They haven't noticed.

Signs of a possible slowdown in the rate of inflation, including a lower consumer price index, have had about as much impact as a few drops of rain on a dry dirt road.

Men and women who live and work in the Washington area, chosen at random and asked about inflation, are pessimistic. They disbelieve what signs of relief there are and treat the inflation of the past few years as a predictable, unhappy part of the future.

"It's not inflation. It's normal life," said Gregg Evans of Oxon Hill, Md., a plumber at the National Gallery of Art. When the price of one item goes down, another price goes up, eating up any savings, he said.

In previous years, when Schupp's bakery raised its prices even slightly once a year, customers reacted strongly, said Loretta Espey, who runs the Northwest Washington bakery with her husband. Now, as rapidly rising utility, maintenance and materials costs force them to raise prices more often, the reaction is muted.

It took the Espeys a long time to get used to having to raise prices more frequently or go out of business, she said. "I sort of had guilty feelings even though it wasn't my fault," she said. But customers' reactions to price hikes have changed. "Now, most often, they take it with a grain of salt. They're used to it."

In interviews with a dozen men and women from widely varying backgrounds in the Washington area, there was little sense of relief or belief that the situation is turning around.

A few people who said they believed that prices may not be going up as rapidly or who noted slightly lower prices for food and gasoline didn't show any confidence that those signals herald major change.

"I've seen it in the last 10 years just go up," said Mason Gough, a firefighter for Prince William County. "Maybe if it leveled off for a few years, we'd have a chance. But I don't think it's going to. The only thing that's really leveled off is gasoline."

"If it comes down a penny it goes up three cents," said Murray Schulman, a retired quality control inspector for Fairchild Industries who lives in Silver Spring. "I don't think we'll ever get back to what it was in terms of buying-power," Schulman said. "I earned more than I did ever before last year, but what could I buy? I could buy more 30 years ago," he said.

"I can't save money," said Gregg Evans, shopping with his wife Arlene, a clerk typist at the Department of Defense. "If they lower the prices for food, my rent will go up."

Inflation is a nagging, ever-present fact of life and a source of fear about the future.

"I'm not getting any sense of relief," said a government contracts specialist shopping with her daughter in Lake Anne Plaza in Reston. "Although the figures say it's going down, I'm not getting any impact on my buying-power," she said, talking about inflation.

"I've been living from hand to mouth so long. I've been unable to buy meat, and I still can't. Money is my constant worry," said the woman, who asked not to be named.

"It doesn't really seem like it slows down," said Richard Thompson of Southeast Washington who works as a janitor with a cleaning contractor. "It would be all right if they could raise your salary the way they raise prices. "To me, it isn't getting any better -- it's just getting worse."

Inflation means "being very careful at the supermarket, being a choosier shopper and eating out less, as well," said Rene'e Ross, an attorney who lives near Dupont Circle and handles government relations for Esmark. "You kind of pick and choose what you want to do."

"I think I'm a positive person, so I'd bet the economy is going to turn around," said Ross, who voted for Reagan and who supports both his budget cuts and tax proposals. But, she said, she has "a certain amount of dread" for fear that if Reagans proposals don't work, no answer may be at hand.

Ross said that she thought interest rates would be the key factor in peoples' attitudes about inflation. When the rates come down, optimism will increase, she said.

"Food seems to be the only thing where there seems to be a halt," said Denice Frandano, shopping at a grocery store in Reston with her sons Gregory and David. Frandano, whose husband works for the government, said she shops for the best buys at the supermarket and supplements her shopping at a food cooperative to which she belongs.

They eat less meat and more cheese and legumes. They don't expect to be able to buy a house in the foreseeable future as they once had expected they would by now. With Frandano staying home until the children are older, they are unable to save, she said.

"We can hope that it will get better, but I find it awfully depressing to look ahead. I can't seen any relief," she said.

"Really, that inflation has killed me. Nobody has money to fix the car," said Reza Mobasser, owner of a transmission repair shop in Dale City. "For this reason, I am in very bad shape -- and not just me but also my customers and all my help."

Customers come who need and want work done on their cars, but they can't afford it, he said. Some have asked him to work out time payments, according to Mobasser. He finds himself pinched between declining income and suppliers who won't give credit to small shops -- because they know the reality facing those small businesses, he said.

"I'll try to stay, but I don't know how long I can," he said.

"I haven't seen any relief personally," said a retired government worker in Chevy Chase, D.C. "Maybe I don't pay that much attention, but I don't see prices going down," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.

"I'm hopeful with Reagan. Maybe I'm wrong but I'm hopeful. I'm just afraid all this crying in the soup is going to set things back," she said. "These sob sisters -- I get tired of them and I hope they won't influence what's done."

Not surprisingly, people whose homes are bought and paid for feel more sanguine than others. "I believe its getting just a little bit better myself. I hope it is," said Ike Vinson, who works at a hardware store in Suitland and raises Tennessee walking horses at his home in Clinton.

"I'm a hardware man myself, and it looks to me like stuff is hanging on a little bit longer," he said. "You know what I mean? It's not going up and not coming down. When he and I came along," he said, gesturing toward a friend, "you could go to the store and buy a dozen eggs for 30 cents, and it stayed that way.

"Everything I've got is paid for," Vinson said. "I don't owe a nickel to anyone." Vinson said that he counsels young people to invest in land. "So you pay $20,000. It's better than paying $45,000 for a house you can spit over in another man's yard from."

"It's hard," said James G. Harley, a mechanic for Maryland National Park and Planning Commission, who lives down the road from Vinson. "I won't say it's any worse, but it's bad," he said.

"It used to be I could get no more than $1.25 worth of gas in my lawnmower," Harley said. "Now I get $2.50 worth, and it doesn't fill it up."

The fact that he owns his own home and that his children are grown means that inflation is not as hard as it could be on Harley. "It's nobody but Mama and me, and it doesn't cost me that much to live anymore."

"I tell you one thing -- I'm glad I don't have my family growing up now."

"One thing that really distresses me -- I think things may improve, but I wonder if they'll improve to the extent that my son will be able to buy a home," Espey said. She said she sees a number of grown children moving back in with their parents. "That's kind of frightening. Even when the kids work hard, they still can't quite survive. They have to go back home."

Is there relief in sight? "I pray for it. I hope for it," Espey said. "If you're not going to be optimistic -- what's left?"