IT WAS bitterly cold that Christmas Eve. I can't remember whether it was 1968 or '69, but I do remember how cold it was.

The late afternoon darkness of the early winter was ushering out the day, and my house was filled with excitement and anticipation as we prepared to decorate the Christmas tree.

My mother had to get some last-minute things at the deli, and wanted to get there before it closed. I decided to tag along with her because I had a quarter (a rarity for me in those days), and I wanted to get some licorice and a Milky Way.

My kids always laugh when I tell them this, but a quarter was big money in those days. Life couldn't be better: It was Christmas Eve, Santa was on his way - and I had a quarter in my pocket!

My mom parked the car in the Ivy Ridge Shopping Center in Roxborough, and I ran down towards Al's Deli to escape the cold. I slowed down when I noticed the blind guy sitting in his usual spot next to the soft-pretzel stand.

It seemed like he was always there. Nobody knew his name, so we all just referred to him as "the blind guy from Ivy Ridge."

He was overweight, with thick black hair, dark Roy Orbison sunglasses and a bristly stubble across his multiple chins. He just sat in his usual spot, pathetically shaking a tin cup that always sounded as if there was nothing more than a few coins rattling around in it. I always felt sorry for him, but, on this particular night, I was stunned to see him out in the bitter cold.

The blind guy was shivering badly, and wasn't really shaking the cup as much as simply extending his arm and letting his quivering body do the rest.

I asked my mom, "Doesn't he have anywhere to go?" She said she didn't know, and I could see by her expression that the sight of him in the cold was beginning to bother her, too. She reached into her purse, and gave him what she could before we both headed into the nearby deli.

I watched the blind guy through the window of the deli with my hands in my pockets. I rolled the quarter around in my hand as I eyed him and the candy display next to the cashier. I remembered some of the things the older kids used to say about him, that he wasn't really blind, and he was just out there shaking that cup to get extra money.

Besides, I thought to myself, my mom just gave him some money, so that counts as coming from me as well. Proud of my reasoning, I bought my candy, and Mom and I headed out the door.

The blind guy heard us passing, and said, "Merry Christmas." As I sat in the car and stared at the shivering blind guy, I regretted my decision. He looked very lonely as we drove away, and I felt as empty as his cup.

Christmas came and went, and I promised myself that the next time I saw the blind guy I was going to drop a quarter in his cup.

But each time I saw him, I convinced myself that I'd give the next time. When I finally did, it was mid-spring and the sound my quarter made as it hit the bottom of his tin cup was as hollow as the gesture itself. I thought that I would feel better, but I didn't. I knew I should have done it on that cold Christmas Eve a few months before, but I missed my chance.

I don't know what happened to the blind guy. As the years went by, I saw him less frequently until I never saw him again. I guess life is like that sometimes.

Christmas truly is a wonderful time of year, and it still has a certain magic about it that captures the imaginations of young and old alike. But, it's also a time of year to try and help those in need. It doesn't have to be money or a gift, maybe it's a helping hand, or spending some time with a lonely senior citizen, or just calling an old friend to tell them that you were thinking about them. Do it while you can, because, as we all know, there might not be a next time.

Even a blind guy from Ivy Ridge can see that. *

Christopher Gibbons is a local writer. E-mail him at gibbonscg@aol.com.