It was not without circumspection that I parked a rented car on H Street at 3.45 one Friday aternoon. "One-hour parking 8.30 a.m. to 4 p.m.," the sign read, and I took it to mean that after 4 p.m. the one-hour limit no longer applied. Looking up and down the street, I saw no other official word to disabuse me; but play safe, I paid the meter for a full 60 minutes.

The ticketing officer was just walking away when I returned half an hour later. He turned back to say, as if any fool should know, that I couldn't park there during rush hour. I protested that I was from out of town and didn't know anything about rush hour. He glanced down at the Virginia license plate and did not believe. The car was rented, I ventured to explain. I could tell that to the judge, the cop suggested as he walked away, leaving me with my ticket and a $25 fine.

The ticket offered the convenience of paying the penalty by mail. However, the fine print indicated that I might have a hearing if I presented myself at the Bureau of Traffic Adjudication. Friends, like Job's comforters, said any such hearing was bound to be a waste of time.Yet if there was any virtue in the District's traffic adjudication, the opportunity to "admit with explanation" was worth taking. I couldn't deny the violation; but I could, and needed to, explain it. On the following Monday morning, I took Metro to Judiciary Square.

I reached the bureau at about 11:30 -- not soon enough to be ahead of the horde that had come hoping for hearings during the lunch hour. Following posted directions, I took an elevator to the second floor, where a functionary stapled the number 40 on my ticket and nodded me toward a waiting room.

Together, we were a fair representation of our country's cultural pluralism; and through not friendly, we were a suspicious lot. Conversations tends to speculate on what they were going to do; and more than once, during not one but two hours' waiting, I heard advanced the notion that their purpose, simple but probably not pure, was to collect revenue.

Numbers 37-46 were called. We followed into an ample room, where the hearing officer occupied the judgment seat behind an impressively large desk. Identifying himself as David M. Godfrey Jr., the young hearing officer [perhaps 35] carefully explained the procedure we were to follow, advised us of our rights and urged us to offer any evidence we might have to bolster our explanations. When he had given two or three anxious members of the gang leaves to go outside and re-fund their parking meters, he proceeded without delay to the first case.

Number 37 gave his name and swore to tell the truth He was an Asian, and his English was tentative at best. Godfrey was patient. He repeated questions, phrasing them more simply with each repitition. Without putting words in the man's mouth, he helped him find the words to make such exlanation as he could. Godfrey saw fit to dismiss some of the multiple charges, but couldn't condone his driving around Washington in a car that had no brakes.

The next person was another Asian, a nervous one. Godfrey gave him time to settle down. Number 38's English proved to be more intelligible than Number 37's, but his explanation was no more satisfactory. The title to the car he had been driving was in question; so was his operator's license. Without being intimidating or scornful, Godfrey dealt firmly with him and moved on to Number 39, a young black woman.

Unsure of herself, Number 39 could make only a plausible explanation. Godfrey asked questions, listened thoughtfully to the answers. Then he sent her away to come back another time with documents to make a better case.

He determined that I was liable. My violation would be a matter of record, but my explanation he found acdeptable. He cancelled the fine and, with sensible admonition, let me go. I thought about the admonition as I made my Metro way back to those doubting friends, wondering how Godfrey could give such obvious advice without even a hint of condescension.

Portal to portal, the hearing had consumed 3 1/2 hours. My friends gave me a hero's welcome. I enjoyed that; but, of course, I wasn't the hero.