On one of our trips to Key West, Fla., many years ago, my wife Ann and I were walking from Mallory Square along Duval Street on the way to our hotel.

On one of our trips to Key West, Fla., many years ago, my wife Ann and I were walking from Mallory Square along Duval Street on the way to our hotel. A scruffy guy was sitting with his back against a lamppost, his legs stretched into the sidewalk.

We dodged his legs and I caught a glimpse of the sign he held. It said, "Iím not going to lie, I need a beer." He had a cup beside him for donations.

Iíd already passed when the message registered in my mind. Let me say it was late. I was tired, so my brain wasnít operating at its usual blinding speed. Not.

I told Ann I should go back and give him some money as a reward for honesty. Since our culture seems to be slipping into a sea of duplicity, it was refreshing to see someone maintaining a toehold on the truth, even if those toes peeked through worn out shoes.

I didnít return and have somewhat regretted it, although I have managed to handle my guilt. But since that day, Iíve paid more attention to panhandler signage. These folks have stories.

Driving through Orlando, Fla., we were caught by a stoplight. A guy at that intersection held a sign proclaiming he needed money to eat and was seeking employment.

My first instinct screamed that I was being conned. But then it dawned on me, "So what?" Iíve wasted a ton of money in my life, so why not assume this guy was telling the truth? I handed him a $20 bill and felt good about doing so.

I write about our Las Vegas trips but have never mentioned that among the sights and glitz there exists an ugly underbelly in plain sight. The overpass from Ballyís to Billís, and then on over to Caesars Palace, is a gathering place for all manner of panhandlers.

I ignore most as I pass, other than giving silent thanks for my extreme good fortune in life. Sometimes, I try to imagine what chain of events couldíve put them on this hot concrete bridge in 102-degree Vegas heat.

Iím certain none of these folks dreamed of holding signs and begging for money. Of all the silly college majors that are being born out of the self-esteem industry, Iíve yet to run into a BS (so appropriate) degree in panhandling, which seems to be a growth industry today.

Occasionally, I drop money into a can. Although I know most of this stuff is drug-driven, I pick and choose based on some ridiculous assumption I can mystically divine who among them is contribution worthy.

I feel for them, but charity is double-edged and should be directed toward needs rather than wants. If itís too readily available, self-reliance dies. It can reward in the present but kill in the long-term.

Thereís a reason the National Park Service admonishes visitors not to feed wildlife. If they get used to it, and you try to stop, they get mean.

Otis Gardnerís column appears here weekly. He can be reached at ogardner@embarqmail.com.