Chapter One

 

WHERE I grew up wasn’t the toughest of DC’s tough, but twenty years ago, violence had been my fear, not gentrification. When Mom died it sucked, until I left at age fifteen, never wanting to see my father or Columbia Heights again. Eddie changed all that. He taught me love. No, he wasn’t my first boyfriend. Not exactly, well, no, not a­­t all because his heart and all that always belonged to the ladies, but eventually he introduced me to other guys who liked guys the same way I did. In truth, he introduced me to myself. And to the future. When I was a homeless fifteen-year-old, he introduced me to his family, and I shared a room with him for the rest of high school. He also introduced me to people who helped get me to college, and he taught me how to give back. Seriously, he saved me. I could say Eddie knew what was best for me. So why, decades later, was he trying to introduce me to exactly the sort of guy he knew I hated to be around?

Derek T. Hinsdale III? Just the name, and Eddie should have known better. Slick DC wealth consultant? What the hell was a wealth consultant anyway? Clearly a job for a clueless guy who thought being surrounded by money was normal. Who cared if he bankrolled some of the best political and philanthropic causes? Who cared if the work he supported impacted not just DC but the whole country? Yes, I’d seen his name on donor lists, and yes, he supported good work and could be a good guy, but I wasn’t interested in someone from the stratosphere. There were enough guys around. Couldn’t Eddie have suggested someone who breathed my kind of air? How could he not understand that Derek Hinsdale was not someone I wanted to be set up with?

“It’s fine, if you don’t want to romance the guy—despite the fact that your best friend, who knows you better than anyone else in the world, thinks that you and Derek would be perfect together. You’re both dynamic, committed to the city, and get shit done. Jeffrey, I know this deep in my soul. Haven’t you learned by now to listen to me?” The waitress placed a bottle of maple syrup between us. It was our weekly Tuesday breakfast. “At least be practical and let me introduce you to him. He could become a supporter of your coalition.”

“It’s not my coalition. It’s the city’s. Let him be a supporter if he actually cares about people without housing. My guess is the wealth consultant would freak if he ever met the people we help.”

Eddie did his self-assured smile-and-nod. “Why do I think you guys would be perfect for each other? Thank you for asking. You both have big hearts and big dreams and blast through things that get in your way. You are the best of DC without being the arrogant worst. My lady informs me that you’re both smoking hot. I can’t judge that myself, so I’ll take Cassandra’s word for it.”

“Right now, all I know is that this Derek person is getting in the way of a good breakfast and a good conversation. He sounds like another rich guy working on his white guilt.”

“Jeffrey, bro—”

“Oh, man. You just called me bro? You so want me to pay attention to you.”

“Mom calls you her other son. I can call you bro in a specific, nongeneralized way,” said Eddie. “Bro. There was an article about Derek in Washingtonian. Did you read it?”

“No.”

“Not even after I forwarded it you to?”

“Not even after you asked me to.” I smiled and drenched my pancakes in syrup.

“Bro—”

“Some people get all racist on me. They say I got out of a shitty childhood and homelessness because I was one of the few white ones around. We both know that’s not true. One, Columbia Heights may have been mostly black, but there were other white people in the neighborhood. You remember Dad’s idiot best friend, who ODed in our kitchen, and Mrs. Norcott, who supplied me with beer when I was twelve.” I straightened my fork and knife, and the position of my plate on the placemat, but didn’t start eating.

“Not everything was shitty.” Eddie took a big bite of french toast.

“You lived in a house two blocks away. My apartment building sucked, but that’s not the point. We all know the only reason I survived as a homeless fifteen-year-old was you and your family. My whiteness didn’t save me. You did.”

“And I’m black.”

“Oh shit! I never noticed.”

“What does this have to do with meeting Derek? You might do different kinds of work, but you’re both hot shit. You’re committed to something bigger than yourselves. You and Derek are hardworking dreamers. On top of that, you’re both DC originals. You actually grew up here and didn’t move to the city for a job. You’re the real deal. Your work is in your soul. You’ve got a lot in common.”

“Where’d Derek grow up? Is he another inner-city guy made good?”

“Foxhall.” Before Eddie finished the word, he pointed at me and twisted into his stern face. “Do not judge him.”

“Foxhall? Hell no.”

“It’s not fair to blame someone for where he was born. You of all people should know that. So Derek has rich parents and grew up different from you. As an adult, he’s chosen not to go back to Foxhall. Don’t blame someone for his past. He’s creating one hell of a present. Just as you are. You yourself left Columbia Heights years ago.”

“But I work a few blocks from where I grew up. I never want to forget where I’m from. I couldn’t if I wanted to. I’d say Derek is doing the same thing. Wealth management? He makes sure the rich are staying rich. What a mission.” I pushed away from the table. “So, tell me, where does the prince of Foxhall live today?”

“Downtown, Logan Circle. Not so far from where you live on Dupont. You and Derek have probably passed each other on the street. Who knows? As I keep saying, you and Derek have a lot in common.”

The waitress poured us more water.

“I do appreciate that you’re looking out for me, but Derek T. Hinsdale III and I are an impossibility. I’m not interested in his white guilt. His money, maybe. Give me his address, and I’ll add him to our mailing list. If he gives something and seems to give a shit about homelessness, I’ll follow up with him. Even meet him. But only for fundraising. There would be nothing personal or romantic between us.”

“Jeffrey, I can not begin to express that you very much have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“As executive director of the DC Homeless Coalition, I, in fact, know exactly what I’m talking about. White guilt gets us some money. But actual commitment to the mission gets us more.”

“I assume you know about Burkewest Academy and what they give DC nonprofits every year?”

