Alice watched Mo leave the restaurant with a mixture of sadness and hope. Sadness for Mo, because with his jokes and toys and general laugh-it-off disposition, she had never imagined such suffering in his past. And hope because she had the idea – laughable she knew, considering her history – that maybe she could get something going with Mo, and maybe it would be different this time. She’d had a crush on him for ages, but she’d kept it to herself because she was involved with someone, and because Mo was younger than her and, well, she didn’t think he’d be interested in her, with her incipient crow’s feet and sordid past.
Jams had invited Alice to this Tuesday night Tu-lan thing a few weeks ago, and Alice liked it. The Muslims didn’t drink, and since Alice hadn’t had a drink in six years, that suited her fine. It was a lot better than hanging out at one of the messenger bars, watching her fellow couriers get drunk and fall on the floor.
Besides that, she liked the conversation. These people talked about life, family, work, all the usual. Sometimes they spoke of God and faith, but not in a pushy way. Jamilah was a nut for politics, but there was no talk of booze, dope, or who was sleeping with whom. I’m too old for all that, Alice thought. There’s nothing amusing about it anymore.
Thinking about being with Mo made her feel warm, and she didn’t think it was just the spicy Vietnamese beef noodles. It was his light heart, and the way he never let anyone get him down – except his father, apparently.
Certainly Mo might desire her, but could he truly care for her? How would he react if he knew the truth about her past? All those years addicted to methamphetamine, living in dark motel rooms, sores on her face, and so thin that her bones almost poked through the skin. Until one day she’d tried to end it by turning on the gas oven and thrusting her head inside. She still remembered the aroma of the gas and the feel of the cold steel grill pressing into her cheek. She’d closed her eyes and waited for the peace of eternal darkness. But the neighbors smelled the gas and called the fire department.
She’d gone a little crazy after that, and tried to strangle herself with the hospital IV tube, and ended up restrained in a mental institution on a 30-day hold.
She started AA and NA then and learned to live one day at a time. You couldn’t change the past. Regret for the past was a waste of spirit. And you couldn’t live tomorrow, because tomorrow never came. There was only this moment, this day, and that’s how you did it – one day at a time.
After that she tried to make up for lost time. Two years in London working as a waitress, then a cross-continental bicycle trip through Europe, a stint as a lift operator at a ski resort in the Italian Alps, and a year running a ladies’ gym in New York. She saved enough to buy a BMW motorcycle and she was off across the U.S. to Alaska…
She would never forget sitting in a tent on the Alaskan snow with towering spruce and hemlock trees behind her, the air as pure as moonlight, and the Northern Lights spread across the sky like the words of God, telling her that it would be alright, that she wouldn’t have to run forever.
But then she’d met Leo, a tall, bearded fisherman who seemed charming at first, but who came home every night reeking of fish. One morning, after Alice complained about his out of control drinking, he backhanded her across the face hard enough to split her lip. She waited until he slept that night, poured sugar in his precious Mustang’s gas tank and punctured the tires with a screwdriver. She mounted her motorcycle and set off, not knowing where the road would take her. There was only the moment and the day, and she would never again waste a day of her life with a cruel man.
She came to San Francisco because her sister was here. Alice had hoped that maybe Courtney could forgive her for all the times she’d lied and stolen. But her sister turned her away like a stranger, saying that she had her own family to think of and couldn’t risk trusting Alice again.
You’d think that after all that I’d be stronger or wiser in some way, Alice thought. But no, even now she seemed to pick the wrong men. Not abusers, just users and cheats. She seemed to fool herself over and over again, as if she were a magician’s assistant walking into the vanishing box and thinking it would be real wizardry this time, not another illusion. And now it was ending with Ronnie too, and Alice was glad, because he was a pretty-boy jerk who couldn’t keep his hands off the bimbo secretaries who thought bike messengers were the coolest thing since salad in a bag.
