The events described below were relayed to me by a woman who prefers not to be identified here. Let's just call her Mary.

As Mary crossed Connecticut Avenue at Ordway Street recently, she was approached by a man who asked, "Excuse me, do you live around here?" Before she could respond, the man went on, "Would you believe that somebody broke into the gas tank of my car and drained out all the gasoline - and on a day when I left my wallet at home?"

"I said, 'No, I wouldn't believe it,' and kept on walking," Mary told me later. "I recognized him as your old friend The Panhandler because he has given me the same pitch several times in that area, and also in the parking lots near Wisconsin and Western.

"I continued on to the Safeway store in the 3400 block of Connecticut, picked up a couple of items, and was checking out when The Panhandler came in and approached my cashier. He had $20 worth of silver in his hands and asked her for a $20 bill in exchange for it. She gave it to him, and he wrapped it around a wad of about $200 worth of other twenties.

"After he left, I asked the cashier whether she knew the man. 'I don't actually know him,' she said, 'but he does come in every now and then to get twenties for silver and singles.' Business must be pretty good for him."

Yes, apparently it has been so good for so long that he's now getting some competition. J.T.H. informs me that another panhandler was working 16th Street NW the other day, between H and K Streets, with special attention to the bus stops. This man's narrative was an exact copy of the original panhandler's, but there was one noticeable difference. This man was black.

Has the original panhandler begun franchising his idea? Can he sue, alleging unfair trade practice, if others copy his methods without paying a franchise fee? These questions may have to be settled in court, but at least it's nice to know that old economic barriers are falling and the white man no longer has a monopoly on bilking the public. Very good. What's next - a female panhandler?