In the parts of San Francisco I frequented, the homeless and the panhandlers became part of the scenery. Perhaps it was due to the scale of the place: we all seem smaller when crowded into the canyons created by tall buildings. The crowds themselves diminish any individual. It became a simple thing to quickly walk past a shabby soul, just another among many.

It’s different here in Durham, especially on Ninth Street, where I met Dr. T, The Kid, and her boyfriend for lunch today. Ninth Street is a few blocks from part of the Duke campus, home to independently run shops and cafes on one side of the street, and a burgeoning invasion of corporate capitalism on the other. Generification aside, there is still a small town feel to the stretch of the street where we met for Vietnamese food.

Which is why the woman seated a few doors down from our restaurant was so easy to spot.

“Can I ask you a question?” she said to Dr. T and me as we walked  by. I stopped. “I’m hungry” she went on, “can you spare anything?”

Cynicism and compassion do-si-doed within me. “I have no cash,” I replied truthfully. “But I do have a debit card. If you like, I will buy you a sandwich.”

This seemed to stump her. Briefly.

“I was really hoping for something from Mc Donalds” she finally replied. (Never mind that Mc Donalds was blocks away.)

“Okay. But if you are still here and you are hungry when I get back, I will buy you a sandwich.”

And off to lunch I went.

The rest of my little group rolled their eyes at my account of our conversation, and we went on with our meal.

After lunch, as I walked back to my car, I saw the woman again. I felt honor-bound to stop. “Sandwich?” I asked. She thought for a minute. “I will let you buy me a coke. A real one. None of that diet stuff.”

“Okay.” Into the closest restaurant I went. I ordered the Coke. “Pepsi okay?” asked the young woman behind the counter. This was getting complicated.

“I’m not sure. It’s not for me.”

Back outside. “I know some people are very picky, ” I told her. “They don’t have Coke. Is Pepsi alright?” I sensed the group seated at the table next to us snickering at me.

“Pepsi’s fine. Just not diet.”

I returned to the counter and completed my purchase, with my debit card.

“Here you go. Take care of yourself, ok?” I handed her the Pepsi. “Yes ma’am. Thank you.” “You’re welcome.”

Pondering, I walked to my car. I knew the woman had probably not really been  hungry, but what was the harm in offering some food, if she was? My initial offer had been as much of a challenge as anything else. Her response intrigued me. At that point, it became clear that she wasn’t looking for food, but she seemed to be trying to save face- either mine or hers, possibly both. It had just gotten harder for both of us after that, hadn’t it?

I had to honor my original offer. Who knows what really went through her mind when I came back? I wondered whether she felt that she was somehow doing me a favor by letting me buy her something. Many of us recognize that people enjoy feeling that they are helping; she could know that too. Had she not hesitated so long at my second offer of the sandwich, this wouldn’t have crossed my mind.

The Coke/Pepsi question just makes me laugh. There I was, buying a beverage for someone I didn’t know, who may not have even wanted it, and I had to fret over whether I was making the right choice. One way to see it would be, “Hey. A free drink’s a free drink. Who cares?” My way was, “Why would I offer you something you don’t like?” I don’t drink Coke or Pepsi, but I do know that many people have deep loyalty to one or the other.  This woman, a person like any other, had a right to her own preferences.

Perhaps the table of hipsters, and maybe the woman herself, interpreted my action as another instance of middle class, middle aged guilt. I see it as good manners.

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