She looked around at the others at the table. Layth and Kadija were so in love. The way their hands touched, the way he stroked her upper back sometimes. The little smiles that passed between them. Why couldn’t she have that with someone? Mo was that kind of tender man, she was sure.
Jams – Jamilah – had an inner fire that never seemed to dim. Alice envied Jamilah’s passion, faith and intellect. She’d noticed Jamilah’s interest in Hassan. In fact, Hassan – with his muscular good looks and mysterious demeanor – was an occasional subject of speculation among Alice’s female messenger friends, but Hassan himself didn’t seem to notice, or maybe that was pretense. But apparently he didn’t date. Some kind of Muslim thing.
Alice had no interest in Hassan in any case. She’d had enough of the strong and silent types to last a lifetime. Often their mysterious exteriors were masks for barren interiors. He was sporting some injuries tonight. Probably got them in a street fight. She knew his type.
Mo, on the other hand, had a gentleness in him. Once at work, in the dispatch room, a hairy spider had come walking casually down the wall. Jen freaked out, shrieking for someone to kill the damn thing. Mo climbed onto the dispatch desk and used a cup and a piece of paper to trap the arachnid. Then he walked half a block to the empty corner lot and set it free.
There was also the time when they’d thrown a birthday party for Adel in the ready room and someone spilled cake crumbs on the floor. Mo retrieved a broom and dustpan and began sweeping up the crumbs while the party was still going. Adel told him that the cleaning service would take care of it, and Mo said, “We can’t have people stepping on food. Food is a blessing.”
Muhammad wasn’t trying to impress anyone; he was simply a humble and conscious person, and that was exactly what was lacking in every man Alice had ever known. And he called me the perfect woman.
Jams left shortly after Mo, Hassan and Sahar departed. Alice waved goodbye absent-mindedly and finished her beef noodles. Maybe when she got home she’d mix another batch of soap. She had four bars remaining of the last batch of shea butter soap with lavender. Those had sold very well, especially at the women’s bookstore on Valencia. She was out of shea butter, but she had plenty of lye and olive oil, and various essential oils for scent.
She would have liked to go with Muhammad to the terminal. She wished Sahar hadn’t butted in. What would Mo do with his dad? Alice understood what it was like to never want to see your father again. She hadn’t been home to Idaho since she was eighteen. How many years was that?
“Alice?” Kadija was speaking.
“I’m sorry,” Alice said, embarrassed. “What did you say?”
Kadija patted Alice’s arm. “It’s alright honey, I can see you’re preoccupied. I was saying that me and Louis are going to head home. Is everything alright with you?”
“Oh, yeah! I was just daydreaming.”
“Oh. Men. Soap. Idaho. I can’t get over what Mo said about his childhood.”
“I know,” Kadija said. “It’s shocking that any parent would hurt their child that way. But ma-sha-Allah, he seems to have come through. And don’t worry, Hassan and Sahar will make sure the thing with his dad is taken care of.”
“I guess you’re right.”
We’ll see you next Tuesday?”
“Sure.” Alice stood up and hugged Kadija. She had learned not to try to hug Layth. The first time she tried, he stuck out his hand – seemingly for a handshake, but almost as if he were warding her off.
After they left she motioned to the waiter and ordered a soda. What she would really like was a beer, one of those bottled Tsing Taos that they had here. She was tense, and in a strangely sad mood. But she knew herself, and she knew that it wasn’t one beer she wanted, but four or five or ten.
The soda came, the can cold and sweating, leaving a ring of water on the table. She popped it and drank half in one go. The heck with it. Drink the Pepsi, go home, kick Ronnie out, make a batch of soap. One day at a time, that’s how you did it. One day at a time.
Upon exiting the restaurant Muhammad saw a man and a woman – street types – sitting on the hood of Sahar’s Lexus, and another man peering in through the window.
“Get the hell away from my car,” Sahar said.
The street people ignored her.
