March with its promise of a new beginning, is a good time to reaffirm that New Year's resolution that's beginning to cause strain -- staying on the wagon, resisting the cold beer with the salami sandwich at lunch, the dry martini before dinner, the couple of Scotches to take you through an evening. In short, watching the nickels pile up.

It's a good time to get things straightened out, buy a new jacket, clean out the closets, work on the taxes and get right with the system.

But does the system let you get right? Hardly.

There's a panic call from a daughter in Boston saying that some clerk at HEW has threatened to wreck her credit for life unless she pays back her college loan.

A trip to the Credit Union to allow them to take another bite out of my salary straightened that out for awhile.

A stiff Scotch would have helped to dull the anguish, but a promise to oneself is nevertheless a promise.

There was that night a few weeks back during one of Washington's mini-blizzards when the tire went flat and was changed with numb fingers while sitting in the wet snow.

The ride home was cold, damp, and longer than usual as I licked my dry lips wondering how a hot buttered rum would taste, as it killed the chill that ran through me.

Peering into a kitchen cabinet, a cup of hot chocolate formed for a brief second in my mind, but was canceled out when I realized there had been no milk in the house since the last kid left home two years ago.

So I sat staring at the piece of lemon in my tea, waiting for it to cool just a bit, wondering how just a dash of rum would help the bitter taste.

The tire was repaired in the morning and I headed downtown.

Leaving the office in the dark and cold that night the spare that had been replaced the night before was flat. I gave up and headed home in a cab.

Starting at the "medicine" cabinet on the back porch I pushed the Scotch aside and opted for the ginger ale.

The tire was changed and repaired the next morning.

When I tallied up for the cab, the tow truck and tire repairs it came to $23.

While glaring at my soft drink during lunch I wondered when those nickels were going to start piling up.

The first winter I owned the car I had a clue on damp mornings that it was hard to start.

I used all those tricks they advertise on television but a few days later on one cold morning, the car refused to start.

Irritated, I went to the kitchen, stared at the Bloody Mary mix but drank the orange juice.

I reread the morning paper and, being persistent, went out to try to start it again.

A tow truck happened by, bent on another mission, and I signaled it to pull over.

I was off and running in a few minutes, $10 lighter than when I woke that morning.

Well, a couple mornings later, still leading the good life, I found a $10 ticket on the windshield for an overdue inspection sticker.

"Whoever looks at those little things," I though as I sent the $10 check in right away.

I knew car repairs cost money because the summer before when there were only 9,000 miles on the meter I had to replace the exhaust system at a criminal fee.

The manager at the foreign-car repair shop was complaining about the high cost of heating his home, when he handed me a bill for $170.10.

"This calls for a drink," I thought while driving home, just to dull the sting. But I settled for Gator Ade purchased a few days before along with some god-awful pineapple-and-coconut mixture.

That evening when I arrived home there was a letter from the insurance company saying they were canceling my policy because of a traffic infraction that took place two years ago and a more recent one when I tapped the car in front of me to the tune of $15 damage for the glass on my headlight.

Later, as I sat sipping the pineapple mixture and reading a mystery with sounds of "The Exorcist" coming from the room where my wife was watching television, I wondered which side to take.

Rising early the following morning to head for the inspection station, the car started up right away. It felt good and smug.

Somewhere near the Mall I was startled to see a flashing light behind me.

The cop was firm when he asked for my papers. What had I done now?

"Overdue inspection sticker," he said.

Shown the garage bill and pointing to all the old greasy parts the repairman left on the floor of the front seat, I explained that I was headed for the inspection station.

He left for his car with my license and registration in hand and returned 10 minutes later saying, "How do I know you're going to the inspection station?"

"Because I'm due at work on the other side of town at 10, so why am I way over here at 9?" I answered.

The line to the inspection station on Half Street was, as usual, long and slow.

After paying $170.10, I was confident I would breeze right through.

I watched the guy at the other end of the inspection scrape off the old sticker and then slap on a rejection sticker.

There is no appeal.

The grudging explanation was a slight slash alongside the left front tire.

So it's back to the garage to spend a lot more money for new tires, then the long, lonely ride down to Half Street to wait once again in a long line, this time lacking confidence but showing the proper humility.

But I've remained true to my vow and as I sit drinking papaya juice on the rocks, there's a song that keeps rolling around in my head -- Louis Armstrong singing, "Ole Rockin' Chair's Got Me" -- and the line that keeps coming back is, "Pass me that gin, son, 'fore I tan your hide."