San Francisco, California
If Jamilah didn’t get that bike back, she was done. What could she do? Go back home to the nowhere town of Madera and give up on her dream of going to law school? Spend her life making sandwiches in the family shop?
The little agricultural town of her birth was a hardscrabble place to live. The Central Valley never got enough water, so that political battles between farmers, environmentalists and cities raged eternal. Racial lines were drawn in heavy marker, geographically and culturally. The soil was dry, and the sky unforgiving. You had to be hardy to survive there. You had to work hard, think creatively, and know who you were. You had to be a cactus, tough and prickly on the outside but tender and sweet within.
Jamilah was all of that. She was a fighter from a family of fighters, from a nation of survivors. All Palestinians were, by definition.
But the other truth of the Central Valley was that no one stayed except those who had no place left to go. If you had a chance to move someplace better, you took it. Jamilah was here now, in San Francisco, the City by the Bay, the jewel of California, and the last thing she wanted was to go back.
Would her mother even take her back? Jamilah had already “shamed the family.” Her very traditional Palestinian mother had denounced her as a disobedient girl and a whore. It didn’t matter that Jamilah had never so much as kissed a man in her life. She had moved out on her own, and that was enough to make her a rebel in her mother’s eyes. She was still on good terms with her brother, but he would not go against their mother.
If she didn’t get the bike back, she wouldn’t be able to work, which meant she wouldn’t be able to pay her share of the rent. What would her roommate Shamsiyyah do? They were first cousins, but that didn’t mean Shamsi would support her. As an interning trauma surgeon at San Francisco General, Shamsi barely earned enough to pay her own share of the rent. She might cover Jamilah’s end for a month, but no more. Jamilah could conceivably end up homeless – a shocking thought. She’d seen what became of the homeless in San Francisco.
It had been a busy morning. She’d delivered a dozen packages already, including a run to the Federal Building, and a monster run up Mission way that had accounted for nine tags on its own. The brisk October wind howled down the deep glass and steel canyons of the Financial District, and cut right through her track pants and green-and-blue company windbreaker. At least the constant movement of the job kept her from turning into a Palestinian Popsicle She’d delivered architectural plans, a banker box full of tax documents – she felt like a mule with that box on her back – court filings, payrolls, a ceramic vase, and in one case an interoffice envelope that simply went from the tenth floor of the Flood Building to the ninth, believe it or not. Their laziness is my pocket change, she thought.
She had begun to think she might have to go hungry or eat a bread roll on the run – you couldn’t ask for a break on a busy day like this – but things had slowed at noon, and she’d gotten her first standby of the day. So she’d gone into the Flying Spaghetti – a cheap, fast-food Italian joint downtown – and ordered the pasta primavera. The steamy restaurant air smelled of baking bread and marinara sauce. Heaven.
She’d taken her radio from its hip holster, and turned down the volume low enough so she could still hear her dispatcher without disturbing the other diners. She could hear Jen, her dispatcher, calling other messengers and spitting out tags rapid-fire.
“Six two six, Alice,” Jen’s voice crackled over the radio. Every messenger at the company had a number, with the senior couriers having lower numbers. Jamilah was triple nine.
“Six two six,” came Alice’s gravelly voice. Alice – so the rumor told – had been a meth addict for a decade, and it had changed her voice. She was clean now, though.
“Two six, get down to Anderson at one Market forty second floor and get a sixteen fifty Van Ness; Logjam at fifty Cal get a small box for Hastings College at two hundred McAllister – they say it’s only ten pounds, so let me know if that’s accurate; and Pettit and Martin at one oh one Cal thirty fourth floor get two envelopes for Superior Court.”
“Check,” Alice responded.
“The Van Ness and the McAllister are rags,” Jen continued. “The Superior Court’s a rush, but call me anyway when you’re ten-eight. I might have something else for you.”
“Check, ten four.”
