Leaving work on the N.C. State campus, I saw my homeless doppelganger loping up Hillsborough Street. Karen looks like me, except a bit heavier. In fact, sometimes, Karen looks better put together than I do. She usually slumps against a light pole, hitting up passersby. She always rises to hug me.
"Shug, guh ha ny moneh yuh cu lah mah ha?" she says, which I translate into, "Sugar, you got any money you can let me have?"
If I have any, I give her some, because she is kind of a neighbor in the university community. Also, I hand her money as karmic insurance, certain that if I don't, I will someday be homeless and broke myself. So far, I am not homeless, but I am well on my way to being broke.
This day I didn't feel like detangling Karen's conversation. Instead, I walked a different way, by the Presbyterian Church. A middle-aged man with a cherrywood tan walked toward me. He was slight and seemed in no hurry. I smiled at him as one walker to another. He stopped.
"Do you know the best way to get to Wrightsville Beach?"
"I-40 South, I think," I said, "Or East. But I-40, I'm pretty sure."
"My name is Kenny Wright," he said, "I was working for a landscaper. At MacGregor Downs? In Cary? Where rich people live?"
I nodded. I went to a party there once. White carpet.
"Wife and I just moved to Wilmington from Long Island and I took this job with this landscaper but then he had a fight with his girlfriend and then he had a fight with me and took off leaving me here and I got no way to get home. I need to hitchhike to Wrightsville."
"What about your wife?" I said.
"My wife's in Wilmington," he said, as if it were obvious.
"Um," I said.
Do I give off some kind of auditory signal that only panhandlers can hear?
"I can't drive you to Wrightsville. I have things I have to do. Anyway, I don't really know how to get there. I don't go anywhere. Much. I mean, I don't drive. Much. I don't actually do much."
Kenny looked steadily into my eyes while I babbled. His face said that it was my fault for looking directly at him, which was a promise of sorts to accept him as an equal human being who simply needed a little kindness--a promise that I was now breaking by not driving a strange man to the coast. And here I was, me, who calls myself a Christian, standing in front of a church, a church, and being offered an opportunity to open a certificate of deposit in the Bank of Karma against the day when I would be stranded, and all I could do was babble.
"But," I said, smiling brightly back at him, "I can give you some money to get something to eat."
I retrieved a crushed wad of bills from my jeans pocket. "Here."
He waved them at me and put them in this pocket.
"What's your name?" he said.
"Jane," I said.
"God bless you, Jean. Bless you, sir."
"Sir? Oh, ma'am. I mean ma'am. Have a blessed day."
"You too, Kenny," I said, as he walked away.
No wonder I'm broke.