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Muhammad 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 Muhammad, 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, she thought. But she stood on the pedals and got the bike going.
As they rode, Muhammad 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 lone queen rules the entire colony. 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.”
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.
Muhammad dismounted and rushed to help her. “Are you hurt?” Muhammad said. What happened?”
“Leave me alone!” Jamilah shouted at Muhammad. “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 loose.
Muhammad 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.”
Muhammad looked concerned, but he mounted his bike and they continued up Market Street. Jamilah felt guilty about shouting at Muhammad. 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 Allah, 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 Muhammad 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.”
Muhammad looked. “Dude, SubhanAllah. That’s your bike.” He keyed his radio. “This is Muhammad, 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 Arab-American with shoulder length hair, was the ultimate gravy dog on the team. He was the fastest messenger on the crew. 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 over-sized or heavy deliveries.
But Hassan was a jerk. In the evenings when work was done, he would report 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 Muhammad 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 spotted 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.
Muhammad 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.”
Muhammad grinned. “This should be interesting,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Jamilah asked.
“Five nine is a human wrecking ball,” Muhammad said. “He’ll tear that guy’s arms off. I’m one of his students, you know.”
Jamilah’s fury flamed higher. “I don’t need anyone to do my fighting,” she said. “Certainly not some jerk who thinks he’s better than everyone else.”
“Hassan doesn’t – “ Muhammad began, but Jamilah was already riding toward the big Indian. “Hey, wait,” Muhammad 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, another drank from a bottle in a paper bag, and the third seemed to be watching the street. Jamilah guessed they were gangsters.
A homeless man with spiky dreadlocks, a patch over one eye and pink running sneakers on his feet 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 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 thief stumble and strike his head against the wall. Her bike crashed to the ground.
The thief felt the back of his head with one hand, raising the other hand toward Jamilah; palm out to ward off further attack.
“What’s the matter with you?” he protested. “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 back.” She picked the bike up from the ground and began to walk away with it. The thief grabbed her arm.
“Hold on,” he said. “I bought that bike. It’s mine.”
“Get your hands off me!” Jamilah shouted. She saw Muhammad running toward her. He was smaller than the thief – he matched the man’s height but was skinny as a beanpole, probably half the thief’s weight – 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. Muhammad held on tightly as the Indian exclaimed, “Let me go! You can have the bike, alright?”
“Let him go, Mo!” Jamilah pleaded. “It doesn’t matter.”
The Indian struggled to his feet and tried to pull away as Muhammad doggedly clung to one leg.
A blur of blue and green flashed past Jamilah’s eyes. It was Hassan, on his lightweight racing 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 thief’s long hair, pulling his head backward. He effortlessly kicked the man’s free leg out from beneath him, and the thief fell to the ground with a cry, landing on his back.
“You can let go now, Muhammad,” Hassan said. Muhammad stood, looking dazed. Hassan scooped up one of the thief’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 thief’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 big bike thief 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.
The man groaned. “I ain’t got nothing.”
Jamilah’s anger was gone. She actually felt sorry for this pathetic bike thief.
“It’s alright,” she said. “Let him go.”
“Fine with me,” Hassan said. “I didn’t want to call the cops anyway.”
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. Ya’ll 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 in the air. “Let the chief go.”
“Let’s just leave,” Jamilah said.
“Not yet,” Hassan said. “Muhammad, hold this guy down. Pin his arm just like this. We’ve done this in class, remember?” Hassan stood and strolled 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. Don’t worry, I’ll let you keep the other fingers, but I’m taking the thumb for my collection.” 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 git somethin’ to eat, anyway.” The three gangsters ambled away, hitching their pants up as they went.
Hassan returned to the bike thief and pushed the man’s arm higher up his back, folding the hand toward the elbow. The man screamed in pain.
“Stop!” Jamilah exclaimed. “You’re hurting him! Are you psycho?”
“I’m easing up now,” Hassan said. “Sit up,” he ordered the thief. “If you try to run I’m going to put the pain on again.”
“Hassan,” Jamilah said. “Don’t – “ she jabbed her finger at him – “hurt – him – again. Or I will smack you.”
“Easy, Jams,” Muhammad said. “He’s not going to do that again, right five nine?”
Jamilah spoke to the bike thief. “If we let you stand, you promise not to run?”
The big man glared 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 thief 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,” 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.” Muhammad laughed at that, and Jamilah shot him a dirty look.
