Print deprivation is taking a heavy toll here as the newspaper drought enters its second week.

The news-parched multitudes stagger about the streets, their clutching fingers hungry for the touch of flimsy paper, their vacant eyes fixing desperately upon stop signs, skywriting, passing T-shirts - anything for relief. Nothing satisfies.

They mill around the barren news-stands trying to engage the sulking dealers in small talk, commiserating with each other, listening half-heartedly for the sound that no longer comes: the hearty thwack of hurled newsbundle slapping sidewalk. Men have actually been spotted fishing the trash baskets for week-old papers.

No news is bad news.

Maybe it isn't really as drastic as it seems. The thing is, without newspapers, you have one less restraint against your New York-crisis-fueled imagination taking over and declaring its own reality. Newspapers provide a constant, if deeply flawed, view of the world, a reality checkpoint to measure things against. This factor will, I hope, explain any portions of this report that sound too much like hallucination.

Anything is possible in a print-starved city. Fantasy and rumor may soon be running rampant.

Already, undesirable side effects abound. In New York, the main newspaper reading room is found downstairs. It is called the subway. People remove themselves from the harshness of subway life by escaping into their newspapers. Only bodies are left riding the subways. The minds are conveyed along other tracks. Crossword puzzles alone sponge up billions of bored brain cells each day.

But now the subways are a disaster. People can no longer avoid each other's eyes. Unrestrained wild eyeballing is reported. Years of carefully crafted invisibility are being wiped out. Where this dangerous social interaction may lead, no one can say.

Of course, news transmission continues. The polls have informed us that the great majority now plugs into the electronic events current to satiate its new slust. Still, words on paper remain a necessity for many. These unfortunates can't make it through the day without their daily minimum newsprint requirement. Perhaps we are dinosaurs, who knows? All we know is without newspapers, our brains shrink.

Actually, this condition may have little to do with news. Newspaper ingestion is a habit. Many newspaper abusers don't even really like news. Some avoid it completely. Like smoking, newspaper reading is associated with specific pleasurable events and locales. You can't carry the Six O'Clock News into the lunchroom with you and lay it on the counter. You can't carry it aboard your commuter train or into bathroom. (Well, maybe you can, but it just isn't the same thing.)

The need is more physical. A newspaper has tangible presence. It gives tactile pleasure. You can hold it in your hands and it exists and so do you. TV news comes at its convenience and then disappears into the ozone layer. You cannot snip out the items that sound so dumb they make you laugh and mail them to your crazy cousin in Connecticut.

So the newspaper junkies search for a substitute fix. Lying in wait for them is a mirage. It's amazing, really, how many newspaper lookalikes there are in town. So many publications printed on newspaper-sized stock bearing newspaper-sized newsprint. Words and photos and headlines they all have. There are the sex sheets, the hip weeklies, the shoppers, the journals of commerece, the religion rags, the foreign lingo press, the out-of-towns.

Sorry. These will not do in a pinch. They can't give no satisfaction. We don't know much about journalism hereabouts but we know what we like. Though many imposters lay claim to the generic term "newspaper," there is but one (or in this burg, three) McCoy: the daily, home-grown, general subject, comfortable English-tongued hodgepodge we've nodded over for a lifetime, all the while cursing its many imperfections - the typos, the sensationalizing, the superficiality, the misleading headlines, sloppy reporting, insane juxtapositions, bad photo reproduction, the vital omissions, the miles of boring stories no one can read - in short, the indigestible jumble one craves and must have to sustain life on this planet.

In New York, this formula translates into the Times, the News and, just barely, the Post - although for many, that reduced entity has now transgressed the mysterious boundary that separates genuine newspaper from ersatz.

But they are AWOL. They strike and their readers are stricken. The readers attempt to cope. They gingerly taste other selections from the emaciated news racks, sometimes closing their eyes in disgust and grabbing at random. But it seldom works. You can't take the Philadelphia Inqurier down on the BMT. It just doesn't compute. An ax-murder in Camden does nothing for the Daily News reader. The eyewitnesses don't utter the correct cliches. The cops in the photos wear funny-looking hats. The addresses are unfamiliar. No, it's all wrong.

Yesterday, a man sat down next to me at the neighborhood Greek spoon and placed an alleged tabloid beside his bran flakes. Soon he was moaning loudly. I asked him where the pain was. "Look at this headline," he said. It read: "The Disconcerting Sybil." He was reduced to reading an essay on George Sand in the New York Review of Books. "I can't take it," he said. "What I'd give for a Mets' boxscore."

The terror really struck home on Saturday night. This is now the night when the Sunday Times doesn't hit the newsstands. The impact of vast numbers of fat Sunday Times not hitting the newsstands all at once is devastating. It is the agonizing torture of the expected blow that does not fall. Perhaps this is not easily explainable to outsiders. At first, the deprived Times reader may feel a sense of relief: school's out. But soon guilt takes over: the knowledge that out there somewhere, a gigantic mess of raw information is piling up - uncollected, unedited, unprinted and undelivered.

That classic riddle about whether the tree falling in the forest really makes a noise if no one hears it is gnawing at our innards. If we're not reading about it in our newspaper, can it really be happening? Will the entire period of the strike be forever seared in our news memory as a huge white space? Is it possible to ever catch up or will we New Yorkers remain eternally uninformed of the events of this period? Was the Pope really buried for us? Do the ball games now being played really count? Did the unreviewed movie really open?

(I have tried to find survivors of the last such debacle - the 14-day outage of 1962 - to see of if they know, but apparently there is no one left alive from that period. At least in my neighborhood.)

This is the pervasive fear facing the print-oriented New Yorker today. We carry on our everyday lives as best we can, but we know that one whole dimension is missing. We cannot forget that there are eight million stories in the Naked City, all of them going unread. We can't help feeling that somehow, existence is on hold.