IT WAS the Christmas Shopping Season.

And if there was peace on earth, good will toward men, nobody knew about it in men's sportswear.

"Is this cash," I asked in innocence, "or charge?"

The frumpish-looking woman blinked first at me, then into her open purse. "I'm going to write a check," she said.

I think my lip started to twitch, because she moved a step or two away.

"You want to write a check?" I asked, an idiotic but justifiable question, store regulations being such that anything short of an inquisition was insufficient insurance that The Check Was Good. "Do you have the proper identification to write a check? Do you have a driver's license and a major credit card? Do you realize how long this is going to take?"

"I'm in no hurry," she said, nonchalantly. "I've done all my shopping. Here are my IDs."

A sudden, familiar outburst of various impatient customer sounds - sighs, groans and the well-known "Jeeeeez" - momentarily drowned out the moving rendition of "Jingle Bells" now playing somewhere overhead for the 86th time that night.

Time for action. I bleeped up the sale on the computer terminal, inserted the check into the machine and totaled out the transaction, stamped the check on the back, filled in the blanks left the stamp, smiled wanly at the seven or so other customers threatening with their eyes to murder me, took the IDs and made off for the nearest Authorized Signature. All in record time, and all so that I could wait until the Authorized Signature, a women's jewelry salesperson, finished showing rings to a young couple. The couple finally begged off.

"Don't you ever interrupt me in the middle of a sale again," said the jewelry salesperson to me in her best holiday growl. "I don't mind signing these things as long as I'm not interrupted in the middle of a sale, and I've told you people many times.

I was about to ask how she possibly could have told me this many times when I'd never even seen her before when she informed me that an Amoco credit card was not considered major enough.

Rather than face the mob back in sportswear, I sought out a less scrupulous Authorized Signature, in the scarf department Cooler heads prevailed.

Few of us realize the role of the salesclerk as buffer - as the supremely abused link between the customers, who are crazy, and the store management, which is likewise. And during the Christmas season even the buffer goes berserk. For two of my 12 months as a department store employee in suburban Washington, holiday spirit took on a whole new meaning.

It meant never having to say "Can I help you?"

Like most department stores, mine lived for the sales of Christmas season - which begins shortly after Halloween and ends on White Sale, a national holiday known to people on the outside as New Year's.

But sales weren't all so easy.

Mastering the store's computerized cash registers involved learning an entire dictionary of codes, procedures (and obscenities to use when they didn't work). And customers would grow hard to deal with after overhearing urgent whispers like "Is this a 31 or a 12?" or "Oh my God, Ted - I got a Code 7 . . ."

Just about anything besides a cash or charge sale required something called an Authorized Signature, which could only be obtained from those veteran employees whom the management considered either worthy or in need of some kind of fix. Authorized Signatureship meant status, a clear if somewhat hard to explain sign that the bearer did not, like the rest of us, earn the minimum wage and that he or she probably had better things to do than fold sweaters.

Friday night, mid-December 8:45 p.m. Working the B Shift out of Men's Accessories. A couple of foreign types say they're looking for a wallet. Ask them what type of wallet. They say brown. Show them all my brown wallets. They take each one apart, keep me a good half hour. Store's going to close in five minutes, I say, seen anything you like? Department manager's standing across the aisle, motioning me to hurry up and lock up all the glass cabinets and close the terminal. I nod, casual-like. Tell the customers I'm sorry I couldn't help them and maybe some other time, eh? They want to buy a wallet, that one over there, in black. It's a charge. I ring it up fast. I hand them the receipt and they hand me a special embassy card which exempts them from the sales tax. They forgot, very sorry. Volid No. 4 for the day. I ring it up again. The assistant store manager gives me a dirty look when I bring the deposit upstairs 45 minutes late and wants to know what took me so long. I say I was being helpful. The assistant store manger tells me not to let it happen again.

We all have to make a living, and some of us make it off of other people's poorer qualities. Enter the department store security guard, a type of person who works best in crowds - and Christmas meant crowds. But even security guards occasionally get carried away.

I was showing Levis to a man in his mid-20s and the phone next to the terminal rang. I excused myself to answer it.

"This is Davis, security," said a terse voice. "Leave the area immediately."

It didn't register. "Um, do what? Who is this again?"

"This is Davis, security," he repeated, irritated."Just do what I say and leave your area. Go across the floor or something, and do it now" .

I looked around to see if I could spot either this Davis person or the impending catastrophe of which he apparently had knowledge. I saw neither, but I didn't know what else to do so I followed his directions and left.

About five minutes and one visit to the men's room later, I returned to my area to find it quite intact, the customer gone and Davis talking to a couple of my female colleagues at the register. He was in the middle of an action-packed story about how he'd chased a shoplifter for four blocks the other night before cornering him in a dark alley, broken glass scattered about and everything, and suddenly there was this loud crack behind the fence and . . .

"Hey Davis, what's the idea of making me leave my area before? What was going on?"

Davis did not like being interrupted during one of his action-packed shoplifter stories. "That guy was gonna steal something, if you'd a just left him alone," he said.

I kind of thought the guy was going to buy something if I had not left him alone, and I asked Davis how he knew the customer was in fact a lurking criminal.

"I just knew, I could tell," he said, annoyed, and turned back to the two women. "So anyway there was this loud crack behind the fence and the guy . . ."

Christmas dictates that a salesclerk will spend abnormally long hours doing a multitude of non-selling activities. The biggie is called Straightening. Straightening is what the department manager asks you to do when he knows the store manager is coming downstairs for a look around, or when he notices that things are otherwise running smoothly. It involves standing at a sale table full of sweaters and surrounded by customers and waiting for a customer to put a sweater down so you can neatly fold it and put it back on the table, at which time it is picked up by another customer and thrown back on the table in a heap. If you're really lucky, you will be asked to Straighten a rack of sports shirts, wherein you stand in front of the rack and rattle the hangers around for about five minutes until the department manager goes back to his office, no doubt satisfied that his department is not only as Straight as it can possibly be, but that the store manager did not see anyone Standing Around (the worst possible thing a salesclerk can do).

Some holiday shoppers are genuinely nice. They understand your incredible misfortune in terms of employment, and they're patient above and beyond the call of mad-rush shopping. Unfortunately, this type of customer generally gets pushed out of the way.

"Hey, can I get somebody to help me or what?" A man in his mid-30s, well-dressed but somewhat disheveled-looking, had addressed this polite request across two aisles of hanging leisure suits to where I stood at the terminal, telling a friendly young high school girl where she could find a shirt to match the pants she'd just bought her boyfriend. I made the mistake of finishing the sentence he'd interrupted.

He stalked over to the terminal, a pair of jeans in hand. "How am I supposed to know what size these are? There's no tag on these pants and it doesn't say what size they are or anything. What kind of store is this anyway?"

After it became clear that the man did not want a similar pair of pants but only this specific unmarked model, and after determining that they were indeed his size, I offered to ring them up. He tossed a credit card my way, which I interpreted as intent to buy. I took great pleasure in my closing statement, a weapon that I'd learned to use on rude customers with varying degrees of effectiveness.

"Thanks very much for your patience," I said, smiling, as I handed him his bag."And have a very Merry Christmas."

He actually blushed.

Never underestimate the power of Bob Cratchit.