George Dorsey found that by "adopting" one beggar -- a man named Charlie -- he was able, at least on a personal scale, to make a difference {"Goodbye Charlie," Close to Home, June 10}. Would that all the men and women who beg for a living had such a kind patron.

Five years ago, I dropped out of a promising career as a writer and actor after losing both my parents. Ironically, at the time of their deaths, I had been doing research for a movie script I had been writing about a street hustler. I had hung out with panhandlers and shared their stories. I had even tried soliciting change in New York City, but usually with a blues guitar or an Irish accent as a prop.

But the first time I panhandled in Washington, it was in earnest, and it was in January of 1986. A minus-20-degree wind whipped through Dupont Circle's Metro entrance where I huddled, without a guitar, my trouser legs ragged and my lips too frozen to mimic a brogue. Two hours of begging netted me just 35 cents.

During that time, I slept in a former neighbor's unheated garage, in the subway (Metro had not yet installed barriers) or at the Gospel Mission. On days when I had more than $8, I'd take the bus to Laurel racecourse and try my gambling prowess. But I never had any luck. I'd ride back to city on the bus, slumped in my seat and drunk.

At the corner of 11th and H streets, where the shoppers were thick, I'd get off the bus and find a spot where I could do my shtick. I'd writhe and moan on the pavement, pleading for coins in a stagy accent. But I projected so much self-loathing that I think it rubbed off on "my public." Perhaps a third of the people who saw my performance gave me money. Perhaps one, at most, two, a day -- usually smartly dressed young professional women -- bothered to talk to me about my indigent state.

Fortunately, I never lost my desire to get off the streets, and I would talk about my aspirations to write and play the blues again with a street buddy known as "Fatty." It was Fatty who dubbed me "Sidewalk Surfer."

Talking to Fatty about leaving "the life" was my way of enduring some of the indignities of the street, like the raucous din of the food line at the McKenna van at Connecticut and M. More than once I witnessed a near-homicide at the "Roach Coach" over who was getting more of the greasy soup being ladled out.

One day, perhaps after hearing about my dreams one more time, Fatty asked me if I was going to be the Sidewalk Surfer forever. "I'm comfortable with what I'm doing," he told me. "I pull in enough to make me happy. But you look like you'd rather be someplace else."

His words got me to thinking.

That and seeing my pal "Jazzman" get loaded into a police wagon, tape deck full of Count Basie and all, for blocking the sidewalk.

That and being stopped and questioned by police as a possible burglary suspect in my old neighborhood.

That and being scowled at by bus drivers, cashiers, practically everybody.

Eventually I went for counseling at the North Center in Georgetown, a branch of the D. C. Department of Mental Health. I came to realize that panhandling was a degrading trap.

That was five years ago. I have a "straight" job now, and I write in my free time. I'm even working on a book I'm calling "The Panhandler's Guide to the Cosmos." I continue to visit panhandlers who haven't yet found a way out. Unlike George Dorsey, however, who wasn't sure he believed his panhandler's story, when panhandlers tell me how they fell upon hard luck, I take their words at face value.

Except for my friend Fatty, whom I regard as the Lao-Tze of Longfellow Park, most of the panhandlers I talk to very much want to rejoin conventional society. Rather than our japes and stares, they need our assistance in this enterprise. Whether it's with clothing, donations, medication, a job, counseling or even subsidized shelter, we should get on with helping the homeless.

-- John Kris Earnshaw