Like many of her fellow citizens, Denise Watkins of Northwest is less than wild about local 911 emergency phone service. Here's why:

"Last weekend," she writes, "a woman next door to me began laughing very erratically. My friends and I at first paid no attention.

"But later on, her laughter became almost maniacal, and she began shouting at people from her apartment. We called the police because we were afraid she would harm herself or someone else.

"However, I had to call four times before anyone at the 911 number would answer. I even called the operator, and she tried two separate numbers, and no one answered. Luckily, I finally got through, and the police took the woman to the hospital.

" . . . . We were lucky this time. But what if someone's house had been burning down, or someone was badly hurt? It took me 10 minutes of calling before someone answered the 911 number. Could you find out what's up with 911?"

Sure I could, Denise, and sure I did. But I did it the way my high school chemistry teacher would have. Rather than calling up officials and listening to their explanations and rationalizations, I ran an experiment.

I called 911 from six different phones, at six different times of day. Here's what happened:

Sept. 2, 5:15 p.m.: 911 answered in the middle of the first ring.

Sept. 3, 8:15 a.m.: 911 answered before the first ring.

Sept. 3, 3:30 p.m.: Before the first ring.

Sept. 3, 9:20 p.m.: After half a ring.

Sept. 4, 7:10 a.m.: The operator answered after one ring. I hung up. Two seconds later, the phone rang. It was the operator. "Someone just called emergency service from this number," he said. "Do you need assistance?" I thanked him and said no.

Sept. 4: 10:30 a.m.: Before the first ring.

Now, this doesn't mean that Denise imagined her 10-minute wait for an answer at 911, or that she was wrong to be concerned, or that a delayed answer at 911 is ever forgivable. But I think my experiment shows that Denise's experience is the exception, and mine is the rule.

Is Washington a transient town? That's the conventional wisdom, and it's being proved every day by a pretty unconventional cabbie.

His name is Jimmy Dixon. He lives in Bowie, and he's been hacking here since 1949.

You'd think that 36 years here would make him feel at home. But Jimmy told passenger Judy Cornelius the other day that he always carries in his wallet the return railroad ticket he bought when he came here in 1949.

Will the ticket still get him back to his birthplace in Southeast Georgia? Doubtful. The railroad that issued the ticket is long since defunct. But Judy calls Jimmy "the perfect Washingtonian. After 36 years, he's still just passing through."

In the 300 block of 20th Street NE, a dead tree stands in the back yard of a house. Actually, it leans more than stands -- against some phone wires that run through the alley.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the next time there's a good gust of wind, the tree is going to come crashing down, dragging the phone wires with it -- which will knock out phone service to the whole neighborhood.

The other day, a man who lives down the block decided that preventive surgery was indicated. He tried to get somebody to cut down the tree before phone service is disrupted, not after.

First, he called the D.C. government. They said they couldn't do anything about the tree because it's on private property.

Then he called the phone company. They said they would be glad to come and repair the wires if and when the tree tears them loose. But do anything beforehand? Heavens, they might get sued!

Then he knocked on the door of the house. It's occupied by a tenant, who said he wasn't about to cut down the tree -- or let anyone else do so -- without the landlord's permission.

Okay, who's the landlord? Well, gee, the tenant wasn't sure. Some fellow who comes by and collects the rent the first of every month.

So the 300 block of 20th Street must sit and wait for a phone outage that is virtually sure to occur. The citizens can't prevent the outage. They can only act to repair it after it happens.

Does that make even the slightest bit of sense?

From "A Capitol Hill press secretary who would lose my job if I identified myself," this nugget of political truth:

Q: What's the definition of a political speech?

A: An oration that my boss would go 1,000 miles to deliver, but wouldn't go next door to hear.