The first thing that came out of the envelope was a check for $20 that Children's Hospital had sent to an Alexandria man.

After heavy snow made it almost impossible for ordinary automobiles to use area streets last month, local hospitals sent out a plea for help. They asked owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles to haul nurses and other hospital personnel to and from their jobs.

The Alexandria man owns a Jeep. He had responded to the call for help. Now Children's Hospital was sending him a letter of thanks and a token of its appreciation. But the man wanted to return the check to the hospital because he knew of its need for money. "The people at the hospital were wonderful - warm, friendly, sincere," he wrote in a letter that accompanied the check. "The nurses and technicians were very appreciative. But the people of Washington were something else again.

"Because of their conduct. I will never again volunteer for such service.

"The snow brought out a majority of Washington's population, most of whom chose to turn the city's streets into parade grounds.

"They strutted, pranced, sauntered and lazed their way up and down major arteries and made it very difficult for vehicles to get through. They moved from the path of an approaching car with all the speed of a glacier. They repeatedly risked injury by moving scarcely two inches to the side of oncoming vehicles. One slip, one skid-and tragedy!

"Snowballs, thousands of them, were hurled at cars by children from 6 to 60. The rudeness, nonstop rudeness, was unparalleled. One man stopped his car in the middle of the block to chat with friends - for 10 minutes! Other drivers had the choice of waiting behind him or trying to break through huge snowdrifts to try to get around him. They waited.

"Drivers about to turn downhill into one-lane streets could see cars struggling to get up the hill, but instead of waiting for a few moments to give the uphill car a break, they completed their turns and set up confrontations. Several times I had to back down to the bottom of a hill to let other cars through, and then I'd start back up.

"At one point, two drivers stopped their cars in the middle of an intersection, got out, and slugged it out like Ali vs. Frazier. One driver told me that as he inched up a hill, a pedestrian reached out and deliberately, people whose chidren we were trying to help were turning an act of love into one of the most difficult, trying, maddending and occasionally frightening events of my life. Even now, more than a month later, my anger rises and my feelings of frustration remain acute. I will not volunteer for such service again."

I will return your check to the hospital, sir, but I hope your anger will be diminished by additional reflection on the reasons for the conduct that caused it.

For many people, the snow brought unexpected happiness. It was a good excuse for not going to work, for participating in a carnival-like celebration, and perhaps for enjoying winter sports.

These happy people didn't give much thought to the possibility that others on the street might be en route to urgent assignments. Human beings are self-centered and tend to make their judgments in terms of their own needs and preferences at that moment.

For example, when we're in the mood to have fun at a party, we consider 11:30 p.m. early. The night is still young. But when we're sleepy and have to get up early the next morning, 11:30 p.m. is very late. We tell the revelers in the next apartment to cut down the noise or we'll call the cops.

A man who is enjoying a winter carnival can block traffic for 10 minutes while he chats with a pedestrian because when he's enjoying a day off he assumes everybody else is also on holiday. Similarly, a man embarked on urgent business has no understanding of, or patience with, a dawdler who blocks his path.

In short, we humans are not very good at empathizing. We don't spend much time or effort on trying to understand the other fellow's views, needs preferences or predicaments. What else is new?

UPDATE

Remember how quickly Mayor Barry solved the pothole problem a month ago? I have bad news for him.

The patches have disappeared but the holes are still there.