“I will tomorrow,” he says. He cocks his head and considers the sky. “Want to see my new place?”
Jamil leads the way up the street, to a newly built one-story warehouse building fronted by a giant rolling garage door. There is a white work van inside and a Chinese worker sitting on a bag of concrete, shoving the contents of a Styrofoam box into his mouth. He glances up at Jamil, then resumes eating.
“This is it,” Jamil says.
“You’re renting this?”
“Yes,” Jamil says firmly. “I want to install solar panels.” Jamil turns to the workman.
“Where is the owner? Is the owner here?”
“Not here, not here,” the workman says, still shoveling.
“Well, he was here,” Jamil says. He starts to scan the space, then swivels, following a fly. “He was a cute little guy, with a little . . .” He waves his palm in a small circle above his head. “Hat,” he says.
I’m starting to suspect that Jamil is a little spaced out. “Jamil,” I say, “how will you buy this?”
“Money,” Jamil says thoughtfully. “I’ll need money—$1.5 million, in fact.”
“Do you have $1.5 million?”
“I’m going to ask my father,” Jamil says. “Also, I have a Vanguard account. All I have to do is call.” He pulls out his cell phone and stares at it. The battery is dead. He stares at the tops of his white loafers. He’s doodled on them in Magic Marker.
“Jamil,” I say, “level with me. Come on.” I look into his eyes. His pupils are like twin eight-balls. “One-and-a-half-million dollars! That’s a lot of money.”
“It’s not,” Jamil says. “Imagine if the decimal was moved somewhere else.” He twiddles his hand, shuffling decimals, ta-da. “It’s numbers, man. Think about it.”
“I’ve thought about it,” I say. “Yes, the decimal system is abstract. But $1.5 million—that’s just a fuckload of money.”
Jamil wavers for a second, then stares out across the street, where a conveyer belt is spitting rocks into a giant pile.
He startles, then shuffles out into the blaring sunshine.
Past the Morgan Street station and along Harrison Place toward Flushing Avenue and the Jefferson Street station.
“See you later,” he yells back. “I have to go meditate for the money.”
At this point, I admit it, I’m tired. I’ve been walking toward the gentrification line all day, and all day that line seems to have gotten no closer than the horizon.
Now, for instance, walking toward the Jefferson Street L station, I see on the horizon several more of those five-story factory buildings with Manhattan views—the sort of buildings that I watched go condo two years ago in Northside Williamsburg, the sort rented to youthful capacity today down the street at the Morgan L stop. I’m starting to hate these buildings. I’m starting to hate the people with their ironic bangs and ITHACA IS GORGE-OUS and VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS T-shirts, the shooter-producer husband and his video-artist wife and their baby, Fido. I’m not even halfway to Canarsie, but I’m done. I can no longer tell whether I’m in the middle of nowhere or on the edge of the next big somewhere. If there is a gentrification line, I’m giving up on finding it.
And then I run into Simon.
Simon is a big man, maybe six two, 250, dressed in thrift-shop clothes: blue jeans, a golf shirt nappy from overwashing, sneakers that are brand-new but not name-brand. His shaved head shows a star-shaped puncture wound; his arms are tweedy with scars. He stops just ahead to fish a hand-rolled smoke out of a box of Newports. When I stop next to him, he simply smiles and nods and exhales a thick cloud of blue smoke from a finger-size joint.
“You just checking out the neighborhood?” Simon says. He inhales, exhales, scratches.
“Yeah, that’s basically it,” I say.
“Checking it out,” Simon says.
“Just seeing what I see,” I say. I tell him about my walk, about following the L-train route away from Manhattan and looking for the line where things change.
“All right,” Simon says. Inhaling, holding it, nodding. He looks around at the street, the factories, the blue sky, taking it all in.
“Well, right now, this is where I at,” he says. “And where I at is exactly where I supposed to be at. Word.”
These days, where Simon’s at is a shelter around the corner, a revamped knitting factory housing some 400 homeless. Things are looking up for Simon. He’s out of Rikers, he’s lost 100 pounds, and if you don’t count the weed, he’s clean. He sweeps the street in a blue uniform for about $220 a week, of which he keeps $100, through a city-backed Doe Fund project called Ready, Willing & Able. (Simon is a pseudonym. As you might imagine, an ex-con found smoking a joint around the corner from his drug-free shelter does not want his name in print.)