Can You Help Me?

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One recent night I sat on a stone platform at the BART station wrapped in my warm coat.  My head was bowed, my mind on a scrolling news story on my iPhone. In my peripheral vision, plopped two misshapen bare feet. I looked up. He was dark skinned, about 50, his hair askew, his clothes ragged.

"Can you help me?" he asked.

It's a lot easier to ignore a homeless man when you are at the entrance to the freeway in your vacuum-packed Prius, or speed-walking on a downtown sidewalk. If you live here you long ago developed a policy.  You contribute to soup kitchens. You clink cash into the Salvation Army bucket. You cross the concern off your list.   But here on the BART platform my choice is starker: Ignore him or interact. 

"Twenty dollars, ten dollars, five dollars," he said softly.

If I hadn't been cradling my symbol of affluence, the iPhone, maybe I would have responded differently. I had the password to the good life and he didn't.  I snapped open my purse.  I could so easily have given him $20 - or more.


I counted out five singles.  Was I stingy?  Because no one else sitting on the cold, stone square was offering him money. My cash probably bought him a glass of red wine, or a hit of something.  

He smiled.  "What's your name?" he asked as he thrust his right hand toward me. I took his hand in mine and felt his sandpapery skin and his fingers curling inward. I looked at him and nervously smiled.

"Thank you, Carol," he said and then he shuffled away.

Maybe all I did was give him a speck of pleasure, of human contact and for a moment, alleviated my own pain. I boarded the BART train and sat thinking about the encounter.

A homeless woman bustled down the aisle with a large, plastic bag of clattering empty soda cans. As she clunked through the car she asked for money.

I looked at my iPhone, as if I were reading a news story. I didn't look up.

With a Perspective, I'm Carol Pogash.