Metro is turning Washingtoniana into New Yorkers, but the subway is setting the suburbanite free.

Before the underground opened, people here seldom were found in groups bigger than a busload except at demonstrations, rock concerts, inaugurations and Redskin games, with plenty of police around to keep things orderly.

Being spread out, the citizens had neither need nor opportunity to push and shove. They were laid back, and tended to step back to let others pass. Strangers would smile at strangers, with no ulterior motive. The elderly and the infirm could count on a helping hand. Such casual courtesy in the streets was largely responsible for the Federal City's being commonly described as a small Southern town.

No more. Now Metro scoops commuters up by the dozens and hundreds and condenses them into thousands in its gleaming cattle cars. Jammed together all huggermugger, in trains that often come to screeching and unexplained halts between the stations, they do a slow burn that fuels a riotous dash for the street. Children are bullied, senior citizens elbowed aside, women fondled by anonymous hands.

This behavior carries over onto the sidewalks Pedestrians who used to stroll now steam along trying to glare one another out of the way. The pace is half-again faster, and hardly anyone stops to straighten out the bewildered tourists who clog our corners.

Add a few garment pushracks and K Street at rush hour would be a fair imitation of Seventh Avenue. But only at rush hour. From midmorning to midafternoon the subway belongs to suburban homemakers who had long ago given up trying to take the bus downtown for shopping, theater or lunch. In the evening it is taken over by carless kids and couples and families from the Outback who wouldn't drive downtown after sundown on a bet.

By collapsing time and distance Metro's making this sprawling area, if not a village where breakwinners come home for lunch, at least a town where spouses can meet to eat. What used to be an ordeal becomes an adventure.It's still not possible to park within reasonable distance of the Mall's many musemums and galleries, but it's no longer necessary. Every Saturday - and someday, every Sunday - the trains are frolicking with families headed for the freebies or the flicks and, if the children are good, dinner at the Golden Palace or the Golden Booeymonger. And getting there is half the fun.

The trend will increase as the Metro lines lengthen and multiply. The Capital Beltway, which once served as a link between the suburban communities, now carries so much traffic around the clock that it has become a barrier. The subway will pierce that fence, the first breach coming with Saturday's opening of the Orange Line into Prince George's County.

I have a sister out there somewhere, and I'm looking forward to meeting her again.," Nieves said. "I have to keep to my pace so he can endure the distance. Otherwise he