Recently I heard from a reader who had been inspired by a column of mine that appeared last January.

Had it helped him climb the corporate ladder? No.

Had it been useful at all? No.

It had dealt with the subject of excuses for lateness or absence, and it had moved him to become an excuse collector.

It seems that he is usually the first person to arrive at his office in the morning, so he gets to answer phone calls from coworkers who are prompt with their explanations instead of their attendance. And once it became known that he was collecting alibis, other people in his office began passing along examples.

Eventually he sent me a sampling of his collection, and one of its fascinations is that in each case the excuse-maker is identified by initials . . . so you can discern some interesting patterns.

A. B. (not the real initials) is a victim of buses. "Bus ran out of gas." "Bus hit a cab." "Unsafe bus, impounded by state trooper."

C. D. is bedeviled by his or her car. "Clamp missing from muffler." "Flat tire." "Radiator broken."

E. F. has a tendency to attend the birth of someone else's child. "Am substitute 'coach' for woman having natural childbirth. Husband on road and baby being born. Have to go to delivery room."

On another occasion: "Neighbor's wife to have baby any second. Italian immigrants need me to translate at hospital."

G. H. faces tragedies of varying degree. "No water in faucets." "Broke sunglasses." "Cat died last night." "Daughter's car blew up."

The most common problem for this particular group is quite humdrum -- waiting around for an electrician or mortgage appraiser, or a plane that's snowed in. But horrors crop up, too. "Dog filling up with water. Taking to vet immediately." And: "Had to go to morgue."

I couldn't help asking about one particular excuse: "Meeting a fence to buy some 'hot' merchandise." But I was assured that this was neither a joke nor a prevarication. An employe whose car had been broken into knew some underworld types, and put out word that she would buy back her car stereo and other items that had been taken, with no questions asked. Within a few days, she had a date with the receiver of her stolen goods.

This confirmed my gut reaction to the whole list of excuses. I don't see it as a sign of rampant dishonesty at all. What it shows me instead is that all of us -- more than we usually realize -- are possessed by our possessions, depended on by our families, friends, neighbors and pets, and at the mercy of nature and fate.

Life has no respect for office hours.