It was the kind of conversation you would have at 2 o'clock in the morning at Elaine's Restaurant in New York City. I can't even remember who brought it up but the question was, "What was invented first - the wheel or the pothole?"

Baker said it was the pothole. He claimed there was no reason for the wheel to have been invented unless there were a pothole for it to fit in.

Lazar was of the opposite opinion. "Man developed slowly and invented the wheel by accident. It was only years later that he thought of the idea of digging the pothole to break the axle of the wheel."

Halberstam, who is learned in most subjects at 2 o'clock in the morning, said, "It seems to me that two different groups were working on the wheel and the pothole at the same time. When they finished they each realized they had nothing. The wheel had no value to anyone without the pothole, and the pothole was utterly useless without the wheel. But then a man traveling between the two cultures discovered what each group had invented and brought them together."

"What was his name?" Baker asked.

"Arnold," Halberstam replied.

"Arnold what?" Shaw demanded.

"I don't remember. I'll think of it in a moment."

"You're all wrong," said Styron. "The pothole people and wheel people never did see eye to eye. They would never get together. As I heard it, people used to live in potholes before they lived in caves."

"People lived in potholes?" Lazar said.

"Sure," said Styron. "A man would be walking down the road and when he got tired he would just stretch out in a pothole and go to sleep. Of course he rarely slept in the same pothole twice."

"But then someone invented the wheel?"

"Who invented the wheel?" asked Baker.

"Sheldon."

"Sheldon who?" Lazar wante* d to know.

"I don't remember his last name. He was a little fellow with reddish hair and had two teeth missing in the front like Leon Spinks," Styron said. "Anyway Sheldon invented the wheel and folks took to it right away. The only trouble was they kept running over people who were sleeping in the potholes. So the people who were being run over started yelling at the people with the wheels and said 'I'll break your head with a club if you drive into my pothole.'

"'Go live in the caves if you don't want to get run over,' the wheel people said. And that was the beginning of the first cavemen."

"That's a good story," said Lazar.

"There's more," Styron said. "Without people sleeping in the potholes the wheels started to break and so did the axles. So the wheel people went back to the cave people and said, 'It's okay. You can sleep in the potholes anytime you want to.' But the cave man had developed intelligence by then and said, 'You wheel people can take a flying leap for yourselves.' So the wheel people said, 'Well, if you won't sleep in the potholes the least you can do is fill them up.' And the cave people said, 'The wheel people made the potholes in the first place; they can fill them up if they don't like them.'"

"Good for the cave men," Shaw said.

"How was the issue decided?" Halberstam asked.

"It never was. To this day there is nothing in writing that spells out who is responsible for a pothole.

"Somewhere in Tibet it has been reported that a person saw an ancient scroll on which was written, 'It's Mayor Koch's job.' But no one has ever confirmed it."

Then Baker told us a joke. "Why does a pothole cross the road?"

No one knew.

"To prevent a chicken from getting to the other side."

It was time to go home.