I am an easy mark. When beggars see me, they always ask and I always give. I am going to have to wear a new mask.
A lean, bleary-eyed black man, his clothes wrinkled and covered with dirt, surveyed the people sitting on the bus-stop bench, hesitating. Then he caught sight of me and confidently sat down next to me on the grass, very close, with an air of friendly supplication..
"Hey man, you know how much bus fare is?"
"Eightly cents," I said foolishly, not asking his destination.
"I'm tryin' to get back home. I been in jail for two days. I just got out. And the police say they won't give me no ride home. They say they can't do that. No sir, they say they ain't 'lowed to do that."
"Well," I said, "I could give you a dollar."
"Don't want no dollar. Just want bus fare."
This was a new one. I had expected him to drink my dollar.
"Well, I could give you a dollar and you could go to the bank and get change."
"Well, I'll go get change then," I said, and I hurried across the street, feeling people at the bus stop watching.
"I surely do appreciate it," he said when I returned. "I know I'll never see you again, but if I do I'll pay you back. The police picked me up 'cause somebody looked just like me done somethin' wrong. I ain't never done nothin' wrong. I was just comin' home from work an' the police come an' say you under ares' an' I don't know what for an' they don't tell me nothin'. An' I say you can check an' you'll fin' out I ain't never done nothin'. I ain't had nothin' to eat for two days. I can't eat that s--- they gimme in jail.
"I ain't never done nothin' wrong," he repeated. "And it took 'em two days to check."
A bus rolled up. As the doors opened, he called to the driver from 20 feet away, "Hey, which bus to Crystal City?" He walked toward the bus cautiously, repeating his question until he was just behind a young woman who was boarding. Suddenly, the woman turned and called to me, "Nine A." So I was his keeper.
"You want 9A." I said.
"Ain't been but two weeks since I was robbed," he went on. "A man come up with a gun an'say you got to gimme your money. An' I say you can shoot me, but don't take my rent money. An he say he goin' to kill me if I don't. An' I go back to my boss an' say you ain't gonna believe this but I was just robbed, an' he say I jus' paid you and I can't help that. Hey, what bus number's that?"
"That's not in service, you want 9A."
"Where you goin'?"
"I won't live in D.C. Too many bad people."
"I'm not sure I like it myself. Are you from around here?"
"I'm from North Carolina. Willow Springs, near Raleigh. Been here about a month."
"How far is that?"
"Two hundred eighty-three miles," he said firmly, as though he had walked everyone of them. "I come up here to get a job. The pay is good.
"I cut grass," he said proudly. "Sometimes my boss, he let me off in the mornin' an' I do a lawn by myself. We got 50 people an' I'm the only one my boss trust. I know how to do it. You take a hill like this; if you put the blade in it, it will mess it all up. People curse you for that. They want it cut even."
He looked up at a man crossing the street. "Hey! I know that man!"
He called loudly, "Hey! Hey man! Come over here!"
"I'm late," the man said above the traffic noise.
"People around here is . . . weird," he said with resignation. His voice was cracked with sadness. "People you know act like they don't know you. I know that man. He come up from North Carolina. Like me. His daddy had a farm 'bout 15 acres an' my daddy had a farm 'bout five acres. His daddy worked hard. Now he come up here and he act like he don't know me. Last night somebody punched me in the nose 'round here."
"Who? A policeman?"
"No. Just some guy. He said gimme a cigarette. An' I said I ain't got but two cents on me an' two cigarettes, but you can have one. An' he say gimme both and he punch me. An' I couldn't do nothin' 'cept wipe my nose on my shirt." He gestured to his cuff.
"People 'round here act like they don't know you. I never know where I'm at 'round here. I got so confuse' at the police station I cried the whole time. I tol' 'em I didn't know where I was at an' they say you at the police station an' you under arres'." Tears welled up in his eyes. He wiped them with a bloodstained cuff. I tried to look away.
"Man, your luck has been bad," I said.
Suddenly his face was filled with a beatific smile. "My boss ain't but 20 years ole. But he trust me. He's white, but he got a lot o' sense." He grinned in approval "Hey man, what bus number's that?"
"That's my bus. You want 9A. I hope you make it," I said patting him on the back.
There are places where simple people do not belong. He is in my dreams now, and in my dreams I do not give him80 cents. I give him $80 and send him back to North Carolina.