“Okay. Why’d you steal my bike, Stone?”
“I ain’t admit to that,” Stone replied.
“Give me a break,” Jamilah said. “I’m not going to press charges, I just want to know.”
“Inquiring minds want to know,” Muhammad 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?”
Muhammad grinned. “Taking the country back one bike at a time?”
“Ayup, that’s right,” Stone said, nodding.
“My people were dispossessed too,” Jamilah said. “But you don’t see me committing crimes.”
“You’re not big enough to be a criminal,” Muhammad said. “There’s a height requirement.”
Jamilah rounded on Muhammad, ready to sock him in the arm. 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 emerged from the cab. As he approached, Jamilah noticed a deep scar on his left cheek. “As-salamu alaykum,” he called. “What’s up?”
Hassan and Muhammad 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,” Muhammad called back.
“Who’s that?” Jamilah asked.
“His name is Layth,” Muhammad 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.”
Layth shook hands with Muhammad and Hassan, and nodded a hello to Jamilah.
“I know he’s a bike thief,” Layth said. “I see him out here all the time. The guy’s got more inventory than K-mart.”
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,” Stone said. “Court-ordered rehab.”
Layth turned to Jamilah. “If you let him go he’ll 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 certain.” 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. “Definitely,” he said. “The Quran says, ummm… ‘Fa’foo anhum wasfah; innallaha yuhibbul muhsineen. It means, basically, forgive people, because Allah 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 if I hadn’t gotten my bike back, it would have been a disaster for me. You seem like a decent guy. Do some good with your life.”
“Okay,” Stone said noncommittally.
“Go on, then.” Jamilah said.
Stone turned to Hassan uncertainly. Hassan unzipped his windbreaker and reached in with his hand. The bike thief winced, as if he feared that Hassan would pull out a weapon.
When Hasan’s hand emerged, it held only a business card. “Call me if you want to get an honest job,” Hassan said. “I can get you in as a bike messenger.”
Stone knocked the card out of Hassan’s hand. “I look gay to you? You see me riding around in tight shorts and ankle socks?”
“Charming,” Jamilah said dryly. She bent and picked up Hassan’s card, intending to hand it back to him. On an impulse she stuck it in her pants pocket.
Stone 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?”
Muhammad 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.
“Unlikely,” 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 rememba you now. You was down like a clown. Man, I’m Wolf. You don’t rememba me? Wolf keep on runnin’, 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, Alhamdulillah.”
“Wait,” Jamilah said. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” Layth said.
“Well… if I wanted to learn how to do the salat, and how to wear a hijab and all that… do you know anyone who could teach me?”
“Do what?” Muhammad said. “I mean… that’s great.”
“Ma-sha-Allah,” 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?” Muhammad 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,” Muhammad 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, Muhammad 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 let herself settle into the memory. She could almost feel the warm sand and smell the salty ocean breeze.
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.
As Hassan rode away, Muhammad sighed. “Oh Krypton, dear Krypton.”
“What are you talking about now?”
“Hassan’s bike. It’s an Argon 18 Krypton. Jamilah, you need to ride that thing sometime. It’s like levitating. Hassan put Softrider shocks on the front and a super light suspension on the rear. I seriously want to ride that thing into the sunset and never come back.”
“Uh-huh,” Jamilah said, not at all interested in the bicycle techno-babble. “What’s his deal anyway?” Jamilah asked Muhammad. “He acts like he’s better than everyone else, then all of a sudden he’s a hypnotherapist.”
“Not at all,” Muhammad 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?” Muhammad replied sarcastically. “Right. The guy walked away, didn’t he? Not a scratch on him.”
“I suppose,” Jamilah said uneasily. “But I feel bad for him. His people have been oppressed like mine.”
“Jams, he stole your bike! Not every Native American is Geronimo, or Sitting Bull, or the other one from Oregon, you know, ‘It is cold and we are starving.” Muhammad made his voice solemn and deep. “I will fight no more forever.”
“Chief Joseph,” Jamilah said. “Don’t make fun. That’s a tragic story. You want people making fun of your sorrows?”
“You know,” Muhammad said, “if you want to start learning about Islam, Hassan is your brother in the deen. And I’m your brother too. And you know I like you, I mean…”
“Nothing,” Muhammad 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 told you I don’t appreciate it. Reminds me of Larry, Curly and Mo.”
“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. 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. Muhammad, 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 – Wudu
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.