I wanted a Borsalino. Washington is not a great town in which to buy hats, but then few towns are great for that anyone.

Nevertheless, I decided to try a Borsalino, which is a soft Italian dress hat with the kind of 1930s panache you see on the late movies, William Powell or Humphrey Bogart gliding around trailing wisecracks and women.

So I asked around. I heard about a place that sold them. I called. Did they have one with a three-inch brim? Sure, come on in.

The guy behind the counter was one of these gray, bitter hat-store guys who can remember when a man owned two, three, four hats and kept 'em clean - back before John Kennedy decided he'd go bareheaded at his inauguration, him and all those blueblood gangsters running around like college boys, no hats, no topcoats. Anyhow:

"You got Borsalinos?"

"Sure, we got Borsalinos."

"Three-inch brims?"

"I'll show you what we got."

He shuffled into the back of the store like he was doing me a favor. Hat-store guys always remind me of the man in the candy store when you were 9 years old, and you couldn't make up your mind.

He came back with a stack of stingy brims, pinched little gray jobs you see on guys who look like they just got put on waivers by the Mafia.

"You said on the phone you had Borsalinos with three-inch brims."

The guy shrugged, sucked his teeth and stared at me as if I could take it or leave it. Hat store guys know how to hate.

I looked around the store. Cowering in the gloom of the stingy brims were cowboy hats, tweed caps, planters' hats, all those specialty hats men keep buying because they want to own them, but not wear them, the way The Great Gatsby turned himself into an intellectual by buying books. They fill closets with them - railroad caps, drill instructor hats, Australian bush hats, berets, fezzes, burnooses, Nazi coal-scuttle helmets . . . but they never come out of the closet. I didn't want a novelty item, I wanted a classic dress hat, a Borsalino.

I was walking out when I saw it in the window, burnt chocolate, three-inch brim, a ready-to-wear modular ago. Beautiful.

I lifted it off the hat stand, carried it back to the counter.

"This," I said.

The guy did a take, a double take, like a kitten looking in the mirror for the first time.

I realized what he was thinking: this guy's white , and he wants to buy this hat.

Yes, indeed. All of which goes to show that Washington may be a bad town to buy a hat in, but it's a great one to wear one in, because they'll say it to you on the street, genuine appreciation, popping their fingers and pointing, and saying: "Fine sky. Looking definitely good."

Which, hat-store guys notwithstanding, is what a hat is all about.