We hear a lot lately about a thousand points of light; about a gentler, kinder America. For the most part, it's even believable.

Last week, though, I witnessed an example of cruelty that left me shaken, but unable to do anything about it. It was a petty act, probably performed from reflex, rather than any evil intentions.It was during a lunch hour. I was stopped at a light on a busy downtown street, two cars back from the intersection, when he started to cross the street.

The man seemed to be an elderly Native American, but it was impossible to tell how old he really was. His face had deep lines, perhaps from the sun, perhaps from the years.

His hair was pulled back under a once-yellow baseball cap. He wore a thin, but clean flannel shirt under a lightweight jacket, Levis and tennis shoes without socks.

I probably wouldn't have noticed him, except for the small box he clutched to his chest.

He walked slowly as if he were tired or had a cramp in his leg. But he moved with the light. He had only gotten about halfway across the four lanes when the light signalled yellow. And right then, he slipped on a piece of ice.

The man didn't fall down. Instead, his package slipped, spilling its contents all over the street.

Out bounced two small packages of rice, four onions and two or three potatoes.

The contents told his story: He was coming back from a nearby emergency food pantry, clutching his meager three-day ration of food.

As he bent over to pick up the food, the woman in front of me leaned on her horn.

He jumped, losing his cap; then he scrabbled across the road, leaving food and cap on the asphalt.

The driver in front of me and the one next to her didn't hesitate as they accelerated and reduced his potatoes and onions to mush. The car tires punctured the bags and rice trickled everywhere, mixing with the slush and oil.

When I looked around the man was gone, and I hoped he hadn't witnessed the destruction.

It's such a small thing. A couple of minutes for the man to gather his things and be on his way.

All week, I've been wondering about the woman who hit her horn. Was she late meeting a friend for lunch somewhere? Was she having a bad day? Was cruelty the cross she bears, as the man bears poverty?

I also wonder about the man - and what he had to eat for dinner.

Talk about a thousand points of light, about humanity and kindness and generosity is still, I believe, talk about the average American.

All year I have taken calls from people who want to give their time, their money or their odds and ends to help others.

But viewing unkindness from up-close, even for a moment, can shake your faith a little. It did mine.

*****

The Legislature's in full swing now and a number of issues are surfacing.

But as always, money will be the major topic in Social Services as programs vie for limited dollars.

Last year, advocates for various groups joined together to make sure everyone got a fair piece of the funding. It's too early to tell what will happen this year, but the results will effect thousands of Utahns.

Budget hearings for the department and for low-income medical programs will run Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Capitol through Feb. 1, and then the appropriations committee will examine Health Department budgets for a few days.

After that, lawmakers will make their budget recommendations. So anyone who wants to influence the committee's decisions should start right away.