It's Rule One: Never read books because your relatives like them. But your cousin called the novel you're holding "a great book," so you decided to take a chance. The same cousin also said the stock market would never crash, didn't he, Mr. Smarty? And now it's 1:45 a.m., and the novel is unspeakably wretched, and you have to be at work by 8, and why are you the only person in the whole world with a ninnyhammer for a cousin? You decide to read two more pages before bed. Your eyes start to shut. You fight to stay awake. Your eyes start to shut . . . .

"Mr. Levey?"

"Yes?"

"Mr. Levey, my name is McGeorge, and my business is cabs."

"Sorry, but I'm not looking to buy a cab, Mr. McGeorge. Come see me after my ship comes in. Like in about 300 years."

"Mr. Levey, I'm not trying to sell you a cab. I'm trying to sell you an idea."

"That's very kind of you, Mr. McGeorge. But I'm on deadline, my shoes got soaking wet in the rain and my wisdom teeth hurt. Besides, I don't pay for ideas."

"I meant 'sell' metaphorically, Mr. Levey. I meant that I have the solution to the problems of the D.C. taxi industry."

"Did you say 'the' solution? One solution? That's remarkable, Mr. McGeorge, because the D.C. taxi industry has a lot more than one problem. As the man said, let me count the ways. Drivers who don't speak English. Drivers who don't know where they're going. Drivers who smell like Blue Plains. Drivers who cheat and lie. Drivers who . . . ."

"I'm well aware of all those problems, Mr. Levey. And I say again: I have the solution. One solution. Would you like to hear it?"

"If you keep me waiting any longer, I'll think you're a cabbie and I just asked you to take me to Far Southeast."

"Mr. Levey, we need free cabs in Washington, D.C."

"(Deep, rolling, raucous laughter) Mr. McGeorge, my friend Peter sent you, right? You're from one of those places that does singing telegrams. Only Peter hired you and said, 'No telegrams this time. Just tell Levey something ridiculous so he'll die laughing.' Am I right? Am I?"

"No."

"You're serious?"

"Yes."

"Well, Mr. McGeorge, I guess in the interests of reportorial fairness, I'd better hear you out."

"Good. My notion is this, Mr. Levey. We have spent many years in this city debating the merits of the zone system, meters, surcharges, flat fares to the airport and so on. We could nullify all the factions and mollify all the passengers if we made cabs completely free."

"I hate to open this door any wider, but how would free cabs work?"

"Very simple. They'd be subsidized by the taxpayers. Cabbies would become city employes. There'd be no reason to troll for airport runs any more, because you'd earn a flat salary no matter where a run took you. There'd be no tipping, either. So it would be like boarding a bus."

"But my dear Mr. McGeorge, it costs money to board a bus."

"So it does, Mr. Levey. That would change, too. We would underwrite the entire transit system in the city -- taxi, bus and subway. All of it would be free."

"I hate to sound like some Capitol Hill bureaucrat with an adding machine, Mr. McGeorge. But have you costed out this mad idea?"

"I certainly have, Mr. Levey. For one year, free taxis in Washington would cost about $225 million. That assumes unleaded regular. If 10 percent of the cabs use unleaded premium, I figure $230 million. Reasonable!"

"Mr. McGeorge, it all sounds lovely. But here's some real world for you. We live under the thumb of the House and the Senate. They won't even give serious consideration to D.C. voting representation on the Hill -- that's how much respect they have for our problems. And you want us to go up there and ask for $225 million for cabs? That, dear sir, is not a proposal. That's an impossibility."

"But not if you wrote about it, Mr. Levey. You could bring it off. You could make it happen. Think of it! The crowning capstone of your career! Every time a cabbie took two Nebraskans to National Airport, and didn't charge $150, your bosom would swell with pride! Every time a cabbie crossed two zone lines and didn't charge for four, your heart would pound with righteousness! They would erect statues of your likeness! You would be the true champion to the cab-riding public! The true cousin!"

True cousin . . . . cousin . . . . The book slid off my lap and slammed onto the floor. I picked it up. The CIA was still trying to bump off the guy from the KGB, who was masquerading as a guy from ABC. Too many initials. Too little plot. I walked to the front door and locked it. As I did, a cab went past. "If you're from Nebraska," I whispered, to the unseen passengers, "you're on your own."