"I've got a little list for you," the cabbie said as I settled into my seat. "Just some things you folks may have overlooked."
"I appreciate it," I said, reaching for the piece of paper as he handed it over his shoulder. "We're always on the lookout for good news tips."
"Who's talking about news tips?" the cabbie said. "Just read the list."
I did. "Potholes, trash removal, brother-in-law's property taxes . . ."
"I'd appreciate it if you'd try to get started on the potholes right away," he said. "The trash is in the alley behind my house. What my brother-in- law wants is a reassessment . . ."
I suggested that since there was nothing of news value on his list, he might consider communicating with city hall or his Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
"What for?" he said."You guys run the city."
He showed me a Washington Post story on a woman called "One Hand Diane," an alleged narcotics "shooting-gallery" operator who had been arrested after a columnist wrote about her. "Read this paragraph," he demanded.
I read it. "Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. said yesterday that [Mayor Marion S.] Barry called him Sunday, the day the column was published, and told him, 'That's one shooting gallery that has to be closed down immediately.'
See what I mean?," the cabbie said. "The newspaper didn't mention the woman's address, but the police had no trouble arresting her. Obviously they knew all about her, just like they know about a dozen other shooting galleries, but they wouldn't make their move until The Post told them to."
I tried to explain to him that while city agencies occasionally rely on news reports to help them keep abreast of problems, it doesn't follow that newspapers actually have that much influence over day-to-day operations.
The cabbie was incredulous. "Of course you have influence; look at this," he said, handing me two more pieces of newspaper. One contained letters to the editor and an editorial on traffic scofflaws. The other was a news story announcing a police crackdown on speeders, jaywalkers and motorists who run red lights.
The news report also said the city would "put radar-equipped units into high-violation areas in each of the city's seven police districts on a daily basis."
"If the police didn't know there was a lot of red-light running, they wouldn't know where the high-violation areas were, now would they?" the cabbie said. "The only reason they're doing anything about it now is because the newspaper told them to. All I'm asking you to do is to tell them to fix the potholes on my street, and while you're at it, you might want to do something about all those dope pushers in the 14th Street area."
I tried to explain that the police couldn't arrest people just because they might look like dope pushers. "The law is very precise about the rules of evidence," I told him.
"Look, mister," the cabbie said. "You don't want to fix my potholes, just say so. But don't give me a lot of garbage about 'rules of evidence.' When your reporter got tired of the dope dealers in his neighborhood a while back, he just sat down at his typewriter and wrote about it. A week later, that neighborhood was clean as a whistle. The dealers are in my street now.
"The city gets a traffic problem, and all we get is explanations. David Brinkley gets a traffic problem and the parking rules change. That's power, brother, and all I'm asking you to do is take my little list . . ."
I tried once more to explain that while a newspaper can provide the information on which a free citizenry can base its decisions, the press cannot -- nor should it want to -- usurp the role of government.
The cabbie seeed to be listening, but I don't think he understood.
"You think maybe you could get me a new supercan?" he said.