Strange doings at the knife show.

First, some sharpie filches a blade from Paul Fox's table. Fox turns to chat with a neighbor and the next thing he knows, his best snickereen is gone. Just a dent in the black velvet. The woman at the next table thinks she spotted the miscreant. "It was a long-haired little bitty guy in a pair of tennis shoes," says Fox. "Just careless on my part."

At least the little bitty guy showed good taste. It was Fox's top number he swiped, a $300 job with ivory handle and a clever spring mechanism that flips the blade open at a nudge of the finger guard. Fox grinds them by hand down in his basement workshop in Hickory, N.C.

It was bound to be a temptation for the criminal element. For $2.50 you could walk into the New York Sheraton and find gleaming before you myriad shivs of elegant handscrafted beauty. Art to the exhibitors, but something perhaps more practical to Mr. Little Bitty. The creep sees a pocket knife, so naturally, he pockets it. Well, there's the bright side: Somewhere, a victim is being mugged with impeccable metal work.

These aren't mumblety peg types they've got down here, you know. We're talking haute cutlery.

Just look at W. W. Cronk, from Greenfield, Ind. He's sitting over on the other side of room in front of an outrageously ornate American Renaissance dirk with a 12-inch blade and an ivory handle inlaid with twisted gold wire and topaz stones. And a price tag of $6,500. ANother Cronk original features the head of a Viking carved into the handle, horns and all $1,500. "I've always had a vivid imagination," says W. W., looking quite the gay blade himself in a yellow leisure suit, western-styled, with silver and turquoise doodads covering any exposed flesh. "I turn my imagination loose on knives."

Yes, knife life was rife in Gotham with the custom knifemakers, a subculture of obscure craftmen previously satisfied to stick to Kansas City, now boldly exosing their piquent product to New Yorkers, possibly not realizing that N.Y.C. is not the kind of place where you can lay out several thousand sharp, shiny, pointy objects without attracting some cutups. They came from all over the country, the 111 knifemakers, many from the South and West. Some make knives for a living, others for fun. They drew customers curious in both senses of the word.

Like the Sikh, for instance. Here's this guy wondering around in a turban, full beard, white oriental shirt-dress and sandals. You expect at least a Punjabi accent but what you get is flawless American from a man who grew up in Boston and has just graduated from the state's U at New Paltz. He is, however, authentic Sikh. Says his name is Jot Singh Khalso. He is also wearing a sheathed dagger at the belt. It's part of his religion. "We firmly believe in self-defense," he says.

Jot Singh Khalso has a dream. It is to become a master knifemaker. His ambition is to learn knife biz so he can supply daggers (or kirpans as they are known to Sikhs) to all his fellow sect members, "weapons that they'll feel esthetically as well as practically proud to own."

Enough of Jot. Here comes a Green Beret, strolling down the aisle in his G.I. boots. He is shopping. "It's always good to have a knife that won't break," says J. Graves, as he identifies himself, of Fort Devens, Mass. He has sergeant's stripes on his arm and combat ribbons all over his chest.

Where a knife really comes in handy in his job, the sergeant confides, is to prevent drowning. This is an occupational hazard in the Special Forces and is caused by jumping out of airplanes. The fact is, he explains, that most parachute fatalities are a result of drowning. You drop into a river or lake and you get snarled in the lines and goodbye. So he'd picked himself out a keen little model over at the table with the sign reading "HAND FORGED KNIVES BY J.A. SCHMIDT." The cost? Around $700. This you spent on a knife for hacking through parachute lines? "It's a good investment," says Sgt. Graves.

Well, nothing will do now but to march over to this Schmidt and examine his Army-approved goods. Schmidt is a big, congenial man without much hair. He has more to tell about the Green Beret's knife. Seems the Green Beret left out the interesting part. Schmidt holds up a curved Spanish fighting knife and launches into a short digression on Spanish history. Back to the present. The Green Beret fell in love with this, he says, but it had already been sold. So the Green Beret went to the buyer. He said he would swap in his good luck Buddha from Vietnam for the knife. The owner agreed and everyone's happy. The only proviso, says Schmidt, is that in case of war the deal is off. The Beret must have his Buddha back if he goes into combat.

A few minutes later, Schmidt points at a man fondling knives on the table. "That's the owner," he says. The man is indeed wearing a white carved Buddha on a gold chain around his neck. Ivory, perhaps?" "It's a tiger's tooth," says the man who traded with the Green Beret. "The Montagnards made it for him. He believes it kept him alive all the time he was in Nara."

Schmidt loves to make knives and talk knives. He cradles his baby in a handkerchief when he shows one off to keep the pristine metal free from human contamination. He is clearly Mr. Knife Guy, the man at the cutting edge of this event. A veteran feature writer can smell these things. Next day, in confirmation, Schmidt will cop the "Best Knife in Show" prize. Right now it is obvious to the trained eye that all the arcane weirdness in the room is converging on Schmidt's table. He is the point man for bizarre emanation. Notice, for instance, the large bearded fellow making goo goo eyes at the cobra knife, which is not a knife you kill cobras with, but a knife with a handle carved in the shape of a cobra. Schmidt has a whole line of snake knives: vipers, pit vipers, pythons, boas, anacondas, whatever you need. The bearded man wants the cobra. It costs $637. No problem. He whips out a roll of 50s and nonchalantly peels off fourteen. This man looks familiar. He is in fact a man well known to all devotees of pornography and serious readers of Supreme Court decisions at Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw.

He is also, it turns out, hot for knives. "They're beautiful," he says."One of the last bastions of craftsmanship." He says he collects a lot of things. Goldstein takes his $637 cobra knife with jeweled eyes and carries it off happily. He neglects to mention that knives are blatantly sexual but the symbolism around here is getting too obvious to ignore any longer.

J.A. Schmidt, who teaches auto repair in vocational high school upstate near Albany, is informed of the identity of his last customer. He shakes his head. "It's a strange, strange business," he says.