Alice was one of the “gravy dogs” on the crew – experienced messengers who had been with the company for a couple of years or more and knew the clients and routes. They were fit as athletes, and they received all the rush jobs and the red hots – thirty minute and fifteen minute deliveries – because Jen knew she could count on them. Those rushes paid good money, and the red hots were gold. Jamilah hardly ever got one of those. Her body had changed tremendously since she’d been doing this job – she had new muscles everywhere – but she was still not as fast as the gravy dogs.
Jamilah had only taken a dozen bites when a young, smartly dressed woman came into the restaurant, her head turning this way and that as if looking for someone.
Jamilah recognized the woman – she was a secretary at Low, Ball and Lynch, the law firm down the street at six fifty Cal. Low Ball (as messengers called it) was a client of Hammerhead Courier and Jamilah had been there many times. The young woman spotted Jamilah, eyed the bike helmet and the messenger bag slung over the back of the chair, and walked toward her. A cash tag, Jamilah wondered? Sometimes people would come up to you on the street and pay you to deliver something. But Low Ball was a client – they’d call dispatch if they had a job.
The woman stopped in front of Jamilah. “Did you have a green bike locked up outside?” the woman asked.
Did I? “Yes,” Jamilah said. “Why, what’s up?”
“Some guys just stole it,” the woman said.
Jamilah snatched up her gear and bolted to the door. Her supposedly indestructible u-lock lay in two pieces on the sidewalk, at the base of the stop sign. Her bike was gone. She looked up and down Kearny Street. There was no sign of the bike.
The well-dressed woman followed her out of the restaurant. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have called for help or something, but I didn’t know what they were doing at first. I was on my way back to the office and I saw this van pull up next to your bike, and two men got out. One had a car jack, and he inserted it in the lock and started pumping the lever. I was watching just because it was so odd, then I thought, ‘Oh, they’re stealing that bike.’ No one else was even paying attention. Then it was done. They broke the lock, one guy drove off with the van, and the other rode away on the bike. Sorry.” The woman made an apologetic face.
“It’s not your fault,” Jamilah said. “Which way did he go?”
The woman shook her head. “You’ll never get your bike back. The guy’s long gone by now.”
“Which way?” Jamilah insisted, resisting the urge to grab the young woman and shake her.
“That way,” the woman said, pointing up Kearny Street toward Market.
“Here,” Jamilah said, “hold my bag.” She shoved the bag and helmet into the woman’s arms and began to run toward Market Street, still holding the radio in her hand.
“But I have to go to work,” the woman protested.
“I know where you work,” Jamilah shouted over her shoulder as she continued to run. “I’ll meet you at Low Ball!”
Jamilah ran along the sidewalk, but it was busy with UPS drivers with their hand trucks, shoeshine stands, and peds – pedestrians – going back to work after lunch. Her rubber-soled shoes had metal cycling clips embedded in them, and they clattered as she ran. She felt like an out of control Arabian pony. Half a block down, she plowed headlong into a young guy in a suit and knocked him down. “Sorry!” Jamilah called out as she ran on.
Changing tactics, she dashed into the middle of Kearny Street. She charged down the center of the road, running along the dashed line into oncoming traffic, as the cars and taxis flowed around her on both sides. She always tied her frizzy hair into a ponytail when she worked, and now it bounced on her back as she ran. Cars honked, but she ignored them.
As she crossed each intersection she looked up and down. She had not taken the time to ask what the thief looked like. But she knew her bike, and she let her eyes roam everywhere, searching for any sign of the green hybrid bicycle that had taken every penny of her savings to purchase, and that was both her transportation and livelihood.
She felt her anger building. How dare they steal her bike! Lowlifes, dirtballs – she would tear their hair out. Jamilah had always had a temper, and had always been stubborn. She’d never backed down from a challenge in her life. These guys had messed with the wrong biker this time.
She ran past Pine Street, then Bush, Sutter, Post, Maiden Lane, and Geary. Finally she arrived at Market Street. Her chest was heaving with exertion, and she was sweating beneath her windbreaker. She’d been messengering for a year, and her body had transformed into a lean, mean cycling machine. She had never been so fit in her life. But this mad dash was more than she was used to. And I don’t even know where I’m going, she thought. The thief could have escaped in any direction. He could have gone on to SOMA, or even down into the BART. He could be on a subway train right now, on his way to Berkeley or Oakland, or anywhere.
