Jobless man sells water, shares respect on Fresno street corner

The Fresno BeeFebruary 2, 2014 

If the midday sun is out in southwest Fresno, there's a good chance that Ansar El Muhammad is, too — a familiar figure at Kearney Boulevard and Thorne Avenue, holding aloft ice-cold bottles of water as motorists approach.

"Hello, brother," says Ansar, whose name means "one who helps" in Arabic, as he passes a bottle to a motorist at the four-way stop. Muhammad usually gets $1 in exchange, although it's a donation and he will take 75 cents or some other amount. He's even known to let some folks pay him later.

Muhammad, 40, a single father of three, has been a fixture at the intersection since May 2012. He says that's when he lost his job as a substance abuse counselor at Corcoran State Prison due to state layoffs.

So he loaded up his ice chest with fresh fruit, dusted off his résumé (never know when you'll meet a prospective employer) and began selling on the corner.

But prices of fruit began to rise, he says, and he switched to water because he wants people in southwest Fresno to have something good for them. He also shares his résumé with those who ask.

"Where there's water, there's life," says Muhammad, dressed casually and sporting a natty black Fedora. "People ask me, 'Why don't you sell cocoa?' But that's bad for diabetes."

The streets are hot in southwest Fresno, sometimes even on a winter day. They also can be cruel. Nearby neighborhoods have been the scene of gang violence and drive-by shootings, but Muhammad says he sees the good in all who pass by.

"People respect me, and I respect people," he says as he waves to a car rolling by with the loud beat of hip-hop music reverberating from oversize speakers. The young man inside waves back.

"The young African-American male sees me and says, 'That guy isn't making any excuses" for not having a job.

"They say, 'Hey, OG!' " He adds: "I don't really like OG because I don't want to be old," but, "they respect that I'm out here."

Southwest Fresno is home to Muhammad, although he lived for a time in Atlanta. He says he came back when he heard that his mother was ill with cancer.

Muhammad adds that he was one of the first students at the then-new Columbia Elementary School just a few blocks away from where he sells today. He says he was featured on television news with Karen Humphrey, who later became the city's mayor, when the school opened.

He lived on Modoc Street and also near Jensen and Elm avenues, a neighborhood now known by some gang members as the "Dog Pound."

"It used to be a nice neighborhood. But these neighborhoods aren't as bad as they may appear. There are bad people everywhere."

Muhammad appears an upbeat man, but he can become somber for a moment when he thinks about being without the work he wants to do.

"It's a struggle," he says. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. Being unemployed is definitely hard. A very humbling experience."

But his eyes quickly light up when asked about his children, boys Ansar Ibin, 20, Akeem, 19, and daughter Zakkiyya, 17. His oldest son is attending College of the Sequoias and the second is about to enroll there.

Zakkiyya is going to high school in Clovis and he says she also takes some college courses.

"Zakkiyya means wise and beautiful," he adds with a smile.


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6339, or @jimguy27 on Twitter.

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