“Dude. For part of my job I fund-raise. Of course I know. A few years ago, a rich alum gave a multimillion-dollar gift so the kids at the fancy school could learn philanthropy. They give away $100,000 a year. The Burkewest Academy is so snooty, so exclusive that they don’t let anyone apply for the money. The students do their own research, as if the spoiled, sheltered rich kids know anything, and then $100,000 worth of gifts to nonprofits appear once a year throughout DC. The biggest is $50,000. Every small nonprofit knows this.”

“What’s with the attitude? The kids are giving away money. How’s that not a good thing?”

“Of course it’s a good thing.” Grapefruit juice caught in my throat for a second. “But be real. These kids have had so much luck with money that now they get to play with it and give it away and feel good about themselves? It doesn’t feel good for someone who hasn’t had luck like that?”

“You’ve had luck.” Eddie just stared at me. “Not like that exactly, but you’ve had luck.”

He got me. I had luck. I was lucky as hell when years ago he’d asked me to his house for dinner the second week after I’d left my dad’s. We’d been friends for years, and he knew Mom had died and that Dad was a shit. All I’d done was ask if he’d take my other T-shirt home and wash it for me. He’d asked why I couldn’t wash it at home, and I told him not to worry. I’d found a safe place in an abandoned attic. So I went to dinner and Mr. and Mrs. Moore insisted I stay with them.

“Shit. I’m sorry. I know.” I leaned forward in the booth. “I get it. We all have different kinds of luck.”

“Congratulations.” Eddie launched a smile. “The DC Homeless Coalition is receiving this year’s lead gift of $50,000.”

“Excuse me?”

“The DC Homeless Coalition will be receiving this year’s $50,000.”

“$50,000?”

“Yes, 50,000.”

“Are you kidding?”

“$50,000 for the Homeless Coalition to use any way you think is best. You should be getting a phone call today. Good pancakes, huh?”

“Eddie, why do you know this?”

“Kristy works there,” he said. “I thought you knew that.” Kristy was Cassandra’s eternally enthusiastic best friend.

Cassandra and Eddie had been together for four years. His mom and I kept waiting for him to pop the question. Maybe Cassandra did too, but they seemed perfectly happy: one of those couples perpetually in the groove. “But I’d be a lot happier with more grandchildren,” Eddie’s mother had once told me.

Eddie continued, “Someone you know, one of your oldest friends, might have been the one to float the idea of the Homeless Coalition out to Kristy. She loved the idea and suggested that the kids research it.”

“Kristy’s a teacher?”

“Public relations. But she knows the kids and helps with the Young Philanthropists thing.”

“Bro, are you serious?”

“Who’s looking out for you?”

“Holy shit.”

“You can do better than that.”

“Thank you. Holy crap, Eddie, thank you.”

“Derek is looking forward to seeing you receive the check at the annual awards dinner.”

“What does he have to do with the Burkewest Academy? Why does he know about me?”

“He’s the alum who gave the school the first few million to start the fund. Actually, the whole thing was Derek’s idea. He wants the kids to develop an ethic for philanthropy. Then he raised the rest of the money from other alumni. Seriously, Jeffrey, he gets ideas and makes them happen. He’s the real deal. Like you.”

“Like me?”

“You’re the one who brought the smaller homeless shelters into a coalition to share resources and coordinate services. ‘The capital of the country should be the capital of solving homelessness.’ Isn’t that what you said in the Post? Derek isn’t the only one in the papers. The two of you could be a dream team, a DC power couple.”

“Are you serious?”

“Have been all morning.”

“Why’d you do it?”

“I told Kristy about the Homeless Coalition because I think the network you started is amazing. And it’s important that you talk about the danger of gentrification forcing the poor out of the city. You’re right. The nation’s capital shouldn’t be a boutique city. It should be real people showcasing real solutions. Better solutions than forcing out the people we don’t want to see. Didn’t you say something like that?”

“I did.”

“Second, you’re one of the youngest executive directors around. You started out homeless but have made a hell of a life for yourself.”

“I was only homeless two weeks.”

“Dude, you know better than to undervalue the trauma of a kid needing to leave home, actually leaving home, and then fending for himself. You survived. You’re the best role model for the kids. You embody possibility. Power to the people, man.”

“As always, you overestimate me.”

“I speak the truth. On the Derek topic, I once joined Cassandra, Kristy, and Derek for lunch, and I might have talked about you because, you know, you are my bro.” There it was again, that guilty-but pleased-with-himself grin. “Derek didn’t say much. He’s a business guy. He keeps his cards close. He also just kicked out a boyfriend who’d been cheating. He might be kind of pissed at men these days.”

“That makes two of us. Sounds like he and I aren’t in the mood for romance, so why are we wasting time on this conversation?”

“You think 50K is a waste of time?”

“Fine. I’ve heard the great news about the money. Thank you. Seriously, thank you for planting the idea with Kristy. But there’s no need to pimp me out to Mr. Derek T. Hinsdale III.”

“Like it or not, you’ll be meeting him at the award ceremony. You can decide for yourself if you don’t hit it off.”

“So don’t waste my time making me think about this guy now. I’ll deal with it then.”

“Except we’re having dinner on Thursday.”

“Who’s having dinner?”

“You and Derek. And Cassandra, Kristy, and me. Kristy’s organizing the ceremony and wants everyone to meet in advance.”

“Why would you and Cassandra go to the ceremony?”

“We’re Kristy’s plus two. She’s PR. She calls the shots.”

“Eddie, stop this.”

“You have to prep for the event.”

“Bro, you don’t give up.”

“I wouldn’t be one of the best intellectual properties lawyers at Collins Perry if I did.” His smug smile was bigger. “You might be surprised what you learn about Derek.”

“Nothing surprises me.”