Stand for a few minutes some mild Sunday morning at a bus stopin the Mount Vernon neighborhood, and the panhandlers converge. Then you hear a whining voice: ''Excuuuuse meeeee, sorrrrrr . . .''
You can ignore the beggar or give him change. A more instructive approach is to buy him a meal and hear his story.
Some panhandlers come across as glib liars, spinning spurious tales of woe. I recall one ''disabled'' beggar whose alleged disability left him looking fit and well-fed, and even allowed him to flirt with waitresses.
But most panhandlers I have talked with appeared to be ordinary men who landed on the street because of drink, drugs or domestic upheaval.
One grizzled white man was so thin and frail that he looked as if a sneeze could knock him over. He said he would rather sleep in a doorway than go to a shelter. ''Why?'' I asked. ''Blacks!'' he snapped.
A young black man spoke with me on a park bench about his predicament, blinking back tears for much of the time. ''I ain't no con artist!'' he said.
I believed him. When I offered to buy him a meal, he accompanied me into a nearby store and selected perhaps two dollars' worth of junk food. This is not the stuff of which con artists are made.
Sometimes I think of panhandlers I have met, and wonder where they are now, and what the future may hold for them.
Will something or someone lift them out of the deep, dark hole in which they have landed? Will they remain on the street until disease, drug abuse, drink, mishap or homicide ends their individual lives?
Or will society tolerate them for only so long, then deem them to be what Scrooge called, if I remember correctly, ''surplus population,'' to be ''decreased''?
Time and again in history, a society has chosen to reclassify a despised minority as expendable. Then the slaughter began.
America has done it, too. We still do it to one particular group, on a massive scale. Hundreds of thousands per year are ''terminated'' because we find them inconvenient. The task of filling up the blanks, I'd rather leave to you, as the Lord High Executioner says in ''The Mikado.''
Think of the Lord High Executioner the next time you see a panhandler. And ask yourself what you would do if a majority of your fellow citizens decided that beggars should be ''terminated'' for being unsightly and troublesome.
David Ritchie writes from Silver Spring.