Jamilah looked up and down Market Street. No sign of the bike. She wanted to scream. She was done. Madera, here I come. Population, fifty thousand. Prospects for a bright future: none. White bread, or wheat, sir? Mustard and mayonnaise?
She couldn’t accept that, not when she was finally making some headway. She’d applied twice for a merit scholarship to study law at Golden Gate University, and had been told last week that her application was being seriously considered. That would be a full ride if she got it – thirty thousand dollars a year. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Jamilah trotted to Lotta’s Fountain, on the triangular island where Market, Geary and Kearny Streets intersected. She jammed her radio into its hip holster and climbed onto one of the jutting corners of the golden-brown, cast iron monument, with its lions’ heads and bas relief sculpture of forty niners diggin for gold. She wore fingerless cycling gloves, and the cold metal of the fountain stung her fingertips. She looked in every direction, seeing only hordes of peds, buses, streetcars, taxis, and the occasional messenger racing up the road.
The wind whipped down Market Street, blowing a newspaper up against the base of the fountain. The passing stockbrokers, secretaries and hipsters tucked their chins into their scarves. A group of Japanese tourists stopped beside the fountain. Several snapped photos of Jamilah standing on the monument, as if she were a San Francisco icon. Our Lady of the Fountain. One tourist gave Jamilah a thumbs-up, and in a heavy Japanese accent said, “American style girl.” Jamilah glared at him.
A tall man with an oddly raised circle of hair upon his head – like Lincoln with hat hair, Jamilah thought – approached her. He wore baggy purple parachute pants and swung a nearly empty bottle of wine from one hand. He sang in a loud voice, “Nooooobody likes me, noooobody at all. Hey lady, do you think that’s because I’m a dork?”
“Get away from me,” Jamilah snarled at him. The man backed away in surprise and continued up the street.
Jamilah took a deep breath. Her anger was misplaced. She had to find her bike.
The thought came to her then that she should pray. She had never been religious. Of course she believed in God, and considered herself Muslim. But religion wasn’t a part of her life. Her father had put Jamilah and her brother in the mosque’s Sunday school when they were little, and Jamilah still remembered a few surahs of the Quran. But she didn’t think she remembered how to do the salat, the formal prayer. Her mother and brother didn’t pray at all.
In her heart there had always been a feeling that one day she would learn more about the religion, and maybe learn how to do the prayers. Time enough for that later, she had always thought, when she was ready to get married and settle down.
Jamilah felt tears well up in her eyes. Even if she didn’t remember how to do salat, she could still speak to God directly, couldn’t she? But what would she say? She wasn’t even a good Muslim. Would God hear her?
Jamilah thought again about being homeless. Maybe she could manage it. She could find a hidden spot in one of the Financial District alleys, and eat food thrown out by corporate offices.
Then she thought about some of the homeless she had seen in the city. The middle aged woman who sat on her bedroll in Natoma Alley, holding her face in her hands. The thin man with his head perpetually tipped to one side and his hair matted into a solid filthy mass; he had no shoes, and his feet were covered with sores. The homeless teenager with the lip piercings who lived in the dry fountain at U.N. Plaza; his face was so dirty it was grey, and you could smell his stench from twenty feet away.
No, she could never do that. Nor could she go back to making sandwiches from morning to night, and fighting with her mother about law school.
“Being a lawyer is not a respectable profession,” her mother had said repeatedly. “You are going to medical school. Your father was a doctor, and you will be a doctor.”
Jamilah had tried explaining that America was not like the old country – being a lawyer was considered a good profession here. Well, perhaps some lawyers were sleazy, but the law would give Jamilah an opportunity to help her people: Arab refugees fighting deportation, Arab-Americans charged with terrorism-related offenses based on secret evidence – Jamilah could get them justice. Maybe she could even advocate for Palestinian rights on a diplomatic level.
