To read part #1, click here
Muḥammad suggested they start by checking United Nations Plaza. A lot of bike thieves peddled their wares there, he explained. So Jamilah mounted Sandman's bike – her toes barely touched the ground – and they headed up Market Street together.
“This bike's too tall for me,” she called to Muḥammad, who had pulled ahead.
“Best I could do, Jams!” he hollered back. “Pretend it's a horse.”
I don't know how to ride a horse, you moron. But she stood on the pedals and got the bike going.
As they rode, Muḥammad attempted conversation. “You know what I read in the Journal today? All the ants on the California coast belong to a single super colony, called the California large. A single queen rules the whole thing. I think that's too much power for one ant to have, don't you? Also, they're Argentine ants. So technically they're illegal immigrants. I think we need bipartisan legislation to deal with this.”
Jamilah was not in the mood. She was having a hard enough time trying to control this oversized monstrosity, while keeping an eye out for her own bike. When they came to a red light at Fifth Street, Jamilah couldn't get her feet down in time and she tumbled into the street. She put her hand out to break her fall, and felt a sudden sharp pain in her wrist. Her arm buckled, and her face struck the asphalt.
An elderly Chinese man on the corner pointed at her and laughed.
Muḥammad dismounted and rushed to help her. “Are you hurt?” Muḥammad said. What happened?”
“Leave me alone!” Jamilah shouted at Muḥammad. “I told you the bike was too big.” She rounded on the Chinese man. “What are you laughing at?” Unaffected by Jamilah's rage, the man walked away, still laughing.
Jamilah put her hand to her mouth, and her fingers came away bloody. One of her teeth felt slightly loose.
Muḥammad rummaged in his Zo bag. “Let me get you a tissue.”
“Never mind,” Jamilah said. She wiped the blood onto her pants. “Let's just go.”
Muḥammad looked concerned, but he mounted his bike and they continued up Market Street. Jamilah felt guilty about shouting at Muḥammad. She'd been embarrassed, and angry with herself for falling.
They didn't make it to U.N. Plaza. As they approached Seventh and Market, Jamilah saw a tall American Indian with long black hair standing against the wall next to a smoke shop. His hand rested on a green Marin mountain bike, with a ladies' seat. A hot thrill went through her body. Thank you Allāh, thank you! She thought. Then she felt a surge of fury that seemed to boil out of her heart and fill her mouth. The guy was standing there with her bike as if it were perfectly natural to rob someone.
She almost yelled at the thief, but she thought better of it. She didn't want to spook him. She didn't think he knew what she looked like, and she wanted to retain the element of surprise. She let Muḥammad ride on past, and when they arrived at the light on Seventh, she said, “Yo, Mo.”
“What? Don't call me that,” he said.
“Peep that Indian chief back there by the smoke shop.”
Muḥammad looked. “Dude, subḥānAllāh. That's your bike.” He keyed his radio. “This is Muḥammad, eight oh one. We've got eyeballs on Jamilah's bike at Market and Jones, north side.”
Hassan's voice came over the radio. “Five nine here. I'm clean at the Federal Building. I can be there in sixty seconds.” Hassan, a powerfully muscled Syrian-American with shoulder length hair, was the ultimate gravy dog on the team. He was the fastest messenger on the crew, in part because he never stopped. Jamilah had once seen him zip through six lanes of fast-moving cross traffic without slowing down. He caught many of the red hots on the board, and most of the oversized or heavy deliveries.
But Hassan was a jerk. In the evenings when work was done, he would come in to the office to type his signatures into the computer, then walk right out, ignoring the spent bikers sitting in the garage, and acknowledging only Muḥammad with a nod. A few months back she'd invited him to a rally for Gaza at Civic Center, and he'd responded with a shake of his head and one word: “Can't.”
During the day he rarely hung out at the wall, but the few times she'd seen him there, he had ignored her. In fact, he didn't seem to speak to anyone. He'd sit on the wall and read, not looking up. More often she saw him at Jackson Park, off in a corner by himself, practicing martial arts in slow motion, like a dance. A few times she'd seen him lay his jacket on the grass and pray, seemingly oblivious to the stares of passers-by. She wondered how he could do that.
