual perfume.
He wondered idly if a woman like that would ever be interested in a man like him. Lean and muscular, with close-cropped blond hair and a young face, he’d been called a pretty boy in the past. Women had always pursued him. But now he had scars on his left cheek, the left side of his neck, and his left arm and side.
Thinking of his scars now, he discreetly scratched the scar on his neck. The scars always itched and it drove Louis crazy sometimes. He made an effort to control himself, otherwise he’d be scratching himself like an ape all day long.
The scars below the collar could be hidden at least… but who was he fooling? There was no place for a woman in his life. He didn’t like to be touched, he had no friends, and he slept on a futon on the floor. He was frozen in place, like a man he’d once seen being sucked into an Iraqi marsh, struggling but just sinking deeper. Right. He snorted quietly and shook his head imperceptibly at his own stupidity.
Louis tried getting the conversation going again.
Talking was better than thinking, which was always a dangerous pastime.
“Hey, sorry about the smell in the cab,” he said. “It was like this when I picked it up this morning. I don’t mind it so much, I think it might be sage, I have no idea why. But some folks might not like it. Hey, did you know you can cook with sage? Tastes kind of peppery.”
The woman ignored Louis and gazed out the window. But she still tipped him when she got out.
Louis reached beneath the seat and retrieved a cheap wooden back scratcher that he’d purchased in Chinatown, and used it to scratch the scars along his ribs.
The second time Louis had picked up the Egyptian queen was coincidence.
He was dispatched the pickup, and it was the same lady, again at Market and Jones. Across the street was the old Hibernia Bank building, number one Jones Street. It was one of the few buildings that had survived the 1906 earthquake. Looming in grey stone, with its pillars and green dome now covered in grime and soot, the sidewalks reeking of urine, and the front entrance chained shut, it made Louis think of a wrecked battleship. Decommissioned and abandoned, like Louis himself. Louis remembered when the building had been used by the SFPD as headquarters for the Tenderloin Task Force. In those days, cop cars had been parked all up and down the block. Now the building was empty again. Once useful, now useless. Dynamite the damn thing and be done with it. There was no place in this world for the detritus of the past.
The Egyptian queen looked very out of place in this neighborhood, with the wind whipping her elegant scarf, and litter blowing around her feet. Behind her, a large Native American man leaned against the dirty wall. His hair was waist length. He wore a stained jacket and brown boots, and rested his hand on the seat of an incongruously expensive-looking mountain bike. Stolen, no doubt, and being offered for sale at a discount. The Native American watched as the woman climbed into Louis’ cab.
She settled on the back seat and set her leather briefcase on her lap, her hands resting on it primly. “You again?” she said, with one eyebrow arched.
“I was in the neighborhood. Ahlan wa sahlan. Maa asmuki?”
“Look,” the woman said in an annoyed tone. “You’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m not Arab, and I don’t speak Arabic.”
“Okay.” Not an Egyptian queen, then, he thought. “Sorry, no offense intended.”
In the rear view mirror Louis saw the woman’s face soften.
“It’s alright.” After a while she said, “What did you do in Iraq? Did you kill people? I read the news, I know about some of the atrocities that happened there.”
“Come on.” Louis shook his head. “Now you’re the one making assumptions. I was with the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, First Division, but I saw very little combat.” A little lie, so what? He didn’t know this woman and didn’t owe her anything.
“I was stationed on the base,” he continued. “A fobbit, as the grunts would say. I was a handler for three terps. Iraqi interpreters, I mean. And yeah, some awful things happened in that war, on every side. I only joined because I was out of college and couldn’t get a job, and my mother has high blood pressure and kidney problems and needs medication, and we needed the money. It was a job. So there’s no need to judge me, ma’am.”
“What about the scar on your cheek?”
“Jeez,” Louis replied. “Just ask me anything, why don’t you?” He laughed, and scratched his cheek quickly. “Car accident when I was nine.” Lies, lies. Stuck in place, and living a lie.
Surprisingly enough, the woman had asked Louis if he had a card, and he did. As she climbed out of the cab, she said, “My name is Kadija.”
Now it was Friday afternoon again, and Louis wondered if she would call.
