Bellies and Souls

Colorado mountain wildflowers

Colorado mountain wildflowers

By Wael Abdelgawad |

Most of us are concerned with our bellies and the souls of others; when we should be concerned with our own souls, and the bellies of others. The first thing the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said when he arrived in Madinah was, “Spread peace, and feed the people.”

Instead of judging others, care for them. Feed them, help them, and spread peace. That is your representation as a Muslim, your da’wah, and your salvation of the world. In the process, you save your own soul.

Remembering a Friend Who Died Badly, and Moving Beyond Blame

South San Francisco the Industrial City

By Wael Abdelgawad for

I had a good friend who died badly. I would like to remember him fondly, to remember the good times we had together, but I cannot think of him without hating myself for not trying to save him. Let me tell you about him, so that you can know what a good man he was, and how he helped me.

I arrived in San Francisco on an afternoon flight from DFW on July 27, 1992. I was twenty seven years old, and I’d been away for many years.

Coming up Highway 101 in the back of a Yellow Cab, I saw the fog flowing down the face of Mt. San Bruno. I saw the big sign etched on the jutting mountain: “South San Francisco: The Industrial City.” Home, I was home after so long. The joy in my heart was like a shout and I couldn’t contain it. I laughed out loud, right there in the back seat of the cab. I saw the driver looking at me in the rear view mirror like I was a crazy man. I just looked out the window and smiled.

I hadn’t walked San Francisco’s boulevards in a long time. There seemed to be more trash than I remembered, and many more homeless people and panhandlers. I no longer had friends in the Bay Area, so after a short stretch at a halfway house I went to the YMCA on Golden Gate, in the heart of the Tenderloin, and rented a room for $100 a week. It was a tiny space, so small I could stretch my arms out and almost touch both walls.

I wasn’t sure what kind of work I would do, maybe something with computers, as I had picked up assorted computer skills over the years. I really wanted to work with homeless and runaway youth, and I made the rounds of all the shelters and special schools in the city. I’d bought a new bicycle so I could get around, and I rode to youth shelters in every part of town, from the Richmond to Bayview. But Reagan’s “trickle-down”, steal-from-the-poor-and-give-to-the-rich idiocy had done its dirty work. No one was hiring, no one had any funds, and in fact many of them were cutting staff.

My friend Joe

My friend Joe "Zippy" Strauss - San Francisco. Born April 16, 1964, died November 4, 1996 of a heroin overdose. Joe worked for Crosstown (a messenger company) and previously worked at ProMess, Pete's, and Shotgun. Survived by parents, his wife Tara, and his son Shane.

I had met a young man by the name of Joe, a thin but handsome fellow with happy eyes and a burst of (dyed) blond hair. We had become good friends. He was in a halfway house on Taylor Street, in the sleaziest part of the Tenderloin, where he’d been sentenced for a few months for drunk driving. He was a gentle man, quiet, with a good heart and a good mind, but he had a problem with booze. His driver’s license had been suspended, but he got around pretty well on a big yellow mountain bike. The halfway house staff would Breathalyze him every day, so he wasn’t drinking.

In the evenings I’d meet Joe for dinner, and we’d talk. I’d tell him about my years as a wanderer, and about my current job search. He would listen attentively, occasionally making a comment or sympathetic remark. He was genuinely interested in everything I had to say.

Finding a friend who truly listens and cares is, I think, like finding a 24-carat gold nugget on the sidewalk.

Joe suggested that I take a job as a bike messenger until I found something better. I didn’t know anything about it, but Joe was a dispatcher for a messenger company, so he knew the business inside and out. It sounded like fun. Joe told me exactly where to go to get hired, and before a week was out I was grunting and sweating as I hauled packages up every hill in San Francisco. The wages were paltry, and I kept getting hurt, but Joe gave me a lot of valuable tips, and I persevered, and eventually I came to love it more than any job I’d ever done.

In those first several months in the City I experienced a lot of ups and downs, and I’m not only talking about the hills of San Francisco. Joe was a wonderful friend. He comforted me through the bad times, and shared the pleasure of my successes. Until one day when he failed his Breathalyzer test and was put in jail and extradited to Baltimore, his home town, as a parole violator.

Joe would often call me collect from the Baltimore jail, and I was always happy to talk to him. I realize, writing this, that he probably sounds like a terrible guy, a real loser, but that wasn’t how I saw him at all. He had a kind soul.

Joe’s Return and New Family

He was released a year later, and it was a great day for me. We’d both changed. I had developed from a struggling rookie to one of the best messengers in San Francisco, and then to a dispatcher, and I helped Joe get a job at the company I worked for, Professional Messenger. The irony wasn’t lost on me.

I had rented a small studio apartment on Market Street, and was trying to save money to start my own business. Twice a week I volunteered with a local center for homeless youth, doing outreach to the street kids, trying to get them into the center and back with their families when appropriate.

Joe had gained a little weight, and when I mentioned it he told me it was a result of quitting heroin. I was shocked. I had no idea. How naive I was. Joe told me that heroin had been his lifelong nemesis. He said that the bliss that he had experienced from heroin dwarfed every other pleasure in his life, and that it would always haunt him. He still thought about it every day and always would, like a lover he could never forget. But he’d been clean for a while, and like a fool I trusted that he had “beat” it. Or maybe I didn’t know how to talk to him about it.

