A 28-year-old Washington man who had tried unsuccessfully to become a Metrobus driver was arrested last night and charged with taking the wheel of an idle bus and driving it around his neighborhood, picking up passengers at random.

The arrest came after the "borrowed" bus was pursued through the streets of far Southeast by a regularly scheduled Metrobus, commandeered for the chase by an off-duty Metro police officer.

The officer climbed aboard an Eastover-bound P12, carrying 38 passengers, to begin the bus chase about 7:40 p.m. at Wheeler Road and Southern Avenue.

The wayward bus, based at Metro's Southeastern garage at Half and M streets SE, had turned up last night in the 200 block of Mississippi Avenue, on the other side of the Anacostia River, where its driver picked up a group of youths, and began chauffuering them through the darkened Southeast streets.

At one point, some or all of the youths got off, and the father of one of them, who had become suspicious, boarded the vehicle. His suspicions were not allayed when he found the drive wore no uniform.

The off duty Metro policeman, who had been in his private car, had his own suspicions aroused when he spotted the bus and noted that it was operating without lights.

Before long, both Metro and D.C. police had been notified, and several police cars had joined the chase.

The bus didn't speed, witnesses said, but neither did it stop.

About 8:10 p.m. in the 4400 block of Third Street SE, for reasons not immediately clear, the "borrowed" Metrobus braked to a halt. Its driver jumped out and ran.

Police, including at least one canine team, continued to search the area.

A few minutes later, at 4th and Atlantic streets, D.C. police arrested John Johnson, of 4309 Third St. SE. He was charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

Police said Johnson told them he had applied for a job with Metro three times, but had never received a response.

Only 10 days ago another bus disappeared for a few hours from Metro's Southeastern garage. That bus, too, was driven around the city for a time, apparently taking on passengers. However no arest was made in that incident, and authorities could not say last night whether there was any connection.