ANOTHER DAY IN THE LOCAL BOOKstore cum singles spot. Well-groomed readers teem around the latest Tama Janowitz and the summer travel guides. Over in the research department, the front covers of the pop psych advice books stick out, worn victims of the lovelorn. My friend tells me this story:

Amid the cover photos of relaxed California psychologists and their bookshelf neighbors, the test-taking guidebooks, frenetic in their huge headlines and screaming colors, stands a slight, tweedy, stubble-faced man, out of season, out of place. He is clearly down on his luck, a street person who has found air-conditioned refuge. There is something vaguely Eastern European about him, and he is reading intently, has been for quite some time.

He is reading the dictionary. Page by page, down one column, up to the next. He is deeply immersed, oblivious to the lines being contemplated and tentatively delivered by anxious yups all around him.

My friend, just arrived in Washington, has spent several days pondering her responsibility to the homeless, the gantlet of beggars she passes every day now. Give to all, none, some? And now this man, so obviously enthralled with language.

"I thought it was so presumptuous," she says, "but I knew he must love words. As he was leaving, I grabbed a dictionary, bought it and gave it to him. He looked at me and said, 'Who are you?'

"I said, 'I saw you looking at the book and I wanted very much for you to have it.' He asked me to put my name in it. He said he wanted it but he thought he would get it next month. Then he said he had nowhere to put the book because he didn't have his suitcase with him."

The man took the $3.50 paperback, stuffed it in his pocket and left, a man in a wool coat heading into the August summer sun.