"Where to, sir? Transition Towers?"

The cabbie's phony politeness tipped me off that he was up to something, but I couldn't figure what.

"And what, pray tell, is Transition Towers?" I asked after telling him my destination. "Is that some sort of snide reference to the Justice Department and its new attorney general? Are you talking about Capitol Hill, where so many chairmanships are changing hands? I'm afraid you'll have to explain your little joke."

"It's no joke," the cabbie said. "If you read your own paper, you'd know that the city has signed a contract for $1,095,000 to lease an apartment building it wants to use as a 'transition house' for people who are trying to get off of public assistance."

I told him that, while a cabbie accustomed to $2 runs might not think so, $1 million isn't really a lot of money for a large city agency to spend, particularly if the goal is the worthy one of nudging people toward independence. "Why," I demanded, "do you insist on calling the building Transition Towers, as though it's some sort of unwarranted luxury?"

"I only know what I read in the papers," the cabbie said, "and the papers say that million-dollar building will house 70 young adults. If you translate it into rent, that comes to about $1,303 a month per unit. Sounds like a pretty luxurious transition to me."

I was frankly shocked at the cabbie's attitude, since I can usually count on him to defend outlays for the nonrich. I thought he would welcome a serious attempt by a forward-looking city administration to break the cycle of dependency. Had he suddenly gone conservative on me?

"This is not about conservative and liberal," he said. "It's about making sense. It does not make sense to spend a thou a month for dormitory rooms and efficiencies when that kind of money will get you a furnished studio apartment with room service in Georgetown."

He handed me a copy of the newspaper article with several paragraphs underscored in red. "Read this," he commanded. "Fifty-eight foster care wards for young adults coming out of the court system and 12 efficiencies for single mothers and their children. Does that sound like it's worth a thousand a pop?"

In the interest of fairness, I read him the part that he hadn't underlined, the part that said the building will also house offices of the transition program as well as a cafeteria and kitchen. They also plan a day-care center, residential quarters for counselors, rec rooms -- a lot of stuff, I told him. "It says here that the idea is to have a concentrated range of services designed to help young people learn to live outside an institution -- "

"By putting them in an institution?" he interrupted.

" -- by providing them counseling and training" I went on, trying my best to ignore his rudeness. "It also says here that all these young adults, aged 19 to 24, will have to be employed while they are in the program and that they will also pay rent."

"A thousand a month?"

"Well, on a sliding scale, depending on their income."

"It still makes no sense to me," the cabbie said. "A million dollars might not sound like much to you, since you are on a salary and don't have to worry about where the money comes from. But for someone like me, who has to hustle for every dime, it's a lot of money.

"I'll tell you what. You put it in your paper that you know this cabbie who has a better idea. Tell them that if they give me the million dollars I will buy 70 brand new cabs and teach these young folks how to drive them. I will even pay for their taxi insurance out of my profit. That way, they learn to cope with the real world, some car salesman makes a bundle, and your favorite cabbie will be on the way to becoming a rich Republican. I'll even call my company Transition Taxi Service, if you think that will help."

"And what will these people do for housing?" I demanded.

"The same thing I do," the cabbie said.