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A Coin or Two, Anything'll Help

MY fund-raising guilt began on a subway ride to the dentist's office. Shelters for the homeless should have been an easy enough cause, I told myself as the train ka-thunked along. I'd had six months to work on my buddies down at Boston Garden for some of those autographed hockey sticks and ``Spend An Evening With Red Auerbach'' items the programs always list as priceless. The auction was a week away, and I had nothing to show for my fund-raising efforts.

I stared into the opposite window, studying the reflection of the morning's commuters as they swayed with the motion of the train. Dressed-for-success men deftly folded their Wall Street Journals into vertical quarters. Women juggled shoulder bags and Burberry's umbrellas. The car was filled with beepers, Walkmans, digital datebooks, black-tassle loafers and Cordovan pumps, perfectly knotted scarfs and monogrammed briefcases. At 7:45 a.m., all subway riders look like victors in the business of life.

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Almost all, that is. Two stops before mine, a man shuffled onto the train. His left hand clutched a beltloop on his hip, his right hand was cupped and held out, rigid. His voice was low, almost inaudible.

``Quarter for coffee. Anything'll help.''

It was not a plea, or a question, not a demand. It was just a quiet statement for all of us to act upon, or not.

His hands were red and cracked. The fingernails were too long, and etched with dirt. Noses behind newspapers angled away from his smell. I stared at my knees as he hitched by me and pulled my feet in when he passed. Instinctively, I clutched my shoulder bag tight to my lap, increasing the protective barrier between my discomfort and his need. I sat there, trying to make myself as anonymous as I wanted him to be, wondering how much of my guilt might be offset if I handed him a quarter.

He scuffed off at the next stop, leaving me to ponder more mundane thoughts for the rest of the subway ride. My morning schedule, for instance. My dentist appointment would start late, I figured. With luck, I'd get out by 9:30, right when the department stores open. I could pick up a couple of wedding presents and be back at my desk by 11. A silly mental exercise to keep that man, and my unease, out of my thoughts.

I got to the dentist's office early, as it turned out. My hygienist's first appointment had canceled, she told me, so would I mind getting started right away? No problem, I said. No dawdling, no cavities. Easy as dental floss. Done in a half an hour. Keep up the good work and see you in six months.

All this efficiency put me on the sidewalk, four blocks from the department store with 35 minutes to kill. The weatherman's partly cloudy forecast had turned to a heavy mist. I didn't need an umbrella yet, but I wished I was wearing a jacket.

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I thought about getting straight back on the subway, but decided that the chance to knock off two trips to the bridal registry at once was worth a wasted half hour, even a soggy one. Besides, I reasoned, I'd probably find a coffee shop on the way. Since I hadn't eaten breakfast, on account of the dentist appointment, a jelly doughnut suddenly seemed like the perfect thing this miserable morning. So off I headed.

There is nothing so dead as a downtown shopping street before the stores open. Pedestrian ways that bustle at lunchtime are manned by street cleaners and garbage collectors. Enticing glass storefronts are grated and locked. Big city blocks seem longer and colder in the early morning shadows. I walked quickly, pretending I knew where I was headed.

A coffee shop, a coffee shop, there must be a coffee shop, I thought to myself. All I wanted was to sit down some place dry. All I needed was somewhere to wait out the wet and to make my stomach stop growling.

Finally I found a fast-food restaurant, all plastic seats and florescent lights. It wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind. I knew places like this one from trips north on the interstate, pit stops on the way to weekends and holidays. I'd never been to one downtown. I didn't expect it to be filled with people like me.

That's when I knew what I was. For just that moment, I was just like everyone else in the restaurant: someone looking for a place to get out of the rain, a place where I could linger awhile without being in anyone's way. A person with nowhere to go.

It hardly mattered when I reached into my shoulderbag for my wallet and realized I'd left it on the kitchen counter at home.

Before, I was simply waylaid until the department store opened; now, I was lost. I had no money to buy a cup of coffee, let alone a placesetting in china or crystal. I had no credit cards for cash advances. I had no way to get anywhere. I was wet, and hungry. I needed a dime, a nickel, a quarter - anything would help.

I dug around in the bottom of my shoulderbag's zippered and Velcroed pockets and found, amongst the gum wrappers and decaying receipts, just enough change for a subway token. I could make it home with a nickel and six cents to spare. I would be saved the indignity of begging for what I desperately needed.

The auction made almost $100,000 for various charities that aid the homeless. Now when I ride on the subway, I carry extra quarters.

Anything'll help.

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