Jerome looked up from the sidewalk and into the old man’s eyes. Junior was a local; he’d grown up two houses down the street, though he didn’t live there anymore. He usually slept in the alley behind Tenth Street, beside a dumpster. His wrinkled face, half covered with patches of gray beard, held a mix of sadness and pain, just like every other long time resident of the neighborhood.
“Five for twenty, man,” Jerome said. He sat on concrete steps that led to his aunt’s home, a hundred year old brick row house with a half-caved in roof and lead paint coating the windows and walls.
“I ain’t got twenty,” Junior said.
Jerome shrugged. “Not my problem.”
Across the street, a young white couple, two of the gentrifiers boldly stealing the neighborhood, pushed a double-seat stroller down the sidewalk. Jerome could hear them talking about their renovated home with its new granite counters and designer appliances. Their house had belonged to a veteran of World War II. He’d been evicted when he couldn’t afford the rising taxes.
Jerome wondered what living in air conditioning was like. Fixing up his aunt’s home was a long time dream, but one that Jerome didn’t think would ever happen.
“I’ll be back, you gonna be here?” Junior said.
The sound of metal slamming into metal filled the neighborhood with the regular beat of gentrification. Construction crews, already building the next condo building, had started slamming steel girders into the ground to hold up the walls of dirt they would soon create. Not long after the building was finished, another two hundred young professionals would flood the area and demand fancy restaurants and high priced gourmet super markets that neither Jerome, nor any of his family, could afford.
“Excuse me,” a woman said.
Jerome turned and recognized the woman as a neighbor. She was maybe just over twenty-five and looked at him with contempt and anger, as if to say he was the one trespassing. Like Jerome didn’t belong anywhere near her home. Had her grandmother been born in the house on Eighth Street? Had her brother been shot on the corner two blocks down? Had her family been living here for a hundred years?
“Yeah?” Jerome said.
“What are you doing?” she said.
Jerome shrugged. “Sittin’.”
“Are you selling drugs here? This is where my children live,” the woman said. She stomped her foot on the ground as if making her stand, as if saying she wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior.
“No,” Jerome said.
“Yes, you are. And you need to stop it or I’m calling the police.”
Jerome looked into her eyes. White, young, on top of the world, making more money in a year then he’d see in his life, taking over the neighborhood he and his friends called home. And still, she was pretty stupid. People still got shot around here for less. Someone had gotten stabbed on a bus for stepping on a girl’s foot just last month. And here was this neighbor thinking she was going to change the world, one black man at a time. Jerome tried his best not to laugh.
“Not sellin drugs, miss.” Jerome held up a patch with the number five written on the back.
The woman stepped back, her eyes darting between Jerome and the patch. “Is that what you’re selling? Some kind of patch laced with heroin?”
“Naw, nothin’ like that.”
“Then what is it?” the woman said.
Jerome shrugged. “Don’t know. My cousin went to college, real smart. He made them.”
“Well, whatever it is, you can’t sell it here, it’s illegal. I’m calling the police.”
“Wait, miss. It’s not a drug and it’s not illegal.” Jerome peeled off the back of the patch and held it up for her. “See, ain’t no drugs on this. Can’t get high from a patch, miss.”
“You need to leave my neighborhood, ok?” She turned to walk back to her house.
Her neighborhood? Sudden and quick anger bubbled up inside Jerome. This was his neighborhood, and his father’s, and all of his friends’, long before she even knew the place existed. He stood and placed the patch on her exposed shoulder. The woman spun around, her face twisted in confusion and then rage, her hands rising in defense. After a moment, a smile grew on her face and she spun in a wide circle.
“What happened? Where’s the trash? The sky is so blue,” She said. She looked back down to Jerome and screamed. “What happened to you? You’re white!”
Jerome half-laughed, nodded, and sat back down on his aunt’s steps, his anger giving way to humor and contempt. “Like I said, my cousin’s real smart. He made this so it would show you what you want to see, so the world doesn’t look so bad, for five minutes’ worth anyway. That’s the trick, miss. People wouldn’t do so much drugs, wouldn’t be so sad, if they had a little hope. This just gives them a little hope.”
She stared at him, even after the patch wore off, even after he had sat back down. Eventually, she turned and walked back to her house. She’d probably call the police anyway and tell them it was battery, or drug dealing, or whatever else she wanted to say. Cops would believe her. Besides, maybe it was all of those things.
Jerome peeled another patch and placed it on his arm, and let himself remember the neighborhood with his friends playing stickball in the street and running into the alleys to light firecrackers. He smiled and laughed, for just five minutes anyway.