THE OLD MAN LEANING AGAINST THE LIGHT POLE GOT STRAIGHT TO IT.

"I need a drink," he said. "How 'bout a dollar?"

I was a step past him, but I stopped cold. Without even thinking, I tossed back my raincoat and dug into my pocket for a buck, then turned and gave it to him. He smiled at me brilliantly, and I imagined that I understood him -- a man down as far as you can go, but still stubbornly proud and honest.

"All right!" the old panhandler said, dancing.

True to his word, which I like in a man, he headed for the liquor store. I'd have been disappointed if he'd crossed the road to Popeye's for lunch.

Now I ask you, what has just gone on here?

A LOT OF YOU ARE READING THIS AND GETTING ANGRY, AREN'T YOU? YOU'RE

thinking, "He gave a dollar to some wino so the man can keep being a wino for another day!" You people who are thinking this, you never give even spare change to a panhandler, especially if he looks like he might spend it on booze. You won't contribute to that poor man's demise. You've even told this to friends as they reached into their pockets for a quarter -- just to let them know you aren't cheap or hard-hearted, but philosophical about these panhandlers. It's for their own good! Isn't it?

But others of you aren't worried about the booze. No, you're wondering if this panhandler was young or old, dressed raggedy or decently, looked strong or frail, mentally healthy or confused. You're wondering whether he was . . . deserving. You hate the idea of being conned, so you always look keenly for hints of secret prosperity. Only the truly desperate get your dollar.

Finally, some of you don't care what this panhandler said or how he looked. You just give, no questions. Because the act of giving isn't so much for the panhandler as it is for you. Two bits -- and you are redeemed.

And me? Well, I have my own needs. I like my panhandlers to show a feisty creativity. I'm a sucker for "My limo's got a flat around the corner" or "I forgot my wallet at the mansion." This real or feigned confidence affirms for me the human flame I like to imagine burns within us all, no matter what the circumstances.

Let's admit it, panhandlers are for most of us not real people. They are mirrors: We look into them and we see ourselves -- what we value in our lives and our characters. All of it inevitably shaded by how much we wonder whether someday it could be us doing the begging instead of the giving, us being judged instead of judging.

Truth is, you and I don't know a damned thing about the panhandlers around us. We know only what we imagine -- and our imaginings are of our own making.

IT'S A NICE SUNNY WINTER DAY, WARM ENOUGH FOR JACK- ets, though most people are wearing overcoats. From the corner of Connecticut and K to a block up Connecticut, two panhandlers are working. One is a short, scruffy, middle-aged man sitting on a stool against the wall, a hand-scratched sign held before his face: "I'm Hungry Homeless And Cold. Please Spare Something. Have a nice Holiday Season. Thanks. God Bless." He's not doing a booming business, but Stan, that is his name, says he can make $10 in two hours here.

Just up the street is a smiling, middle-aged woman panhandler, Louise, who sings gospel music while holding out her cup. She's a fixture next to the Perpetual Bank automatic teller, and she seems to be doing well. For no good reason, I suppose, I go back to Stan, make a $2 contribution, step aside and watch the passing, prosperous parade.

There are three types: people who look at Stan and give money, people who look at Stan and don't give money, and people who don't seem to notice that Stan is there. I start with the people who notice, most of whom chuckle when asked why they did or didn't drop some money in Stan's cup.

"I usually give them a little money if I recognize 'em," says Helen Gounaris, a nicely dressed woman who didn't give Stan any money. "If it's a real cold day, a dollar. Otherwise, 50 cents or a quarter. I hate to pass anybody by. If their cup's empty, I give." She mentions that she is a Catholic but says her religion makes no difference in this matter. Then she says, "I just don't pass them by. Christ wouldn't pass them by, would he?"

A young, professionally dressed woman, Lee Payne, 33, stops and drops a little more than a dollar in change in Stan's cup. "I don't judge by what they look like," she says. "They're there. A lot of my friends feel they ought to be working. I don't feel I can know that. I give them a couple of bucks."

Her job: poverty-law lawyer.

They keep coming along like this, person after person who either gives or usually gives. Graham Smith, a 37-year-old computer manager: "I threw something in yesterday, 50 cents. Sometimes, I feel like a soft touch, but I'd rather feel soft than mean. It's compassion. But that's probably a highfalutin term for guilt."

Colleen Craig, 26: She walks past and doesn't contribute, but when stopped, laughs and says she was just calculating whether she'd have money for the Metro if she did. Colleen says she gives panhandlers about $5 a week.

"Once I went to Hardee's and got sandwiches and gave them out," she says. "I was angry about something in the office and decided to do something for somebody else. It puts things in perspective -- I'm angry at something stupid and there's people on the street! My friends think I'm awfully naive. But what other people do, that's up to their conscience. I do what's right for me."