“Did you hear the lady?” Muhammad demanded. Beside him, he saw Hassan sweep his coat to the side and reach with a flourish behind his back, as if going for a gun. Hassan held a take-out container in one hand but he kept the other hand hidden behind his back, his eyes focused on the man sitting on the hood.
The street people stood and walked away as if nothing had happened.
“Dude, I could have handled it,” Muhammad said, annoyed. He’d wanted to be the one to stand up for Sahar and didn’t need Hassan upstaging him. Why did Hassan always have to be numero uno?
“I know,” Hassan said. “I was just backing your play.”
“What do you have back there, anyway?” Muhammad said. “A gun?”
“Nope,” Hassan said. “Nothing at all. The supreme art of war – ”
“- is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” Muhammad finished, nodding his head. “Sun Tzu.” Hassan quoted from Sun Tzu all the time in class.
Muhammad and Hassan used the quick-release levers on their bikes to remove the front wheels, so that the bikes could fit in the trunk of Sahar’s car.
“The wheels need to go in the back seat,” Muhammad said.
“Fine,” Sahar said. “But don’t get bicycle grease on my leather seats.”
Muhammad sat in the front passenger seat, while Hassan sat in back.
“You’re a brave soul, parking this car in a neighborhood like this,” said Hassan.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t know it was this bad,” Sahar said. “I’ve never been here before.”
“Which way is the Transbay Terminal?” Sahar asked when they were all in the car.
“Howard and First,” Muhammad said. “Let me guess. You’ve never been there.”
“So?” said Sahar. “I have a car. I don’t need to take the subway.”
Muhammad laughed. “It’s a bus depot, Sahar, not a subway station. It’s the terminus for every bus you can think of – AC Transit, Muni, Golden Gate, SamTrans, Greyhound, you name it.”
“How do you know that?”
“Part of the job, sister. If it rolls on wheels in San Francisco, I know about it. If there’s a guy on a unicycle on Market Street, I know how many balls he’s juggling.”
“Whatever. Did you mean it when you called Alice the perfect woman?”
Muhammad was surprised to hear a note of tension in Sahar’s voice. “I think every pretty lady is the perfect woman,” he replied. “That’s my great flaw.”
“Doesn’t sound like your standards are set high,” Sahar said.
“It’s hard to have standards when you’re desperate,” said Muhammad.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Sahar replied. “Plenty of women would be interested in a brother like you.”
Muhammad snorted. “Yeah, if I were a cardiologist with a wallet the size of a double cheeseburger.”
“You know what?” Sahar sounded irritated. “I’m tired of the portrayal of Muslim women as shallow and larcenous. Most of us just want a man with a kind heart.”
Hassan opened the take-out container he’d carried out of Tu-Lan, said “Bismillah” and began scooping fried rice into his mouth with a plastic spoon.
“When did you order that?” Muhammad said.
“I didn’t,” Hassan said. “These are your leftovers.”
“Dude,” Muhammad said, feeling embarrassed and annoyed at the same time. “Why didn’t you tell me you were broke? You didn’t have to pay for me.”
“Not broke, just hungry, and I didn’t get around to ordering.” Hassan said. “Listen, don’t you worry, we’ll find your father, Insha’Allah.”
That was just what Muhammad was afraid of.
“There’s no parking at the Urinal,” Hassan said. “Someone will need to stay with the car.”
“At the what?” Sahar said.
Muhammad chuckled. He still felt deeply anxious about seeing his father – it felt like he had taken a sip of battery acid and it was eating its way through his stomach lining – but Sahar’s combination of haughtiness and naiveté was amusing.
“Some couriers call it the Transbay Urinal,” Muhammad explained. “The whole complex is overrun with homeless people and crazies. The upper level ramps are covered in pigeon crap, and the lower levels in disinfectant-diluted human waste. If you ever want to take a trip into the dark wonderland of Cracklandia, go into one of the restrooms down there.”
“Wonderful,” Sahar said. “This is where you wanted to leave your father? It sounds like hell.”