But the more she had tried to explain, the angrier her mother had become. “We did not come here for this nonsense!” she had shouted. “We came to make a good life, not to make trouble.”
In the end, Jamilah and her mother could not speak to each other at all. I didn’t ‘come here’ for anything, Jamilah thought. I was born here. This is my country. But her mother came from a different world, where authorities were feared and the law belonged to the highest bidder, or to whoever had connections.
So Jamilah had moved to San Francisco on her own, determined to get into law school. She’d been applying for grants and scholarship money for a year, and in the meantime riding a bike for a living – something that infuriated her mother, to whom Jamilah was officially a failure and a write-off.
As for Jamilah’s father, he had doted on Jamilah, and more importantly he had prepared her. He’d taught her to be strong, to never give up on Palestine or herself. He’d told her that the world does you no favors – rather it tries to knock you to your knees, and you must rise and step forward, no matter what. While other fathers might sing their children lullabies at bedtime, Jamilah’s father had tucked her in and chanted, “The people of Palestine are under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back.” He used to tell her she was as beautiful as a desert sunrise, but he’d say, “Just remember that being pretty won’t always help you, but being strong will.”
Her father would have understood her desire to be a lawyer, she was sure. But he had died when she was ten, and nothing had ever been the same.
Jamilah shook her head and hopped off the fountain, brushing her hands across her windbreaker as if wiping away crumbs. Enough self-pity. Her family had survived the Nakbah – the catastrophe of 1948, when the Israelis had stolen their nation – and all the disasters and oppression that had followed. Her grandfather had been shot by right-wing Phalangists in a refugee camp in Lebanon. One of her mother’s brothers had been killed in the Israeli siege of Beirut. Her father’s sister Nisreen, a human rights lawyer in Bethlehem, had been arrested and tortured by the Israelis. No one in the family had told Jamilah about it, but she had been awakened once by her father’s sobs as he sat with the phone to his ear. Jamilah had listened in as he recounted to her mother what had happened. Even today it made her ill to think of it.
Jamilah knew her family was not unusual. Every Palestinian family had a heaping share of suffering. But the Palestinian people survived, and Jamilah’s family too had survived. Jamilah remembered something her father had taught her when she was little: “Cry when you fall. Then stand tall.”
She would not be done in by a couple of lowlife bike thieves. They were nothing. She would find her bike. But how?
She would pray, that’s how. She sat abruptly on the sidewalk beside the fountain. The passing peds promptly began flowing around her, ignoring her as if she were mentally ill or stoned. She had already become part of the invisible landscape of the homeless and the mad.
Jamilah didn’t care. Her lessons from Muslim Sunday school so many years ago came back. Dua’. The way a Muslim talked to God. But would God listen? She was a sinner, a bad girl. She didn’t pray or fast in Ramadan. She had been disowned by her own mother.
Then the idea came: she would make a deal with God. And another thought: in the movies, didn’t seekers always have to pass three tests? She would offer God three things in exchange for getting her bike back.
Jamilah raised her hands, palms to the sky, but her lips would not move. She was afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of being rejected.
Finally she opened her mouth and in a raspy voice said, “God… I mean Allah.” She cleared her throat. “Allah… Please Allah, let me get my bike back. I’m sorry I have not prayed or fasted. I’m sorry I have not been a perfect Muslim. But you know that I believe in You in my heart. You know I’m a good person.”
Tears ran down her cheeks and the wind chilled them into frigid drops. She was afraid she would break into sobs, and not only because of her bike. Talking to Allah in this way had loosed something inside her. Deep feelings of shame and longing welled up, and a profound feeling of being emotionally exposed before the One who could see straight into her soul.
Three things. “Allah, if You bring my bike back I will…”
What could she offer? The truth was that she knew exactly what she had to offer, but she was terrified. Her life was what is was. How could she become a different person?
“I will do my prayers,” she whispered. “At least, I will try. I’ll do my best.” That was one.
“And… I will fast in Ramadan.” That’s two. She knew what the third thing had to be because it leaped to her mind, but oh God, what a price.