Muḥammad always called Hassan “the man,” but Jamilah thought he was more like a machine, and not in a good way.
“Copy that,” Jen said. “But no one else. We've got tags. I need everyone on the board.”
Muḥammad grinned. “This should be interesting,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Jamilah asked.
“Five nine is a human wrecking ball,” Muḥammad said. “He'll tear that guy's arms off. I'm one of his students, you know.”
Jamilah's fury seemed to flame even higher. “I don't need anyone to do my fighting for me,” she said. “Certainly not some jerk who thinks he's better than everyone else.”
“Hassan doesn't – “ Muḥammad began, but Jamilah was already riding toward the big Indian. “Hey, wait,” Muḥammad called. But Jamilah was not waiting. That's my bike, she thought. And I'm going to rip that guy apart myself.
Jamilah locked Sandman's bike to the stop sign at the corner and walked casually, aiming not directly at the Indian but past him. She circled around three rough looking young men. One was talking on a cell phone, one drank out of a bottle in a paper bag, and the third seemed to be watching the street. Jamilah guessed they were gangsters.
A homeless man sat against the wall, his shopping cart beside him. A broken pool cue stuck out of his waistband.
Jamilah eyed the Indian. He wore scuffed work boots and jeans, and a stained and worn trench coat. His coat sleeves were rolled up, and Jamilah saw a tattoo on his forearm of two crossed swords encircled by writing. The man's face and hands were lined, not from age it seemed to Jamilah, but from fatigue. Broken blood vessels traced his nose and cheeks. If the man had been a beggar on the street, she might have put a quarter in his hand; but instead his hand rested on the seat of her bike, and she felt her anger return.
When she was about to pass the Indian, she turned and advanced on him.
“Hey,” the man said in a deep voice. “You wanna buy a bike?”
“Buy a bike?” Jamilah's voice rose to a shout. “Buy this!” She shoved the man in his chest as hard as she could. The shock of pain in her injured wrist was worth it to see the Indian stumble and strike his head against the wall. Her bike crashed to the ground.
The Indian felt the back of his head, and raised the other hand toward Jamilah; palm out to ward off further attack.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” he said. “You crazy, lady?” He had an accent that sounded vaguely Canadian to Jamilah's ears, but with an odd inflection behind it.
“That's my bike,” Jamilah said forcefully. “You stole it. And I'm taking it.” She picked the bike up from the ground and began to walk away with it. The Indian grabbed her arm.
“Hold on,” he said. “I bought that bike. It's mine.”
“Get your hands off me!” Jamilah shouted. She saw Muḥammad running toward her. He was smaller than the Indian – Mo was not more than 5'7” tall and rather skinny – but he tackled the man, catching him around the waist with his arms. The Indian lost his balance and they both fell to the ground, rolling and struggling. Muḥammad held on tightly as the Indian exclaimed, “Let me go! Just let me go, alright? You can have the bike.”
“Let him go, Mo!” Jamilah pleaded. “It doesn't matter.”
The Indian struggled to his feet and tried to pull away as Muḥammad doggedly held on to one leg.
A blur of blue and green flashed past Jamilah's eyes. It was Hassan, on his bike. Jamilah didn't even see where he had come from. In one fluid motion he dismounted, letting his bike crash to the ground, and seized the Indian's long hair, pulling his head backward. He effortlessly kicked the man's free leg out from beneath him, and the Indian fell to the ground with a cry, landing on his back.
“You can let go now, Muḥammad,” Hassan said. Muḥammad stood, looking dazed. Hassan scooped up one of the Indian's arms, braced the elbow against his shin and grabbed the back of the man's neck; then somehow flipped the man over onto his stomach. He twisted the Indian's arm behind his back, and pinned it with his knee. As he did so he looked right and left, scanning the street as if expecting someone else to attack.
The Indian moaned in pain. “Let me go,” he said. “I'm sorry about the bike, ayuh? I can't go to jail. I have a family to feed.”
Hassan patted the man's sides, feeling his pockets. “Do you have any weapons?” he said.
“No,” the Indian groaned. “I ain't got nothing.”
All Jamilah's anger was gone. She actually felt sorry for this pathetic bike thief.
“It's alright,” she said. “You can let him go.”
