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.