He often stands at the top of the subway escalator. He's bearded, unkempt, smelly, with mottled skin and tattoos on his arms, and invariably polite. At some time in life he must have had an interest or a goal. He doesn't now, other than to cup his hand in hope that people will drop a penny, a dime or more into it.

Two days ago, he was there and from at least one rider he got the usual quarter. "Thank you, sir," he said.

Later in the day, he was still in the station entry area, but he had passed out, a bag with an empty bottle of cheap wine at his side.

Should that Metro rider have given the quarter? Clearly the man, one of our street people, was and is an alcoholic, and the quarter fed the habit. Some have said observing similar donations, "Why give him the money? He's only going to spend it on booze."

That brings to mind the memoirs of the late Fremont Older, the greatest of San Francisco's crusading editors and a personal hero. On commuting home in the evening in the early 1930s, Older would encounter derelicts asking handouts. Older would invariably toss a silver dollar -- today worth perhaps 10 times that much.

Friends remonstrated, giving him the "only going to spend it on booze" line. Older waved them aside, as I recall his memoirs, and said something like "if the poor devil needs it for that, let him have it."