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Good Afternoon

Mr. Zezima goes to Washington

Before my recent visit to Washington, D.C., a town populated by clueless people, so one more wouldn't hurt, I had been in the nation's capital twice -- once on purpose.

The other time, I took a wrong turn off the highway, found myself in Washington and promptly got lost. Because the statute of limitations has expired, I can now admit that I violated federal law and asked another guy for directions. They did no good. It took three hours to find my way out of town.

I then realized that this is the reason the aforementioned clueless people are in Congress for so long: Even they can't find their way out.

In the best-laid-out city in America, the most important people are limo, cab and bus drivers because they're the only ones who know where they are going.

To test this theory recently, I hailed a cab for an educational trip around town. Imagine both my chagrin and delight when I found out that my cabbie, a friendly 27-year-old guy named Yared, was on his first day on the job. I was his second customer.

"I don't know how to get around Washington," Yared admitted after I had buckled myself into the front passenger seat and he pulled away from my hotel.

"How did you get your taxi license?" I asked as he navigated the streets uncertainly.

"I used GPS," replied Yared, an Ethiopian immigrant who came to America eight years ago. "I live in Maryland because Washington is too expensive," he explained.

Before he became a cabbie, Yared parked cars.

"You must have wanted to take a step up and drive them," I said.

"Yes," Yared said when we were stopped at a red light and he consulted his GPS for the best way to get me back to the hotel. "I needed to make more money."

Approximately half a second after the light turned green, the guy behind us blasted his horn, and Yared tentatively turned left onto a street whose name I don't know. Yared didn't seem to know it, either.

"You could be in Congress," I told him. "I'd vote for you."

"Thank you," Yared said with a smile.

We ended up making a big circle (or perhaps a trapezoid) back to the hotel. The fare came to $6.45. I gave Yared $10, told him to keep the change and wished him luck in his new career. He thanked me again and drove slowly away.

Later, I spoke with Yared's first customer, Michelle Freed, a fellow scribbler who, like me, was in town for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, an estimable organization that had to lower its otherwise high standards to let me join.

"He didn't know where he was going," Michelle said. "I didn't know where I was going and I had to give him directions. He was sweet, but it was just my luck that I got a cabbie who was on his first day on the job. I guess it was an honor to be his first customer."

That evening, on a bus ride to the Capitol, where the society had arranged to have dinner and bestow the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award (if you guessed that I didn't win, you would be right), I spoke with Robert Tabor, who said he has been driving a bus for 37 years.

"Your backside must be sore," I suggested.

Robert chuckled and confirmed my theory that these guys are in Congress for so long because they can't find their way out of town.

"They don't seem to know where they are going even when they're not in Washington," observed Robert, 64, who proudly said that D.C. has "the best transportation system in the country."

This isn't to say that he hasn't had his challenges as a driver.

"One time a guy got shot on my bus," Robert remembered, adding that the perpetrator was outside the vehicle. "The guy who got shot fell out. I closed the door and peeled rubber."

Robert, who said things have gotten much better in D.C. over the years, also noted that he has never been afraid to ask for directions.

"You know what this means, don't you?" I said.

"What?" said Robert.

"You can't run for Congress," I told him.

"That's OK," said Robert. "I can do more good driving a bus."

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