“And I will wear hijab. Do we have a deal, yaa Allah?”
Now what? She wiped the tears from her face and stood, looking up and down the street. Still no sign of the bike. Oh for heaven’s sakes, she thought. Did I expect an angel to deliver the bike personally?
Her radio – still holstered on her hip – suddenly squawked. “Triple nine Jams,” came the voice from the radio. Jen, calling her back to work.
Muhammad, the skinny young Egyptian-American who was the assistant dispatcher, had given her the nickname Jams a few months ago. It had been a rollicking day, with the tags coming in like the Indy 500. There was a killer run going out to the Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park, and the only one clean was Jamilah. So Jen had assigned it to her and said, “You better jam on this, girl. It’s burning up.” And Jamilah had jammed, alright. She’d hustled like an Olympic athlete (or so she imagined), dashing into buildings and offices, running red lights on her bike, blasting through busy crosswalks… At the bottom of Fell Street she’d caught a tow on a pickup truck, hunching low and grabbing onto the bed, and had ridden it all the way to the top of the hill. From there it was downhill to the Panhandle and a quick jaunt into the park.
Later, when they’d all been hanging out in the company garage after work, Muhammad had said, “So Jamilah can jam.” Since then she’d been dubbed Jams. She kind of liked it. Maybe she’d even be a gravy dog one day.
But not today.
She keyed her radio. “Triple nine with a problem,” she said.
“What is it?” Jen said in an annoyed tone.
“My bike’s been stolen.”
“Oh, shoot! How’d that happen?”
Jamilah explained the situation. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Muhammad broke in. “What’s your twenty, Jams?”
“Market at Kearny.”
“Come on down to McKesson,” Muhammad said. “I’m on standby, we’ll work something out.”
Muhammad had been a full time courier for a couple of years, and even though he worked in the dispatch office now he still liked to get out on the road occasionally and run a few tags, or more likely just hang out at the wall – the downtown block on Sansome Street where messengers congregated on standby – with his friends. Jen let him get away with it when the board wasn’t too hot.
Jen’s voice returned. “Everyone keep an eye out for Jamilah’s bike. Describe it, Jams.”
“Green Marin hybrid,” Jamilah said into her radio. “With a ladies’ seat.”
Jamilah didn’t know what Muhammad could do, but she jogged down the block to McKesson Plaza at Market and Montgomery. Like the wall, it was a hangout spot for messengers on standby. When she got there, she saw a dozen bikers sitting on the steps, eating home made sandwiches or cheese breads from the Specialties shop. Some were reading, some chatting, and a few brazenly smoked weed. The pungent smell of the marijuana mixed with the scent of Specialties cookies baking, and made Jamilah dizzy.
Muhammad straddled his bicycle next to another messenger, a Latino man who worked for Cannonball. Jamilah knew him only by face. He was tall and skeletal, with cocoa colored skin, straight black hair cut in a bowl shape, and a wiry but powerful-looking body. A veiled craziness lurked behind his eyes. Of course all bike messengers were insane to some degree, but this guy gave off a strange vibe. He was in his mid 30’s – older than most messengers – and Jamilah wondered what he had been through in life to put that craziness in his eyes. She could almost picture him as an Aztec priest, standing atop a pyramid and carving the hearts out of sacrificial victims. Needless to say, she had always avoided him.
“Jams, this is the Sandman,” Muhammad said. “He’s one of Hassan’s students. He’s going to loan you his bike for a little while; he’s on lunch break anyway.”
Muhammad had boasted a few times that he studied martial arts with Hassan. Jamilah had not realized that Hassan was actually the instructor, or that he had other students.
“Here’s my krypto and key,” Sandman said, handing her his mini u-lock. “Don’t lose my bike too, por favor?” He had an accent – Central American, maybe?
“Well… that’s very nice of you, uhh, Sandman,” Jamilah said. “But what good will that do me?”
“You and me,” Muhammad said, “Are going to find your bike.”
You can read Part 2 here: The Deal, Part 2 – A Hard World
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.