Our old friend Tha Panhandler may be expanding from a one-man business into an umbrella enterprise that sells local franchises.

Either that, or somebody is stealing his stuff - using the same material, almost line for line.

I had just cashed a check at National Savings & Trust's drive-in facility at Wisconsin and Western. Before counting the money, I moved up one car length so that the driver of the vehicle behind me could pull abreast of the window.

Suddenly I became aware that a man approaching my car was talking to me.

"Excuse me," he said excitedly, "but do you live around here?" Logic told me to roll up the car window and lock the door because there was a bundle of cash in my lap. But a strong hunch told me, "Forget it. This guy is no snatch-and-run thief. He's a panhandler."

He wasn't The Panhandler. (I have seen The Panhandler several times.) But he was definitely a panhandler. Not the genuine article, but a good imitation.

"Yes," I lied with all the appearance of innocence I could muster. "It happens that I live right around the corner. Why do you ask?"

The "do you live around here?" line is merely a stopper. It has nothing to do with the scenario. Once the mark stops to talk, the story line switches abruptly.

"See that sign over there?" my road company panhandler asked, pointing toward the shopping center on the Maryland side of Western Avenue. "Would you believe that they siphoned all the gas out of my car over there?"

"How awful," I said as I gathered up the uncounted cash and stuffed it into a pocket. "Perhaps I can help you."

Suddenly he sensed that this was too easy. There was something amiss. For a long moment he stood up against my car door and peered into my face. Possibly he was comparing it to a picture he had seen somewhere. Meanwhile I glanced at my rear view mirror and noticed that the car behind me was waiting for me to get out of the way.

Should I invite him into my car so that I could listen to the rest of his pitch? Should I pull out of the other car's way and then go after him? Should I just let the other car wait while I tried to grab the guy and hold him for the cops? His age was half mine; it wouldn't have taken him 15 seconds to mop the sidewalk with me.

My decision was to go after him. I yanked at the handle on my car door, was restrained for a moment by the seat belt I had forgotten I was wearing, unbuckled the belt, and got out of the car. By that time he was disappearing around a corner about 50 feet away.

I got back into the car and began searching for him, but it was too late. He was gone. Now I'm kicking myself. If only the old brain had worked a little quicker I might have had a better story for you. The headline might have said, "Columnist Knocked Cuckoo by Unidentified Attacker; Police Baffled, Search for Motive."