“No,” said Muhammad. “Just San Francisco.”
“You know,” Hassan said, “I came through the Transbay Terminal when I was a kid. We rode up on the bus one summer and stayed for three days, seeing the City. The terminal was different back then.”
“How so?” Sahar said.
“There were buses pulling in and out constantly,” said Hassan. “I remember a snack shop, a shoeshine station, and newspaper vendors with stacks of Chronicles. They’d call out, ‘Chronicle! Geeeeeet your paper!’ The whole building smelled of fresh coffee. There were skylights and huge windows that let in the sun – it wasn’t dark like it is now. We stopped at a restaurant inside the terminal. It had a long, curved counter with stools. It was incredibly busy. I had a grilled cheese sandwich with fries and a Pepsi and I thought it was the tastiest thing I’d ever eaten. Then we walked out of the terminal and I spotted a video game arcade right across the street. My parents let me and – “ Hassan stopped himself in mid-story.
“You and what?” Sahar said.
Hassan gazed out the window at the passing streets, saying nothing.
“You and what?” Sahar repeated finally.
“Me and Charlie,” Hassan said, still looking out the window. “My little brother. My dad gave us quarters and we played Asteroids and Lunar Landing. There was a pharmacy next door called Terminal Drugs. I didn’t get the joke until my dad explained it. I thought San Francisco was so cool. I think that’s when I decided that I would live here someday.”
Muhammad exchanged a quick look with Sahar. Jamilah had told them about Hassan’s brother, at least the little that she knew. (Author’s note: see “The Deal”, part 5). They knew it was a sensitive subject with him.
A few moments later they arrived at the terminal. Sahar circled around Mission, Beale, Howard, First, then back to Mission. She finally found a parking spot on a dark side street a block away.
“Khair,” Sahar said. “Hassan, you stay with the car. I’ll go with Muhammad.”
“I think it would be best if I accompany you,” Hassan said. “This area can be sketchy at night.”
“Okay,” Sahar said. “Muhammad, you stay. Describe your father.”
Muhammad laughed despite his apprehension. “Sahar, you’re trippin’.”
“You’re worried about your car,” Hassan said.
“Tab’an, I’m worried! This is a fifty thousand dollar car. Leather interior, heated seats, automatic sunroof, -”
“We get the idea,” Hassan said. “Why don’t you stay with the car yourself?”
“In this neighborhood? I’d be kidnapped, shipped overseas and sold as a slave to a lecherous Arab prince..”
“You watch too many Hollywood movies,” Muhammad said. “Besides, we are Arabs.”
“But not lecherous princes,” Sahar pointed out.
Not princes, anyway, Muhammad thought.
“Khalas,” Hassan said. “We all go. It will only take ten minutes.”
They began their search on the upper level of the terminal. Sahar complained about the smell – a combination of exhaust fumes, body odor, urine and disinfectant which could, Muhammad commented, be used as a weapon in chemical warfare.
“Hassan, I thought you said this place used to be nice,” Sahar said. “How did it get like this?”
“The Loma Prieta quake back in ‘89,” Muhammad responded. Reading about San Francisco history and architecture was a hobby of his, and he was proud of his knowledge. “The earthquake changed everything down here. This building was damaged and never restored.”
Homeless people slept sitting upright on long, beautifully contoured oak benches that dated to the terminal’s construction in 1939. In recent years metal railings had been attached to the benches at four-foot intervals to prevent anyone from lying down.
A skeletally thin woman with matted blond hair stood against a wall, her belongings stuffed into a dirty baby stroller. She gesticulated angrily and shouted, “I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ! The CIA are murderers. They shot me full of drugs to stop me from getting the seven thousand pages. They are the devil and the beast. They are baby killers and enemies of Christ along with their partners the Roman Catholic Church and the pope-a-dope who sits atop a pile of skulls!”
“Oh, she’s not crazy at all,” Muhammad said.
