THE LADY IN the next chair pounced on me almost as soon as I sat down in the beauty parlor.

"Girl, have you been reading the papers? All this stuff about these ex-con politicians?"

"Do you mean former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel and former Michigan congressman Charles Diggs?"

"Of course, all over the papers all week. And the difference in the way they're being treated! It's too much! Here's Mandel who sold his favors for gifts and money getting the president to cut his sentence after staying in that country club of a prison in Florida."

"Well, Diggs was convicted for mail fraud and lying," I said.

"But he served his time -- at some prison farm deep in Alabama. Now those tacky ol' people in Maryland won't even give him an apprentice license to work on dead people in their state! But they gave that other crook a hero's welcome when he got back to Maryland and a job offer with the city government in Baltimore even though he ended up with some construction firm as a consultant."

She said she knew what was occurring. "They're just picking on Diggs because he's black."

"Hold it a minute," I said. "Don't always jump on the race angle, now. There are four blacks out of nine on that Maryland Board of Morticians and that 5-to-4 vote against Diggs included one of 'em. Maybe it was something else."

"Okay, Miss Smarty, you tell me what else."

I loosened the collar of the multicolored smock and glanced at the green plants hanging around the room.

"Well, maybe the folks in Maryland are just nice to their own fallen politicians, not those from other states. Maybe Diggs should have gone back to Michigan where he had more cronies, the way Mandel has in Maryland. Mandel belonged to them."

She stopped me right there. "You ever heard of freedom of movement? He can live wherever he likes. All he's trying to do is get back into the undertaking business and Lord knows Prince George's County needs a black undertaker. They don't have but one in the whole place. But this board says Diggs' morals are too bad."

"Well, funeral directors do handle a lot of money at a time when families are very vulnerable and stressful. But I don't think it's right to imply that Diggs would steal from bereaved families."

"Well, I agree with his lawyer, Clarence Mitchell, who said that Maryland has always been biased against black folks."

"Well, maybe his lawyers should have taken a more creative approach," I suggested. "They knew some on the board were concerned about his moral character. Maybe they should have met the board's fears head-on, told the board that Diggs would set up an escrow account or something, let a bank or outside source oversee all of his financial arrangements for the first year or so."

She stood up then, causing the operator to nearly drop the rollers she was putting into her hair.

"Did Mandel take a creative approach? There's nothing new about getting your sentence cut back. There's nothing new about getting a job as a high-paid consultant. But Diggs' only license, that one in Ohio, is running out soon and this hearing doesn't come up for weeks. I guess the state of Maryland would rather have Charlie Diggs as another unemployment statistic, huh?"

"Sit down, now," I said soothingly. "The Congressional Black Caucus is helping him."

"Well it makes me mad. This man did at least make a contribution to his country -- he helped better America's relations with Africa. I know that much."

"Well, Maryland has a history of being kind to convicted politicians. Remember a guy named Dale Anderson?"

"No, I don't remember no Dale Anderson and my point is that Maryland is kinder to some convicted politicians than to others."

"Anderson was the former Baltimore County executive who served time for accepting kickbacks from architects and engineers seeking business from the county. But he was given a license to practice real estate."

"See, see, I told you! Was he black or white?"

"White, but don't forget that Diggs gets another chance at a later hearing. Maybe they'll come to their senses."

She just looked at me and started singing the Melvin Van Peebles' song, "This Ain' America, Is It?" And when I left, she was still sitting there muttering about the nerve of some people, giving one fallen ol' pol a hero's welcome at the very same moment it's giving another the bum's rush. Some people just won't be rational.