They were an All-American family--a mom, a dad, a boy about 5 and a girl about 3. They were standing in Lafayette Square, looking worried. "Must be tourists who are lost," I thought. So I walked up and offered to help.

It took only a few seconds to steer them toward the Washington Monument, where they had left their car. I was getting ready to bid them all sayonara when the mom said:

"Let me ask you something. Is everyone here as friendly as you?"

My first instinct was to tell her she had the wrong guy. Me friendly? Me, that surly grump who gets on the bus in the morning and clomps his briefcase onto the next seat, so no one will sit next to him? Me, the grouch who can't utter a civil word until he's had two cups of coffee? Me, King of the Short Fuse, who snarls when the paper boy or the plumber is three minutes late?

"Ma'am," I said, "you flatter me and you embarrass me. You looked like you needed help, that's all. I did what anyone who lives here would have done."

"Oh, no, you didn't," she replied. "Before the kids were born, back in the early '70s, we came here for a week's vacation. I've never seen a place so cold. We would ask directions, and people would walk away without saying a word. We would ask cab drivers not to smoke when we were in the cab, and they'd tell us to take another cab if we didn't like it. I think Washington has gotten a lot friendlier."

"Maybe you're right," I said. "The '68 riots made everyone awfully nervous for a number of years. Ten years ago, a stranger walking up to you and offering to help might have turned out to be a mugger. Now, he still might be one today, of course, but I think it's less likely. I think there's a greater sense today that we're all in this together."

"We'll tell the people back in Athens, Ohio, about you," said the dad. "You're a real credit to your city."

"Don't be silly," I said. But funny thing: I felt better the rest of the day.