I know this can't be true, but when I was growing up in Philadelphia in the mid-'60s, there seemed to be only one panhandler in all of downtown.
During the week, he stationed himself near the subway I took to junior high school. He was a tall, slender man with just one leg and a beard like shredded pieces of steel wool. He sold No. 2 pencils from a cigar box.
You were supposed to give him money and not take the pencils. I didn't know that. Once in a while, I'd give him a nickel and reach in the box and take one of the No. 2s for math class. He'd smile as if I was his grandson grabbing an extra biscuit at Sunday dinner. I'd smile, too.
After a while, he was gone. I missed him. I could tell time by him. When I saw the man, I knew I was 12 minutes from school. Besides, I could count on him for pencils.
Even now, when I return to Philly, I look for him, ready to smile. And that's a strange thing. Because while I look for the pencil man, I sometimes seem unable to see the legions who have taken his place there and across the country.
Not only do I not see them, but I often don't hear them either, their plaintive calls for spare change like a faint knock against a door I've closed forever.
I usually don't give money to people on the street. As a lifelong city dweller, I just don't think that's safe. Instead, I give money and clothing to the organizations that help the people I sometimes don't see or hear. But I know I'm not doing enough.
For that reason, I support the politicians who say they want to help these people. Mainly my candidates lose. Folks who don't seem to care about the homeless vote against my candidates.
I know I should be doing more:
* Every time I'm in a big city, where the nation dumps its throwaway lives.
* Every time I allow myself to see and hear the people I've become expert at ignoring.
* Every time I become, for a moment, as good as the kid who bought No. 2s from the pencil man.
I knew in Los Angeles when I walked through a cardboard Hooverville, just three blocks from city hall. A man lay sleeping like a baby on the sidewalk, another man's gentle and protective gaze the sleeping man's only blanket. Next door, in another cardboard stall, a woman scrubbed her jeans with a toothbrush she dipped in a bucket of water, as if she were trying to wash the pain and suffering out of her life.
I knew in New York when I went to a record store to kill time. There was a man sitting on the sidewalk. He sat on the ground. Maybe he had legs. Maybe he didn't. He swiveled his body like a carousel, twisting and turning to offer his blue-and-white coffee cup to passersby.
"Please," his expression said.
Most people passed the man on one side. I passed the man on the other. His cup did not runneth over.
I went into the record store and spent $60. I came out and faced the man's silent pleas. My compact discs felt heavy in my arms. I gave him a dollar in an attempt to lessen my guilt at buying what I wanted without regard for what the man needed. His cup still was not full.
Quickly, I was asked for money by three more people. I closed the door on them. I let a cold stare say no. It was easy.
A woman seeing it all came abreast of me and spread out her palms as if to say, "If you're silly enough to give a guy money out in the open in New York, you've got to expect that word will get out pretty fast." Her frown continued: "Now you have them all thinking they might get some money from us."
I knew in Boston, when I asked my 3-year-old daughter why she was so quiet in a restaurant, and she said, "I'm thinking about the man."
I said, "What man?" having quickly forgotten we'd just passed a man lying on the Back Bay sidewalk.
Although my daughter spends much of her life in a world of talking yellow birds, this she couldn't believe. This she couldn't accept.
"He's not safe," she said, as if the man's safety was my responsibility.
Three days later, my daughter told me she was still thinking about the man. I had not been. She pulled $16 out of my wallet and asked for a dollar. She wanted to buy pretzels. I said no.
She said please.
"You have so much, you could give me one dollar."
It was then I thought about the man.
Jeff Rivers is associate editor of the Hartford Courant.