Strangers, Baggage, and That Good Deeds Game

I haven’t gone to jumu’ah prayers in a while. 

I recognize I have about five minutes in me to pay attention to a mediocre, unmoving, and/or dumb sermon poorly delivered in an unconvincing performance of concern for my state — and then I get sleepy.

It’s true I am critical and judgmental of khatibs just trying their best; but it’s equally true there are plenty of mediocre, unmoving, dumb, poorly delivered, insincere performances of concern out there.

Side note — this may be the only instance in which the invocation of a “both sides” argument might actually be valid.

Nevertheless, I ended up joining a jumuah congregation yesterday in DC — on the last Friday of Sha’ban.

And that’s my prologue. I start with this because it’s the only way I can make sense of what I’m about to share next.

Because as it so happened this past Friday, three different strangers offered to carry my bags in order to help me — and not to rob me. I ask myself if the moral of these particular stories is an affirmation for trusting others, but I’m not convinced that’s it.

*****

After visiting two museums and having a delicious fried chicken dinner with my sister, I suggested that we go to the closest masjid and pray before I had to catch my train back to New York City from Union Station. It was going to be a late night trip, and I wanted to complete both Maghrib and Isha so I could just go to bed once I was home.

I also needed to make wudu and wanted to be comfortable doing it.

I looked up nearby mosques, saw Masjid Muhammad listed, called a friend to see if it was open, and then called an Uber.

The Uber driver, coincidentally, is named Muhammad.

Once we arrived at Masjid Muhammad, I noticed musallis streaming out. The congregational prayers must have just ended. My sister noted how most of the cars were either cabs or Lyfts.

After we walked through the masjid doors and a metal detector that was not on, a number of men who saw us directed us to the prayer hall.  Following their directions, we walked up a flight of stairs. We were probably the only women in that space at that moment. As soon as we opened a door marked “Sisters,” a tall, older black uncle walked out from the prayer hall and looked at us.

He says, I’ll take your bags.

I immediately say, Why?

And he immediately responds, Where y’all from?

I say, Florida.

He says, Well, you heard what happened in —

My sister says, New Zealand?

And he’s like, Yes. New Zealand. Sri Lanka. California. (Louisiana.) Why wouldn’t it happen here? DC isn’t special.

I’m suspicious and ask myself, Why should I trust him with our stuff? It’s who I am these days.

I imagine him taking our bags after which I would never see my iPad, wallet, dope blazer, students’ papers, and the red boots that gets me all the compliments again.

He notices, most likely, because he says, Don’t worry. Your bags will be safe.

I say we aren’t staying long. I say I have to catch a train.

So he says, Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you.

He asks for our bags again. My sister then hands him her bookbag and luggage. I follow her lead.

I tell him, I need to make Wudu.

He says I can follow him, and he’ll show me where to go.

My sister — who is usually the one more wary of strangers — seemed cool with it. She went inside to pray.

After following him down a flight of stairs back to where we started, he put down the bags in a corner.

He says, See? They will be safe here.

I then went to make Wudu and returned upstairs to pray.

When I completed my prayers, I saw my sister standing at the door chatting with the man who took our bags. They were chatting about the masjid.

When I indicated that I was done and it was time we left, he says, Ready to catch a train?

I read my sister’s face. She was okay with him — so I say yes.

She tells me his name is N—. It’s a beautiful name.

Before walking out the masjid, I saw a photo hanging on a wall. I walked up to it to take a closer look. My friend who told me the masjid was open is in the photo.

I exclaim, It’s R— !

And he’s like, You know R—?

And then the man literally swaggered out the masjid doors carrying our bags.

I was like, WHAT JUST HAPPENED AND HOW DOES HE ALL OF A SUDDEN HAVE A SWAGGER??

He then walked us to his car, opened the doors very kindly, and drove us to Union Station.

After we got out, he handed us our bags, and I asked that he please take money.

He wouldn’t.

He says, Ramadan is coming.

And he notes, I’m not a cab driver. I’m just tryna practice my good deeds game before the month starts.

We tell him to remember us in his prayers and wave goodbye.

*****

Four hours later in New York City, I arrived in Penn Station at 1:30 AM.

As I approached the 2/3 platform, passengers who must have been waiting for some time realized the 2/3 trains were not going uptown. When a 1-train approached the station, a woman shouted that the 2/3 train was not coming. Passengers began running toward the 1-train.

At that moment, a young South Asian man saw me pulling my bag and getting ready to carry it back down the stairs.

He says, Do you need help? Let me help you.

But before I could respond, he picked up my bag and ran.

I ran after him. He was fast.

I ran down the stairs and then up two flights of stairs.

I wondered if this was the moment I must say goodbye to my chargers, my students’ papers, my dope blazer and the red boots that gets all the compliments.

I’m grateful my iPad is in my bookbag.

When we reached the top of the stairs at the 1-train platform, the man handed me my bag.

I thanked him.

We parted ways after the train arrived, but not before I noticed that he spoke Hindi/Urdu with a woman in heels standing with him.

I also thanked the beautiful black woman who announced to everyone that the 2/3 train wasn’t coming. She says we got to look out for each other because clearly no one else was going to make an announcement. She tells me her family is Muslim.

While sitting on the train, I texted a friend that I was having a day of men taking my bags to help me and not rob me. I also told her that when my PT asks me if I did my exercises this weekend, I will say, Yeah. I ran after a man who ran carrying my bag for several flights of stairs in Penn Station. And he was not a thief.

*****

I finally arrived at my local train station at 2 A.M. The stairs leading to the street were drenched. I imagined it must have rained hard, and I couldn’t tell if it was still raining outside.

As I gripped my bag preparing to walk up the stairs, I heard the voice of someone from behind me say, “Ma’am! Ma’am!”

I turned.

A young stranger in a baseball cap, with dark curly hair, and that Dominican Washington Heights accent asks, Do you need help with that? 

I smile because I’m home and I say I’m good.

He asks again just to reassure me the offer still stands.

I repeat, I’m good, but thank you so much. It’s very kind of you.

And I go home carrying my bags.

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