"Don't look at him," he suddenly said.
On his left side, a fierce looking thug with tattooed tears dripping down his cheeks was passing by. In Brownsville, as elsewhere, the tear tattoo signals gang affiliation, and the one with the ink drops usually got them in jail, one tear for each murder he committed. The guy passing by had three.
"Just keep on walking," Jamal whispered. It wasn't the thug he worried about. He was warning about an officer watching him closely as he approached a parked squad car.
"Oh dear, here we go," said Jamal. He was already in procedure mode. "First, he is gonna ask me for my ID, then I give it to him, then he is gonna ask me if I live in the area, even though he can see on my ID where I live. Then he is gonna ask me if I know the area that I grew up in, and then he is probably gonna let me go and tell me to have a nice day."
The police didn't stop Jamal this time. Maybe it was because they didn't think he looked suspicious this particular day. Perhaps it was because Jamal was walking around with a journalist.
"There is always this feeling that there is a 50/50 percent chance that either I am gonna be fine or I am about to get hassled," said Jamal.
Crossing Palmetto Street near his old high school, Jamal passed a three-story-tall mural on a corner building. He painted it with some friends two years ago when he was still living in Brownsville. The painting showed Jamal being frisked by an officer in the middle of the street, legs spread, hands cuffed.
It seemed a lifetime ago. Now, Jamal was on his way to meet his friend Najahwan Goode to visit the teachers at their former high school. "Show off this college merchandise," as he put it: Jamal never walked these streets without it. He called it his "police protection gear." The sweatshirt read Buffalo State College on the front, and wearing that, Jamal felt untouchable. The police would spot that he was now a university student, not some criminal kid about to do wrong. And then they'd leave him alone, he figured.
"Hey look at you, Mr. Smarty Pants," said one teacher when she spotted Jamal outside the school building. "You look like a real man now." It had only been six months but maybe it was the college clothes working their magic.
Jamal and Nahjahwan had hardly closed the door behind them before the NYPD school security officer stopped them for ID.
"Sorry, I can't let you in," said the officer.
"But we used to be students..." said Jamal.
The officer shook her head and called the head of security, then shook her head again. Jamal and Najahwan called a teacher for help.
"These are good kids. Jamal was one of my best students," the teacher told the cop.
It took three phone calls to the security office before Jamal and Nahjahwan were finally allowed to go through the metal detector.
"This is exactly what I am talking about," said Jamal as he took off his belt and key chain, placed it in his cap with his phone and iPod to send them through the X-Ray.