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I Accidentally Bought Back a Share of My Humanity on Wall Street

Won't somebody tell me?
Answer if you can,
I want somebody to tell me
Just what is the soul of a man
-- Blind Willie Johnson

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- There's a beggar, a woman in her early 40s, I guess, who's often in the Wall Street neighborhood. We got to know each other, by sight, when I worked here years ago, before 9/11.

Coming back to Wall Street last year, after a decade of being away, I ran into her and the same sort of pattern of acknowledgment started up again, with occasional conversations. She had also been away -- doing what, I don't know -- and had recently returned to the old occupation in the old neighborhood.

A few days ago, I was hurrying to the PATH train and she was coming the other way. I said "Hi," and she stopped, expecting a conversation. Miscue on my part. I had no time for that.

Well, I figured, I rarely give her money and that's what she does down here. Let me give her something to make her happy and then I can keep moving. Reach for my wallet -- all I have are $20s.

Now I'm stuck. Of course, she is watching me looking in my wallet. Every commuter knows you don't do that. You plan ahead, you have loose change handy in a pocket, or you ignore the beggars and keep walking. It's dangerous to pull your wallet out. Damned stupid thing to do.

But it's Christmas and this woman begs for a living. I am grateful -- consciously and consistently grateful -- that I've never been in that position for longer than the time it took to bum bus fare home as a young man. That's all it takes, a few hours. That'll put the fear of God into you.

I pull out a $20 and give it to her.

She gives me this look -- I've seen it before. Last year, when I recognized her on Wall Street and reminded her that we had met before 9/11, that I had been worried about her right after the attacks, I got the same look. Like I was something that was trying to fool her, a mirage.

I mumble something and try to leave. But now, with the $20 in her hand and that look on her face, she gently grabs both of my shoulders and pulls me in and down for a hug and kisses my cheek. Then she says: "Merry Christmas."

She knew the decision I had made -- my hesitation was transparent. She knew I wasn't a saint. But I had done the right thing in the end. That's all that mattered. For a moment, the distance between us -- the mirage -- vanished, and we became real people to each other.