“Are you sure?” Hassan asked. “I could hold him here and we could call the cops.”
An object came whizzing in from somewhere out of Jamilah's field of vision, heading straight for Hassan's head. He put up his hand and caught it, then set it on the sidewalk.
Jamilah saw it was an empty beer bottle. She gaped in amazement.
One of the gangsters from the corner – the one who'd been drinking, Jamilah remembered – called out, “Yo, let the chief go. You ain't got no right to do that.”
Hassan pointed at the man. “I'm not in your business. You stay out of mine.”
The gangster reached into his pocket and took out a folding knife. He opened it up, displaying a wickedly curved blade. “This make it my damn business,” he said, waving the blade back and forth as if slicing the air. “Let the chief go.”
“Let's just leave,” Jamilah said.
“Not yet,” Hassan said. “Muḥammad, hold this guy down. Here, hold his arm just like this. We've done this in class, remember?” Hassan stood and walked toward the gangster. His face was frighteningly blank, his eyes flat as stones.
The gangster took a step back. “You crazy, man? I got a knife!”
“And I'm going to take it away and cut off your thumb,” Hassan said in a matter-of-fact tone. “To teach you not to throw things.” He continued forward, not breaking stride.
“Back up boss, I was just messin'.” The gangster folded his knife and spoke to his friends. “Come on, this fool crazy. I was finna get somethin' to eat, anyway.” The three gangsters ambled away, hitching their pants up as they went.
Hassan returned to the Indian and pushed the man's arm higher up his back, folding the hand toward the elbow. The Indian screamed in pain.
“Stop!” Jamilah exclaimed. “You're hurting him! Are you psycho?”
“You feel that?” Hassan said to the Indian. “I'm easing up now. Get your knees under you and sit up; but if you try to run I'm going to put the pain on again. Come on now. Sit up.”
“Hassan,” Jamilah said. “Don't – “ she jabbed her finger at him – “hurt – him – again. Or I will smack you.”
“Easy, Jams,” Muḥammad said. “He's not going to do that again, right five nine?”
The Indian struggled to his knees. Hassan held him in place with one hand, keeping the man's arm twisted behind his back.
Jamilah spoke to the bike thief. “If we let you stand, you promise not to run?”
The Indian glared at her sullenly and made no answer.
“Let him stand,” she said.
Hassan released his hold on the Indian, who stood and rubbed his shoulder. Hassan stood behind him and to the side. The Indian glanced around as if planning an escape, then looked over his shoulder at Hassan's wide-shouldered presence, and seemed to abandon the idea.
“What's your name?” Jamilah asked.
“None of your business.”
“Answer my questions,” Jamilah said, “Or we'll call the cops.”
The Indian was silent a moment longer. “Stone,” he finally replied, drawing out the “o” so it sounded like, “stohhn.”
“That doesn't sound like an Indian name to me,” Jamilah said.
“That's 'cause I ain't Indian,” the man said. “You see me wearing a turban and eating curry chicken? I'm Native American.” Muḥammad laughed at that, and Jamilah shot him a dirty look.
“Okay. Why'd you steal my bike, Stone? Don't you know that's wrong?”
“I ain't admit to that,” Stone replied.
“Give me a break,” Jamilah said. “I caught you red handed. I'm not going to press charges, I just want to know.”
“Inquiring minds want to know,” Muḥammad said.
“I got a wife and kids,” Stone said. “I have to feed them.”
“Why don't you get a job?” Jamilah demanded.
“Tried,” Stone said. “Besides, you whites stole everything from us. Why shouldn't we take a little back?”
Muḥammad grinned. “Taking the country back one bike at a time?”
“Ayup, that's right,” Stone said, nodding.
“My people were dispossessed just like yours,” Jamilah said. “But you don't see me going around committing crimes.”
“You're not big enough to be a criminal,” Muḥammad said. “There's a height requirement.”
Jamilah turned on Muḥammad, ready to sock him in the arm. His one-liners were driving her nuts. Not everything was a joke, for heaven's sake.
Just then a yellow cab pulled up beside the curb and put on its blinkers. A tall white man wearing a Muslim skullcap got out of the cab. As he approached, Jamilah noticed a deep scar on his left cheek. “As-salamu alaykum,” he called. “What's up?”