Wait a minute. I'm doing something wrong here: Too many of these people usually give money to panhandlers. Where are the up-by-the-bootstrappers who despise these beggars? Then it hits me: I'm stopping only those who look at Stan. And if you look -- if you allow yourself even to acknowledge the presence of a panhandler -- you are more likely to give. The 9 out of 10 people I see walking briskly past Stan, seemingly oblivious, never turning their heads, never locking their eyes with his, they are faking it!

Sure enough, I stop 11 people who seem not to have noticed the gospel-singing Louise panhandling up the street, and 10 of them had either heard her singing or seen her out of the corner of their eye. But they had concealed this as they walked past. It turns out that those who ignore are very different from those who don't.

"She irritates the hell out of me," says a middle-aged woman who works in public relations and who acknowledges that she did notice Louise. "I always want to turn to her and say, 'Why don't you get a job?' I just walked past a man I saw with his head down, and I was just thinking about going back and giving him a dollar, but I didn't."

"Why not?" I ask.

"I don't know."

Then she tells this story: Years ago, when she was poor herself, she once tried to hire people at minimum wage to scrape the old linoleum off her kitchen floor so she could redo it. But no one would ever stay to finish the job -- it was too hard and they'd inevitably leave after about an hour. Says the woman, "I sometimes look at these people and think, 'You SOB, would you come out and scrape up my linoleum for minimum wage?' "

A 37-year-old man, a lawyer, acknowledges that he, too, saw Louise, though he pretended not to: "She's younger. She probably ought to be working."

A well-dressed 21-year-old man says, "I heard her." He then says that he does sometimes give to panhandlers. "I feel good about it," he says, "like the big king, judging whether they're worthy or not, whether they're on drugs. If not, I normally give."

A middle-aged man, a lawyer, says he also pretended not to notice the woman: "I give to the police boys' club every year and pay taxes. There's a soup wagon, McKenna's Wagon. It comes every day. That's my policy. I'm a Scrooge maybe."

And the grand finale: A man and a woman who don't look at the panhandler and who appear to be very prosperous -- him with a cigar, her with a bright shopping bag -- won't slow down for questions.

"We're not interested," says the man curtly.

"In most cases," says the woman with equal warmth, "it's a scam."

One man, Lloyd George Cummings, 84, a retired farmer, says he really didn't notice the woman. "I didn't see her," he says, "but I don't give 'em money. If you got enough get-up-and-go, you don't ask for money."

Then out of the blue, he says that as a boy in Lenox, Ga., when he was about 12, he borrowed a dime from a man to buy some gingersnaps. When he returned to repay the loan, the man was gone. "It bothered me I couldn't pay that man back, still does," Cummings says. "I was too proud for that. I just figured maybe I'd see him someday, and I could pay him back then."

But what does this have to do with Stan or Louise?

Not much, not much.

They are empty vessels. We fill them up.

ANTHROPOLOGISTS ACTUALLY MAKE CAREERS STUDYING the kind of thing that has just gone on along Connecticut Avenue. For instance, George and Sharon Gmelch spent a year with the Irish Tinkers, a band of gypsy-like beggars in Dublin. They found that the Tinkers know from their own field research that the most consistent givers aren't the well-off, but the working class and working poor -- those who know it can be a short step from working for a living to begging for it.

Something like that is going on in Washington, too. A Washington Post poll done for this article, for example, shows that black people and people with less formal education -- which usually translates into lower status jobs and low-to-middle incomes -- tend to give to Washington panhandlers most consistently.

A friend of mine, who is a highly paid professional but was raised poor, puts it this way: "It could be me. I was almost there as a child. My father lost everything. So I know there can come a time when, against your will, the whole foundation of your life can give out, and there's not a damned thing you can do about it." When this man looks at a panhandler, he sees his father -- and he is fearful that he sees himself. BUT AS EVER, REFLECTIONS AND REALITY HAVE A WAY OF colliding.

I came out of the Farragut West Metro station the other night, and a young man in a battered green raincoat and jeans with holes in the knees said, "Quarter for a Coke?" He looked like a rummy. I gave him a dollar. He said, "Gonna buy a Coke, gonna buy a Coke." As he turned and walked away, I recalled this remark from a young woman: "If I could be sure they'd buy food, I'd give it to 'em. But all they want is liquor, and I'm not going to contribute to more disruptiveness on the street." I admit to being suspicious myself, so I followed the young panhandler as he walked down 18th and across I Street and up the other side. Then I watched him dash quickly up the steps into Colonial Liquors. I think I sighed at that. I went up the steps, too, and hung around near the beer cooler until I saw him reach the counter.

Now, this is a test -- not for this panhandler, but for you and for me: What do you imagine -- given your needs and your biases, your philosophy of life and the certainty of your prosperity -- what do you imagine this young man bought?

A Coke? Cigarettes? Wild Irish Rose? Ten High?

Well, he bought a Coke!

Just as he had said, he bought a Coke. ::