Every man's had slightly unwholesome dreams at one time or another, and Max's, he once confided to me, went something like this: if things ever got to be very bad for him -- a terminal illness, say -- he would make his exit doing the world some good. He would strap on some dynamite and tubes of brightly colored paint, and detonate in front of one of the white marble palaces that make this town such a tempting place for muralists of all kinds.

He was no artist, merely a cab driver, and the purposes behind the dream were always more moral than aesthetic; for he imagined himself as taking somebody with him in a friendly sort of way: at the last minute putting a chummy arm around a corrupt senator, a fleering lobbyist or louring mobster, and smiling for the camera.

Now, I'd have been more concerned about that fantasy of Max's if I hadn't been convinced that it was only a gentle dreamer's way of expressing the moral outrage he sometimes felt. Because Max was, and is, Toby Belch, not Iago, and ever hopeful that there will be more cakes and ale; and this in spite of the fact that he has been run over, stabbed, shot at, hounded by creditors and condominiumized out his living quarters in this town, and been obliged to live on the cheap all his life; a native Washingtonian, and thereby endangered; poor, and hence doubly endangered; no fool in the matter of which way the winds are blowing, or how violently; merely a cab driver who wishes no true mayhem on anybody, but only wants a quiet corner in which to enjoy his books, and maybe one electrical outlet to keep his crock pot boiling.

But I've been worried about Max lately, because the old capacity for indignation that sustained him for so many years seems to be guttering on its wick, and in fact he's shown no interest in recent public affairs. When the ABSCAM story about congressmen taking bribes broke, I thought, this will get him going again all right, and so I called him up to ask what he thought about it. All he said was this:

"It must have been pretty embarrassing for the men involved. To have their pictures taken like that, stuffing cash into their pockets, or fighting with their aides over who got to carry the briefcase with the $50,000 in it." He was about to change the subject to his own recent illness when I brought him up short.

"That's it?" I said.

"What else is there?" he said mildly. "It is just more of the ripping."

"You mean ripping off."

"No. Just plain ripping."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Everybody is ripping everybody else apart in this town," he said. "Everybody has got steel claws 10 feet long that come glittering out from the judges robes they have put on and they are ripping all the time. If you pick up the paper or look at television or walk into any government agency or special-interest group, it is the ripping full time, and to believe the self-appointed judges around here you would think that the president is a psychopath who has brought us to the edge of nuclear war to get himself re-elected; that the Supreme Court, none of whom is as smart as or as moral as a reporter, is a bunch of loathsome wimps; Congress, of course, is crooked; the labor unions are murderous and crooked; and management is guileful and crooked. Everybody is judge and executioner of everybody else. And it is all -- or most of it, anyway -- spiteful, malicious, self-righteous bitchery that rips and rips the hide off the country. And then turns with a somber face and tells the kids they ought to go die for it."

"We have got to have laws," I said.

"And entertainment," Max said. "Don't forget that. Now we can gnaw on every tidbit of the fool ABSCAM and let the national defense go to hell. Listen: I hope those congressmen did get the money, and I hope they keep it and enjoy it and don't have to go to jail. And you know why? My foot aches is why. And I like to think that somebody somewhere is having a good time."

"But it's your money," I said.

"And they are welcome to it; better that they should have a good time with it than that I should be buying a burnoose for some fool moralist of a G-man who is out to create crime if he can't find any. Look at what they tried to do to Pressler. Because, see, the FBI is like about half the people in this town. What they really want to find is . . ."

"What?" I asked.

The wire was silent for a long time. "Inner unrighteousness," he said at last. "In others, of course."

I didn't say anything.

"Or maybe they think that what La Rochefoucauld said about adultery goes for bribe-taking too."

"What's that?"

"'You can find women who have never had a love affair; but seldom women who have had only one.' But the truth is, between a thief and a moralist, I am ready to take the thief. And if the congressmen took the money, I hope they enjoy it." Then he went on to say that his foot was getting worse and that the doctors were so elaborately avoiding talk of amputation that he was afraid they had something bad in mind.

It was a few moments before I could bring myself to say, "Well, there's always the dynamite."

"Naw," he said. "That was a sick dream. But I never thought the rest of the town would dream it and live by it too."

"Maybe Washington's not as bad as you think," I said.

"Maybe not. All I know is that I can see myself getting out of the hospital and having no place to hop."

"You'll feel better when spring comes."

"I hope so," he said. "Good old spring."