Hassan and Muḥammad both replied, “wa alaykum as-salam.” Jamilah did not respond. She had not grown up saying the salam and was shy to speak it.
“We caught a bike thief,” Muḥammad called back.
“Who's that?” Jamilah asked.
“His name is Layth,” Muḥammad explained. “He's a convert brother, goes to the masjid right up there.” He indicated the upper floor of the building behind them. “I see him at Jum'ah sometimes.”
Layth shook hands with Muḥammad and Hassan, and nodded a hello to Jamilah.
“I know he's a bike thief,” Layth said. “I see him all the time. The guy's got more inventory than K-mart. But what are you all doing with him?”
“He stole Jamilah's bike,” Muḥammad explained. “And we got it back. Now she's playing twenty questions.”
“Shut up, Mo,” Jamilah said.
“I wish you wouldn't call me that,” Muḥammad said. “Reminds me of Larry, Curly and Mo.”
Jamilah spoke to Layth. “He seems genuinely sorry. What do you think I should do?”
Layth looked the Native American up and down, eyeing the tattoo on the man's arm. Jamilah saw that the writing around the swords said, All gave some. Some gave all.
“Who'd you serve with?” Layth asked.
“First Armored Division,” Stone replied. “Desert Storm. You?”
“Fourth Brigade, First Division. Baghdad.” Layth said. “Hooah.”
“Hooah,” Stone answered.
“What's your deal, Battle?” Layth asked the man.
“Tryin' to survive, sir,” Stone said.
“I quit a year ago,” Stone said. “Court-ordered rehab.”
Layth turned to Jamilah. “My opinion?” he said. “If you let him go he'll probably be out here tomorrow, selling someone else's bike.” Layth shrugged. “But we're Muslims – oh sorry, you are Muslim, right?”
“Uhh, yeah,” Jamilah said.
“You don't sound too sure.” Layth smiled. “Anyway, Islam teaches us to forgive. So I think you can never go wrong forgiving someone. Don't you think, Hassan?”
Hassan nodded. “You're right,” he said. “The Qurʾān says, ummm… 'Fa'foo anhum wasfah; innallaha yuhibbul muhsineen. It means, basically, forgive people, because Allāh loves that.'”
“So says Mister Ultimate Fighting Champion,” Jamilah said.
“I'm going to let you go,” Jamilah told Stone. “But I want you to know that you're hurting people. If I hadn't gotten my bike back, it would have been a disaster. You can do better. You seem like a decent guy. Do something good with your life.”
“Okay,” Stone said noncommittally.
“Go on, then.” Jamilah said.
Stone turned to Hassan uncertainly. Hassan stepped to the side and waved his arm. The Native American lifted his chin and sauntered away, looking for all the world as if he had just defeated his enemies in battle. But the illusion was shattered when he glanced back nervously, as if he suspected that they would chase after him.
The homeless man with the shopping cart spoke up. He had witnessed the entire incident. “You all need some help?”
Muḥammad laughed. “With what, dude? It's all over.”
“I could sell you this pool cue. Good for protectin' yourself. And you, big dog, I know you.” He gestured toward Hassan with the pool cue.
“I don't think so,” Hassan said.
“Sure,” the homeless man said. “I never forget a face. I got a mind like a bear trap. I seen you somewhere. Was you in El Reno?”
“I've been lots of places,” Hassan said. He turned his back on the homeless man.
“You know jus' what I'm sayin', homes,” the homeless man said. “You was in the bucket. I remembah you now. You was down like a clown. Man, I'm Big Wheel. You don't remembah me? Big Wheel keep on turnin', baby.”
“What's he talking about, Hassan?” Jamilah said.
“Who knows,” Hassan said, not turning to look at the man. “He's a wing nut.”
“Well, this was interesting,” Layth said. “But I've got a call at the Fairmont. Might be an airport run. It's a busy day, alḥamdulillāh.”
“Wait,” Jamilah said. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” Layth said.
“Well… if I wanted to learn how to do the ṣalāh, and how to wear a hijab and all that… do you know anyone who could teach me?”
“Do what?” Muḥammad said. “I mean… that's great.”
