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Just do it: Be charitable to those in need during the holidays

Enjoy your blessings but recognize there any many ways to help people

If you’re in the area and looking for a good time, join me at Monday’s Winter’s Eve that’s centered on Lincoln Square on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I’ll be the little black man with a big smile on his face.

Once Thanksgiving flings open the door to Christmas, Winter’s Eve in New York draws me closer to the open fire of the fall and winter holidays, the season of hope, caring and giving.

Like Christmas lights, the free event is strung along Broadway from Columbus Circle to 70th Street. It features indoor and outdoor live performances: klezmer to classic Christmas carols. Meanwhile, people from Indiana to India will fill the streets, noshing on everything from hot apple cider to baked ziti.

Each year, I try to attend the 3½-hour event, which starts about 5:30 in the afternoon and includes a Christmas tree lighting across from Lincoln Center. Sometimes, I’ve had my wife or son with me; other times, I went to the event with the holiday spirit as my sole and soul companion.

Last year I went alone, and something I saw has stayed with me. I was on my way back home to New Jersey, walking on Broadway or a nearby street in the 50s. A young white woman stooped on the street, putting the contents of a grocery bag onto the sidewalk. A few feet away, a regal older black man sat in a chair as the white woman arranged the contents of her bag at his feet.

I don’t know whether the black man and the white woman knew each other. I don’t know whether the woman’s kind gesture was happening for the first time or whether it was something she did all the time.

Neither the man nor the woman looked at each other. With the innocence of a schoolgirl and the focus of a tax attorney, the woman looked down at the food containers she was putting on the street. The man looked over the woman’s shoulder, perhaps back to a more prosperous past or forward to a more secure future. The three of us were the only ones on the sidewalk.

Neither the man nor the woman spoke. The sounds of the city fell away.

Silent night.

I took in the whole scene the way people who live or work in New York City learn to: in seconds and without breaking stride. To stop and look would have been an intrusion on something sweet and sacred: the kindness of strangers, especially during the holiday season.

Decades ago, I learned not to see panhandlers, especially men. I’d moved to New York and worked in midtown Manhattan. For a time, I took change to give to the men who asked me for money each workday. It was the 1980s, and the New York panhandlers were relentless and ubiquitous. I felt for them, especially the brothers. Some looked like my grandfather. Some looked like my father. Some looked like me — their plight could have been mine, or might yet be mine.

But after a while, I recognized that even if I adopted just one man to subsidize, I couldn’t make a real difference in his life with my “spare change.”

Besides, going into one’s wallet on big-city streets makes you vulnerable. And, if nothing else, New Yorkers quickly learn not to appear vulnerable.

Since I made my decision not to give panhandlers money on the street, I’ve resolved to support policies that keep men, women and children from landing on the street. A lot of things, including low wages and high rents, play a role in putting people on the street. So does our continuing failure to treat people who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse.

Consequently, I’ve made contributions to organizations that serve the homeless and the hungry. And as a longtime newspaper columnist, I’ve championed changes in society that I think will get people off the street and food in their bellies.

Still, I know that what I’ve done hasn’t been enough. And I don’t know what would be.

On Monday, I’ll revel in the splendor of New York at Christmastime. I’ll sing the carols of the season. I’ll celebrate the many different kinds of people who populate New York and America. But I won’t give panhandlers money or food.

But I’ll remember a young woman who did. She might not have saved the regal brother who sat on a chair in the middle of a city sidewalk as if it were a throne. Nevertheless, she made sure he’d eat for one silent night, maybe more. I’ll think of her generosity and applaud it anew, although she’ll never hear it and doesn’t need to.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.