A toothless man with the sort of indeterminate and premature geezerhood that came from living on the streets – he could have been 25 or 65, Muhammad thought – slept on the floor. Beside him a small white dog chewed aggressively on its tail. An open wound on the dog’s neck was inflamed and probably infected.
“Poor thing,” Sahar said. “Can’t we do anything?”
“Let’s keep moving,” Hassan said.
“Hold on,” Muhammad said. He brought out his wallet. “I have ten bucks. What do you have Sahar?”
Sahar reached into her purse and opened a beautiful green leather wallet.
“Guys,” Hassan protested, “This is not the best place to flash your wallets.”
“Sadaqa is not given when it’s convenient,” Sahar said, “but when it’s needed. You ought to know that, Hassan.”
She removed two twenty dollar bills and handed them to Muhammad.
“You’re right,” said Hassan. He opened his messenger bag and pulled out two twenty dollar bills, matching Sahar’s donation. He too handed the money to Muhammad.
“I thought you were broke,” Muhammad said to Hassan, who only rolled his eyes in response.
Muhammad leaned down beside the homeless man. The dog growled, and Muhammad pulled back, startled. The man woke and eyed Muhammad, who held the money out like a peace offering. “For you and your dog,” he said.
The homeless man’s eyes widened, the whites showing brightly amid the grime of his face. He took the money with an amazed, “God bless ya’ll!”
The trio moved on. An immensely fat woman with massive breasts and heavy makeup sat on a bench, clapping her hands to an inner beat. Her bare feet appeared purple and swollen.
“Let’s try the lower level,” Muhammad said. They moved toward the stairs, but stopped when they heard a scream from the east end of the terminal.
Sahar swiveled her head. “What’s that?” she said, alarmed.
“It doesn’t matter,” Hassan said. “Let’s stay focused.”
“It could be Muhammad’s father,” Sahar said.
A young man with a shaved head dashed toward them, heading for the stairs. He carried a white leather purse in the crook of his arm like a football. A second later an elderly security guard hustled into view, chasing the young man but clearly unable to catch him.
The thief was going to pass right in front of them. Before Muhammad could think of what to do, Hassan extended his foot. The purse snatcher tripped and tumbled down the stairs with a cry, crashing headfirst into the landing halfway down. The security guard, panting for breath, nodded to Hassan as he passed.
Muhammad wondered why he hadn’t thought of tripping the man. It was impossible to compete with Hassan. The guy could be infuriating, and worst of all he wasn’t even trying. He was simply being himself.
The trio made their way down the steps. Blood streamed from a cut on the purse-snatcher’s forehead. He groaned, struggling to regain consciousness. The security guard used a plastic tie to secure the man’s hands.
“I’ll need a statement from you sir,” the security guard said to Hassan.
“Not going to happen.” Hassan said as he continued down the steps.
“Sir, you’re not in trouble!” the guard called. “You might get a bravery citation from the city.”
“He stumbled,” Hassan called back. “The credit’s yours.”
“Why won’t you give a statement?” Sahar asked.
Hassan shrugged. “I’ve learned that it’s a bad idea to get involved with the justice system. All you get is threats, notices to appear, lost wages and a bullseye on your back.”
The lower level was worse. Dangerous looking men leaned against the walls. Homeless people slept, sat or shuffled through the terminal. The smell was horrendous – a mixture of body odor, waste and pigeon droppings. They made a quick circuit and had just decided to leave when Muhammad stopped. A man sat alone on the floor in a dark corner, next to a row of graffiti-covered storage lockers. He was pressed back into the corner, as if trying to disappear into the stone of the wall. He was much thinner than Muhammad remembered, his eyes sunken and his face covered in scraggly beard growth. His fingernails were too long.
It was hard to reconcile this pitiful wreck of a man with the powerful figure who had terrorized Muhammad all through his childhood.
“He looks so different,” Muhammad said.
“Who?” Sahar said.
Next: Part 3 – Do it for Love
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.