“Ma-sha-Allāh,” Layth said. “Good for you. Actually Hassan is much more knowledgeable about the deen than me… but you probably want a sister. Listen, I have an idea. Why don't you all come over to my place tonight? I'll cook dinner, and my wife can teach you whatever you need to know. You guys want me to pick you up after work? I could put your bikes in the trunk.”
“Ride?” Muḥammad said. “We're messengers, bro. Two wheels good, four wheels baaaaaaad. I always wanted to be a messenger, did you know that?”
“Really?” Layth said.
“Sure,” Muḥammad said. “When I was a kid I told my mom I wanted to be a bike messenger when I grew up. She said, 'you can't do both, son.'”
Layth laughed, and even Hassan broke a smile. “Alright, I have to split,” Layth said. “See you tonight. As-salamu alaykum.”
“Wa alaykum as-salam.” They all replied this time, including Jamilah. The words felt strange on her tongue, but good in a way.
As Layth got in his cab and drove away, Jamilah suddenly felt the need to sit. The muscles in her calves were trembling, and she felt sick to her stomach. A crisp wind still blew down Market Street, but Jamilah felt hot. She sat on the sidewalk and set her bike on her lap. “What am I going to do about Sandman's bike? It'll take me forever to walk it to McKesson. And I don't feel good. I can't catch my breath.”
“It's adrenaline,” Hassan said. “Try to slow your breathing.”
“I can't,” Jamilah said.
“Close your eyes for a minute. Did you ever go to the beach with your family when you were a kid?”
“Sure,” Jamilah said. “We used to go to Pismo.”
“Great,” Hassan said. “Call up that memory in your mind. Try to remember every little thing. The sand in your toes. The warm sun. The feeling of being safe with your family. Just think about that for a minute. Breathe deep and slow. Don't worry, Muḥammad and I are still here.”
Jamilah remembered playing soccer with her father on the beach while her mother sat under an umbrella and read a romance novel. She had been nine, and her brother seven. Later they'd made a picnic of falafel and baba ganoush sandwiches that her mother had made, along with a big pitcher of limonada. It was the last time they had been to the beach before her father died.
She opened her eyes. “It worked.” She looked at Hassan quizzically. “How did you do that?”
Hassan shrugged. “I didn't do anything. You have good focus. Anyway, if you're good to go, I'll take the Sandman's bike. He's at McKesson?” He lifted the big bike easily to his shoulder with one hand, the muscles in his arm rippling. “Let's meet in the garage after work. We can head up to Layth and Kadija's place from there.” He mounted his own bike and rode off, carrying Sandman's bike beside his shoulder, like a spear.
“What's his deal?” Jamilah asked Muḥammad. “He acts like he's better than everyone else, then all of a sudden he's a hypnotherapist.”
“Not at all,” Muḥammad said. “I think Hassan is harder on himself than anyone I know. And he'll give you the shirt off his back if you ask. He just… I don't know. He's had a rough life, I think. He doesn't talk about it. He doesn't relate to people easily. You know, he came down here to help you, and you didn't even thank him. In fact you gave him a hard time.”
“I didn't like him hurting that guy,” Jamilah said defensively.
“The bike thief?” Muḥammad replied sarcastically. “Right. The guy walked away, didn't he? Not a scratch on him. You know, if you want to start learning about Islam, I can tell you one thing right now. Hassan is your brother in the deen. And I'm your brother too. And you know what, I like you, I mean…”
“Nothing,” Muḥammad said. “I think you're a cool person… but you talk to me like I'm a pest. You call me 'Mo' even though I've told you I don't appreciate it.”
“You call me Jams.”
“Yeah, but you like it. Anyway, I have to get back to work. I'm glad you have your bike back.” He keyed his radio. “Eight oh one.”
“Oh one!” Jen said. “What's the word, thunderbird?”
“We got the bike back. I'm rolling at Market and Jones.”
Jamilah watched him ride away. She felt slightly ashamed. He was right; she hadn't thanked anyone who had helped her. Muḥammad, Hassan, Layth, Sandman (she couldn't bring herself to call him “the Sandman”). Why do I have to be so hard all the time?
Because it's a hard world, that's why.
You can read Part 3 here: The Deal, Part 3 – wuḍūʼ