Every Monday morning, I sit down with researcher Karina Porcelli, and we proceed to play a newspaper version of baseball. I'm the pitcher and she's the catcher. I hurl at her a ballbag full of questions that need answers. She snags them neatly, and heads for the phone.

Karina always brings home the results, usually without incident. But when you deal with the D.C. government, it's like getting on the jungle ride at Disneyland. You're never 100 percent sure what you'll find, and you're never 100 percent sure you'll emerge with your sanity intact.

Karina's sanity was tested to the limit last week in chasing down an answer to a question from Jeannette Cohen of Northwest.

Jeannette needed to go for her driver's test, but she learned that the District requires all applicants to take the test on a car with an emergency brake located where the instructor can reach it. That would typically mean a model with a hand emergency brake mounted between the driver's and passenger's seat -- a model that's a) unavailable to Jeannette and b) unfamiliar to Jeannette.

Jeannette wondered why this rule is in effect. The answer is plausible enough. James Hartford, chief of permit control for the Department of Motor Vehicles, told Karina that "there was a bad accident in 1965." After that, the city decreed that no car can be used for a driving test if its emergency brake is inaccessible to the examiner. The city recognizes that such cars are rare, Hartford added. So the city will rent you one, for $6.

Sounds like no big deal to get that answer, and it shouldn't have been. But Karina kept a diary of what she went through In Search of Emergency Brake Truth. I thought you might like to refer to it the next time His Royal Highness Marion Barry insists that his government is a model of efficiency.

2:30 p.m. -- I speak to Tara Hamilton, public information officer for the Department of Transportation. She's in a meeting -- will call back.

2:43 -- I call DCDMV Road Test Appointments. Alas, no answer.

2:45 -- I call the main number at the DMV. "You have reached the Department of Motor Vehicles. All operators are busy, but please hold on. Have a nice day." Repeated every 45 seconds.

2:55 -- Finally, someone answers. I boldly ask my question. She gives me another number and hangs up before I am able to ask who I am calling.

2:56 -- I ring the mystery number. After five minutes, nobody answers. In a flash of inspiration, I decide to hang up.

3:01 -- I again try to get through to the DMV. Somehow, the phone rings Road Test Appointments, and miraculously, I am speaking to a live human being. I ask my question, he puts me on hold, then returns to say that indeed, you must have a hand emergency brake between driver and examiner. But he can't say why.

3:05 -- Ravenous for more telemasochistic ricochet, I once again try DMV -- busy. After four tries, I am hooked up with an operator. I ask for PR Department. He demands to know why. Reluctantly, I tell him. He says that is the silliest thing he has ever heard of, and finally gives me a name and number. He warns me not to tell anyone where I got the number or name.

3:10 -- Adrenaline pumping at the prospect of closing this story, I call Brenda Smalls (sshhhhhh!), chief of vehicle patrol division. She says, yes, the emergency brake must be accessible to the examiner. In mid-explanation, she quickly cuts herself short and transfers me to . . . .

3:13 -- Mr. Hartford again. His secretary puts me on hold. I near cardiac arrest.

3:23 -- Still on hold. I realize that this exercise is beginning to affect my mental health. I hang up.

3:27 -- I try Mr. Hartford again.

3:30 -- He comes on the line and refers me to . . . . Tara Hamilton, to advise her that I have called (a standard government PR formality). But I have already left a message for her. I decide to wait until she calls back.

3:46 -- Mr. Hartford calls, but I'm on the phone.

3:55 -- I call back. He is out.

4:30 -- Finally, we share a few precious moments together, and he provides the answer.

Two hours for what should have taken two minutes. Every run-around in the world. People along the way who didn't know the answer (forgivable) but who didn't know or care where to send Karina to get it (unforgivable).

A good researcher is a blessing. A city government that really worked would be, too.


Four days to go, and we're close enough to taste it. Our goal is $200,000. As of Thursday, we had $181,578.64. Won't you help underprivileged kids who can't find help elsewhere? Here's how:


Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.