Question from a reader in Reston: Will our Metro ever operate 24/7/365?

Not if the current economic cloud doesn't float out to sea, my friend. Do you know a local jurisdiction that wants to pony up bucks for more salaries and more electricity? I don't, either.

But the problem may be more fundamental. We're simply not an all-night burg. We never have been.

By way of contrast, New York (where subways came of age) is a 24-hour town and always was.

Of course, this is a chicken-and-egg riddle. If trains were suddenly available all night in Washington, ridership might surge. But I doubt there's much pent-up (or potential) demand.

First of all, bars close at 2 a.m., and that's not about to change. Besides, trains already run until that hour on weekends.

Second of all, tourists have long since gone beddy-bye by the time the clock strikes midnight. Even if an unconventional tourist wanted to ride the subway so he could see the sights in the wee hours, he'd have a tough time.

Monuments and memorials are mostly closed. Those that are "open" (like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) are hard to see in pitch blackness.

Third of all, this is an early-rising city, and has been since the days of George Washington.

When I ride Metro at 7 a.m., as I do most weekdays, it's sometimes hard to get a seat. My fellow commuters are not all-night revelers who are finally calling it quits. They are well-scrubbed worker bees, fresh from the rack, heading for the cubicle once again.

Washington has always put limits on its late- night raucousness.

I'll never forget my first year as a police reporter at The Post, back in the 1960s. The police busted an after-hours betting emporium downtown. Yours Truly covered the story.

Seems that a bunch of the fellas would migrate to this place after the bars closed. Precisely one hour of illegal debauchery was scheduled each evening -- between 2 and 3 a.m. The game always ended at 3 sharp so everyone could get home.

Can you imagine such restraint in Las Vegas?

As for ladies who play for pay, Washington has always had them. Even in the early 19th century, when Congress met for only two or three months a year, prostitutes would flock to taverns and hotel lobbies so delegates to this citadel of democracy wouldn't feel so, um, alone.

When my wife and I wrote a history of local Washington three years ago, I was stunned to uncover a quote from a madam of the 1790s. She said that without the services her ladies provided, "Washington couldn't exist."

By the time the 20th century rolled around, some madams had rolled out houseboats on the Potomac River. But even houseboat brothel managers knew that this was a city of appearances. The boats never stayed open all night, because customers needed to get home.

One evening in 1905, a houseboat called "Madame Rose's Dream" lost its moorings because of a storm. It floated a mile downstream before it ran aground on the Virginia shore (there's a picture of this memorable event in our book).

Much commotion ensued, but not because safety was particularly threatened. Reputations were. Many patrons aboard the "Dream" were prominent politicians. Then as now, they were desperate to avoid publicity.

In Rome, Buenos Aires or anywhere else that really knows how to revel, a beached boat would have been treated as an opportunity. Another round of drinks would have been poured and the party would have rolled on, until daybreak.

Yes, of course, if our subways ran all night, there'd be passengers who aren't johns or prostitutes. But even busboys and security guards prefer to drive home from work at 4 a.m. And at that hour, they have a shot at avoiding the most dreaded local social disease of all:

Traffic.

Here comes most of an e-mail message that I received Nov. 20. Names have been withheld to protect both the guilty and the innocent.

"I don't know Mr. XYZ. In fact, I've never met him," writes Ms. ABC.

"But this morning, at the Court House Metro, around 9:10 a.m., I found his 'junk mail' scattered all over the platform.

"I now know that Mr. XYZ lives at (Full Address, Including Apartment Number).

"I know that he has gotten a Capital One Platinum Visa offer . . .

"I also know that Mr. XYZ flies United Airlines. As a matter of fact, one of the papers he casually left on the ground had his frequent flier number on it. Suppose I called up United and asked for the last five trips Mr. XYZ had taken? I could certainly start tracking him if I wanted.

"Fortunately for Mr. XYZ, I'm not a stalker, and plan to shred his papers this morning at work.

"Bob, would you please share with your readers that the Metro is NOT the place to be opening and discarding your mail? Even if [Mr. XYZ] had put it in the bins provided, there are lots of people who go through the trash in Metro, looking for their favorite part of the newspaper.

"Suppose one of these people liked to entertain himself by doing identity theft?"

Warning issued, Ms. ABC. Just one quibble.

You say that Metro provides bins. Not always true. In fact, the system still offers fewer than half the bins it had before Sept. 11, 2001.

Metro says bins are being reinstalled. But a snail must have landed the contract.

My hunch: Mr. XYZ didn't want to litter or tempt an identity thief. He gave in to temptation because no bin was nearby.