As a Muslim, I was doing my salat (my prayers), but I was at a weak point. I had few Muslim friends in S.F. The masjid was far from my house, a 40 minute bike ride uphill to the Outer Mission. It was difficult being on my own in that way. I’d work hard all day long, blazing up and down the city streets, covering tens of miles in one day, and I’d do my salat on my breaks, on any sidewalk or parking lot where I happened to be. Then I’d go home to my tiny studio apartment and write, write, write. I’d pour out my heart in short stories and poetry.

Joe and his son, a few days before Joe died

Joe and his son at the Pumpkin Festival, a few days before Joe died

Joe settled in. He had a girlfriend who loved him, and before long they had a baby boy. They rented a nice loft South of Market. They were making a life for themselves.

Drug use is common in the messenger subculture, and I’d occasionally see Joe hanging in front of Harvey’s Liquors with a bad crowd. I worried, but I’ve never been one to pry. If a friend wants to share, great, but if not then I mind my own business.

And I tended to see Joe in an artificially smooth light, I think. He’d always been so compassionate and wise with me, that it was hard for me to switch our roles and be his advisor. Now I look back and I think that I was such a rotten friend. He gave me so much, and when it counted I gave him nothing in return.

Maybe I should have shared the deen (the Islamic way of life) with Joe. I should have reached out to him. Isn’t that the true meaning of friendship, to care not only for a person’s physical well being, but for his wounded, immortal soul?

But I needed help myself. Although I was prospering in my work, I was in a lot of pain internally, struggling to come to terms with traumatic experiences from my past. I needed someone to reach an arm to me, and in my state I didn’t perceive Joe’s inner needs.

The Last Time I Saw Him

In 1996 I ran into Joe at the Pumpkin Festival on Polk Street. His girlfriend and son were there, and I took pictures of all three. His little boy was just beautiful, a very happy and handsome kid with blue eyes and willowy blonde hair.

Joe’s mother, who I had never met before, was there too, and I told her how much I respected and admired Joe, and how good he’d always been to me. I bought an Australian cowboy hat, and Joe told me it looked very hip. He insisted that I should come see their new apartment on Folsom Street, that it was very cool.

A week later a friend approached me as I was sitting on the Wall downtown, where all the messengers stand by between runs. He told me that Joe had overdosed on heroin, and was dead.

You know how people say, “If you could do it over again, what would you differently?” I’ve made some awful mistakes in my life, and if I could turn the clock back I could save myself a lot of hardship.

But I don’t care about that. There’s only one thing I want to change. I want to wind the clock back to October 1996, to a sunny autumn day at a street fair on Polk Street, where my friend Joe is still alive and is watching his son ride the little train in the kiddy carnival. I want to say, “Hey, Joe, what’s going on with you? You know I love you. If there’s anything wrong in your life I want you to tell me about it. You’ve been so good to me, and now I want to give a little back. Look around you, Joe. You’ve got so much to live for.”

I’m not naive enough to think that I could have solved Joe’s problem when his own beautiful family couldn’t. But maybe if I could go back just long enough to say those words, then I could live with what came after, and I could stop hating myself for failing my friend in the worst way, and I could take my Australian cowboy hat out of the closet, put it on my head, and remember the good times I had with Joe.

Wael Abdelgawad, February 1999
Oakland, California

Postscript: Moving Beyond Blame

I wrote the piece above over ten years ago. It has taken me almost these entire ten years to learn to forgive myself. I still sometimes see someone on the street who looks like Joe, and I have a moment of excitement, then I remember that he is gone. But I don’t blame myself anymore. I made a mistake, but I’m not responsible for Joe putting a needle in his arm. With everything he had to live for, he had no excuse. If having a family, friends and freedom wasn’t enough of a joy for him, then it’s unlikely that anything I said would have made a difference.

I don’t want to blame Joe either. He lost the battle against his internal demons, and that’s enough for me to say. I still love him. I guess I’ve gotten beyond blame, to a place of understanding or acceptance. I’m able to think of Joe with gratitude, and with no bitterness or regret to color it. I originally titled this piece, “Trying to Remember the Good Times”, but if I had written it today I might call it, “Remembering a Kind Soul.”

That’s the miracle and glory of the human heart. That is one of the countless blessings of Allah. He gives us hearts that heal, and spirits that forgive, and Time, our dear friend, who carries away all wounds in the gentle sweep of its current.

“Allah said: ‘Sons of Adam inveigh against [the vicissitudes of] Time, but I am Time, in My hand is the night and the day.’” (hadith qudsi, agreed upon)

If Allah is Time, and Allah is Ar-Rahman ir-Raheem (The Merciful and Mercy-Giving), then time is  a mercy and a blessing. The passage of time is a balm and a cure.

I try to do better now in reaching out to anyone I care about who might be in pain. I try to express something about the deen to the non-Muslims in my life. I don’t preach, but I share my enthusiasm for Islam in small ways, and I offer a perspective that includes Allah.

If I could go back, what would I do differently? I have come to realize that the question serves no purpose. The Polk Street festival is a memory, a day in history, an image on a fading photo. Agonizing over it does not help.

A better question is, what will I do differently today? What will I do differently tomorrow, when the California sun comes up blazing, and the world is new again, and I am blessed beyond belief with another opportunity to redeem my soul, and to love my family and friends, and to prostrate to Allah, and to change the world? What will I do differently then?

That’s all that matters.

“And put your trust in Him Who lives and dies not; and celebrate His praise; and enough is He to be acquainted with the faults of His servants.” – Quran, 25:58

Wael Abdelgawad, June 15, 2010
Fresno, California

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Pieces of a Dream