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'Excuse me?" The whispered question was faint amid the bustle of a Friday evening sidewalk. Wrapped up in my own impatience to get home, I didn't realize he was speaking to me.

"Excuse me, miss," he said again, a little louder this time but still breathless, difficult to hear against a backdrop of rush-hour traffic on wet pavement. "Could you possibly spare some change so that I can get something warm to drink?"

"Sorry, no." My automatic response was out of my mouth before I'd even looked up into moist, blue eyes. I saw hope there, and watched it melt into disappointment as his gaze dropped.

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He smiled then, and nodded without looking up, gesturing apologetically toward me with his hand. "That's okay, thanks anyway."

I watched him shuffle off, shoulders hunched under a tattered backpack, ankles - white as fish bellies - visible above unlaced sneakers, head bowed against the rain or the judgment of strangers or both. I was struck by the fact that he didn't stop to ask anyone else. He just kept walking.

I've grown immune to the requests of panhandlers, wearing my cynicism like a suit of armour.

The form of the approach is irrelevant; I've seen them all before. There is the conspiratorial request, one addict to another: "Can I bum a smoke?"

Or the silent act, suitcase displayed like the stage prop it is, plea scrawled in black ink on a piece of cardboard; "Stuck and broke. Anything would help."

Even the occasional attempt at originality feels forced and false: " 'Scuse me, ma'am. Can I interest you in providing just a small donation so I can get totally toasted today?"

If I had a dime for every time I've said, "Sorry, no," I'd never have to work again.

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I tell myself that I say no because I can't say yes to everyone. I tell myself the few cents in my pocket wouldn't make a difference anyway. I tell myself that my donations to all the assorted charities dedicated to helping the homeless are enough.

The truth is, I'm irritated by the intrusion. I just want to get to where I'm going without someone trying to guilt me into passing out coins like so much Halloween candy.

But those moist blue eyes wouldn't leave me alone. They haunted me as I stood there in the rain, waiting for the bus. I saw that open face looking expectantly at me. I saw the immense effort of asking etched in the lines between his nose and mouth, visible in the tremor of his lip, audible in the hesitancy of his voice. I recognized him, even though I'd never seen him before.

With what felt like a twisting of my heart, I remembered the $10 bill in my pocket, change from a lazy lunch spent bitching with co-workers over beer and nachos at the pub down the street. I looked up the sidewalk to see if I could spot the tattered backpack. I imagined catching up to him and tapping his shoulder. I pictured surprise on his face as I slipped the bill into his hand and felt the gratitude of his smile as I walked away without a word.

I shook my head and smiled at my own idle musings.

Still, I stood on tiptoe and craned my neck to get a better look up the street, past commuters and shoppers, around groups of teenagers gathered in packs, but I couldn't find the backpack. I reached into my pocket and fingered the crumpled bill. It felt like a piece of scrap paper.

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It hadn't been that long, I thought. He couldn't be far. Maybe he'd turned at the intersection; he might be just around the corner. I hesitated for a moment, questioning the wisdom of chasing a homeless man down a dark side street. I considered the possibility of missing my bus and the dreary half-hour in the rain until the next one. But the corner was only a few steps away, it would just take me a minute to walk over and have a look.

I paused and wondered, holding onto my indecision like an umbrella. I shuffled in insulated, waterproof hiking boots, remembering sock-less feet in lace-less sneakers, and looked up to see my bus splash to a stop at the curb. Just another sheep in the herd, I joined the queue of commuters jostling for position, hoping for one of too few seats.

Staring at the seams running down the back of the cashmere coat in front of me, I fondled the $10 bill in my pocket and thought how handy it would be come lunchtime on Monday. I caught my own reflection in the bus's fogged over window and, with throat and cheeks burning, lowered moist blue eyes against the gaze of strangers.

L.A. King lives in Victoria, B.C.

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