He had deliberately stayed in the downtown zone, just in case. Not that he really cared, he told himself. A fare was a fare, but that $20 was a quarter of his gate, and every little bit helped.
Okay, yes, Louis had thought about Kadija last night, when he was falling asleep. But he had no illusions. He had been through cultural training in Iraq. This woman might not be Arab, but she was still Muslim, and Muslim women didn’t date American men – hell, they didn’t date at all. Her brothers (if she had any) would probably come after him with daggers if he even suggested it. Not that he was planning to.
His cell phone rang. It was a local number but he didn’t recognize it.
“Hello, this is Louis.”
“Hi, this is Kadija, remember me? Can you pick me up in ten minutes on Market Street, same spot?”
“Sure,” Louis said. “I can be there in five.”
Five minutes later there she was, on the curb amid the hippies and bike thieves, the drug dealers and homeless kids, and the tourists who had wandered too far up Market Street. The big Native American stood in his usual spot, this time with a finely sculpted racing bicycle. Kadija really stood out, looking regal in her charcoal women’s business suit and green scarf.
“Ma’am – I mean Kadija,” Louis said, once she was safely in the cab. “This isn’t a good neighborhood. Next time why don’t you give me the address you’re coming out of, and I’ll meet you at the door.”
Kadija sighed. “You’re right about the neighborhood, no doubt. Alright. It’s twenty Jones Street, right around the corner. That little doorway. I go to the Islamic Center for Friday prayer, it’s up on the third floor.”
Louis smiled. “Good. Listen, next time call me from upstairs, and I’ll call you back when I’m downstairs, then you come down.”
“Do you really think that’s necessary?” Kadija asked. “You’re not in the Fourth Brigade anymore, you know. You’re not my handler,” she said wryly. “I used to take the streetcar back downtown, but it’s not always on time, and I can’t be late getting back to work.”
“One time,” Louis said, “I saw three men beating another man, right there on the spot where I picked you up, and no one was doing a damn thing. And see that store right there, the candy shop? I drove the owner once, he’s Afghani, and he told me he’s been robbed at gunpoint three times.”
“Okay,” Kadija said. “But don’t call me, just text me.”
“I get it, don’t worry,” Louis said. He looked in the mirror and saw Kadija eyeing him with one eyebrow raised.
“You get what?” she said.
“Nothing, I mean I understand why you can’t have me calling you. I know how Muslim cultures are, honor killings and all that. It’s like your general order one, right? No fraternizing with the non-Muslims.” Louis looked in the rearview mirror and saw Kadija’s wide eyed, open-mouthed expression. He felt his mouth go dry.
“What?” Louis mumbled. “Am I wrong?”
“Mister,” Kadija said, “You’re wrong as a hog in a tree. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what you heard about in Iraq or what goes on there, but there’s no such thing as honor killing in the Islamic religion. Secondly, I’m African-American, not Arab, like I told you before. Have you ever heard of African-American honor killings? Thirdly, I’m an independent, professional woman – there’s no one looking over my shoulder and watching what I do. Lastly, you’re a cabbie, and I’m your client. Anything beyond that exists in your imagination. So there is no issue of honor. Y’all might think you know something about Muslim culture, but you’re two sandwiches short of a picnic.”
Louis was mortified. He thought of himself as an open-minded person. He’d been raised to believe that bigotry of any kind was wrong. But when you spent your day dealing with people of all races, nationalities and creeds, it was easy to make a misstep. He’d been carrying a bunch of Japanese tourists once, and he’d had a cold at the time so he was blowing his nose constantly, and putting the used tissues in a plastic grocery bag. The tourists had called the cab company and filed a complaint, saying that Louis was rude and dirty. Louis had almost gotten fired over it. His supervisor hadn’t believed him when he said that all he’d done was blow his nose. Later, Louis had learned that nose blowing in public is considered highly offensive in Japanese culture.
Now he’d offended this Muslim woman. He hoped she wouldn’t complain, but more than that, Louis really liked her. Or maybe I’m a fool for a pretty face, he told himself wryly.
“I’m really sorry,” Louis said. “I didn’t know.”
“Whatever,” Kadija said. “Just drop me off.” And he did. There was no tip this time.
You can read part two, “Pieces of a Dream” here