An old friend calls from Chicago. His son the 18-year-old save-the-world political activist is taking a year off from college and is thinking of spending it in Washington.

"Will he be seeking his fortune here?" I ask.

"Only a fossil like you could use an expression like that," my friend replies.

I counter-reply that it takes a fossil to know a fossil. He counter-counter-replies with a boatload of colorful language that I won't repeat. To stop things from degenerating further, I agree to talk to the young man about living here.

He gets off on the wrong foot by calling me "Sir."

I tell him that his father used to play poker with me, and when it's 3:30 a.m., and the smoke is hanging heavy, and everyone smells like yesterday, there's no such thing as a sir.

He apologizes. I can feel him warming up. I ask him what he'll be doing in Washington.

"I don't know," he says. "Looking for a job, I guess. Probably on Capitol Hill. That's what my Dad suggested, anyway."

"Your Dad still thinks this town is the way it was in 'Advise and Consent.' Your Dad probably thinks Dick Daley is still mayor of Chicago."

"Harold Washington is mayor," the kid says. "That much I know."

"Here's how much I know. The Hill is the last place I'd look for a job right now. It's an election year, so all the scared incumbents -- that's a redundancy, by the way -- all the scared incumbents are going to want experienced people around. Besides, the Reagan administration is a lot less powerful than it was. There'll be skirmishing on the Hill this year, but not much legislating. It'll be like mud wrestling, not like civics class."

The young man said that was okay with him. It would beat the heck out of selling tickets at the campus movie theater, he said.

I played a hunch. The young man had really wanted to take a year off right after high school, I guessed, but he didn't dare because he was afraid of what the old man would say.

The kid exhaled audibly and said yup, that's right.

"You did well to wait. You've spent a year in college, so at least you know what you're rejecting. But there's another reason. When you look for jobs in Washington, you'll find it makes a difference whether you've had a little college or no college."

The young man asked whether the Hill hires people with a little college.

"Not usually," I said. "You might get a menial job. But your Dad says you're more political than that."

"Yes, I am," the young man said. "And I've been thinking that if the Hill won't hire me, maybe I can hook on with a presidential campaign."

"Whose?"

"Well, I don't know. I'm a little afraid to commit to one candidate. You know, after what's been happening, somebody might uncover something, and I'd have to start all over."

"That's not much of a risk," I said. "When Hart crashed and burned, most of his people caught on somewhere else in a matter of weeks. Same with Biden's people. They weren't afraid to start over. Why are you?"

"Because I'd like to find one candidate I can trust. I say that to people at school, and they laugh at me. But I don't want to give in to that kind of cynicism, you know? I still think the political process is the way to get things done, you know?"

I said I knew.

"So I was hoping that maybe you could give me a little advice about which candidates are the most principled," the young man said.

It was my turn to exhale audibly. I started with the Republicans.

"Concentrate on Bush and Dole. Forget everybody else. I think they're both principled in the best possible way, the same way Mondale was principled. They've made up their minds to campaign as themselves. If that isn't good enough to win, well, at least they'll be able to sleep at night. At least they won't owe their souls to some media consultant."

The young man cleared his throat. He was more inclined toward the Democrats, he said.

"Oh, yeah, right, sorry, your father said that. Well, I'd say Jesse Jackson is looking more and more like a candidate who'll be around at the finish line. He'll need staff, especially of the lean and hungry variety. Gephardt and Dukakis have the money to last for at least a while. If you trust candidates under 40, Gore is doing well enough to last through Super Tuesday, at least. And Babbitt might be around till Christmas."

The young man thanked me. Then he asked me which candidate would win.

"Did your father tell you to ask me that?"

"No, but he said you'd have an opinion. Then he said to take that opinion and throw it right in the trash, because you're always wrong about politics."

I told the kid to tell his father I'm out of the predicting business. And I told him to look me up when he got to town. I may not know presidential winners, I told him, but at least I know a place or two to have a decent lunch.