"Well, I guess we're next," the cabbie said. "Looks like they just don't want a poor man to make a living."

"All right," I sighed, settling back for another harangue. "What has Ronald Reagan done to you now?"

"I'm not talking about Reagan. I'm talking about the D.C. government. Here they sit with the highest unemployment rate in the metropolitan area, and what do they do? They go and put most of the street vendors out of business. Next thing you know, they'll be after us poor hackers -- won't be happy until we're all on welfare."

It was a low blow, and I told him so. The rules that went into effect this week say nothing about putting vendors out of business, I reminded him. The point is that vendors need regulation the same as any other business. "Without regulation," I said, "you could wind up with sidewalks completely blocked off by free-lance merchants selling everything from leather coats to PCP. In short, you could have one ugly and dangerous mess."

"Did they have that kind of mess before Wednesday?" the cabbie asked. Was anybody selling dope from pushcarts? And what's this 'ugly' business? Are you saying a pushcart of a certain dimension, with wheels of a certain size, is prettier than a card table with a nice cloth over it?"

That wasn't what I was saying, I told him. "My point is that the city has the duty to keep the sidewalks passable and also to demand a certain esthetic standard."

"Right down to telling the vendors how they can paint their carts?" the cabbie demanded. "And why tell them they have to use pressure-treated wood? If the cart rots out, that's the vendor's concern. It's one thing to say you can't have rotted-out carts on the street. It's something else to go into the kind of detail the city has put out there. You can sell this, you can't sell that, you can only have so many carts in a block, and the wheels have to be so big and no bigger . . ."

"The trouble with you people," I said, "is that you have no understanding of economic reality. Without shop owners -- drugstores and craft shops and clothing stores and restaurants -- there wouldn't be any city. These merchants hire employees and pay taxes and license fees that are an important source of municipal revenue. But you would put them right out of business by letting them be undersold by some joker with a pushcart, with no utilities, employee benefits, heating or plumbing worries and about a dime's worth of overhead."

"Well, you finally get to the point," the cabbie said. "It's not esthetics and crowded sidewalks you're concerned about. It's the Board of Trade that wants these poor folks out of business, and the city is doing it for them."

"The city does not want to put anybody out of business," I shouted, rummaging through my briefcase. "Listen to this: The rules" -- I read from a newspaper account -- "are based on the premise that street vending is considered an integral component of the small-business sector of the local economy and, as such, vending operators should receive the general rights and assume the same general obligations accorded to fixed-location merchants.' It says here that the city wants to encourage street vending 'in order to provide entrepreneurial and employment opportunities, with special emphasis given to expanding opportunities for District residents.' Does that sound like putting anybody out of business?"

"No," he said, "but making them post bond, limiting their merchandise and location and requiring them to buy carts that cost up to $800 apiece sure does."

"I thought the city came up with a reasonable compromise solution," I told him.

"It's a heck of a solution," the cabbie said. "But what was the problem?"