You walk into a restaurant alone and the maitre d' whisks you past all those empty tables to a tight little nook between the men's room and the dirty dishes.

You don't have to put up with that, says author Ralph Charell, whose expertise at complaining has put him in the "Guinness Book of Records." You're paying just as much for your food as all those couples the maitre d' expects to fill his better tables.

Keep your cool, but by all means speak up. Say to the maitre d': "Surely you must have a table more desirable." Chances are, he'll give you a choice of seating.

It happened to Charell and it's the sort of experience he's collected over the years for his book "How to Get the Upper Hand," now out in paperback (Avon, 199 pages, $2.25).

But don't let the title fool you. Charell is actually rather self-effacing. He has problems with the title himself. His hardback publisher chose it; he finds it "abrasive."

But Charell still doesn't want people to take advantage of him - or each other.

"That cab driver who took you the long route to run up the fare is the same guy who has to wait at home all day for the delivery man who never shows up," he said during a stop in Washington. "We're doing it to each other."

To Charell, getting the upper hand is a matter of a positive attitude nearly anyone can develop. By winning the battles of everyday life (the book's subtitle), you learn that you can do something about taking control of your life.

Charell's little victories over the telephone company, car-rental agencies, utility companies, landlords and firms who failed to deliver on time have brought him $90,000 in settlements and a Guinness notation as the "Most Successful Complainer."

He makes a distinction between grumbling and complaining.

"Grumbling is telling your friends the world is getting worse. That's a bore and totally ineffective. Complaining is telling your story to somebody who can make things right. It's becoming respectable."

Charell, 49, is a New Yorker who as a former television executive programmed ABC's "Movie of the Week." He has just completed a fourth book ("Upper Hand" was the third) and is about to begin a fifth. Both deal generally with how to make things go your way and improve your life.

To Charell his complaining "is more a game than a war. I do a lot of this from the bath tub." Some of his advice might well be taken tongue-in-cheek.

In his book he describes how to cope with a computer that keeps billing you erroneously. Punch a couple of additional holes in the card, write your message on it, and wait for a human to settle the problem when the computer rejects the damaged card.

If a dictatorial boss suddenly hovers over you while you make a personal phone call from the office, start talking about Aunt Margaret's funeral. That should thwart any chewing out he may be about to give.

When the doctor keeps you waiting, deduct $25 an hour waiting time from his bill. Don't expect to escape paying the full bill, but maybe next time the doctor and his receptionist will see you more promptly.

If you have a problem with a business firm, Charell offers these hints:

You don't have to accept a situation not to your liking. Speak up and get results.

Know what you want instead of complaining aimlessly. If you make a fair statement of your problem, you stand a good chance of clearing it up.

Keep a positive tone in your voice. Too many people whine, and that's ineffective when you're trying to get something done.

Reach people in a position to help you, not necessarily at the top. "The chairman of the board is going to be offended answering a complaint about a defective toaster." And if he turns you down, you have no place else to go. Try a middle-level employe.

Seek help from regulatory agencies such as local license bureaus.

"Many people allow their rights to be trampled simply because they are unaware of how easy it is to ascertain these rights and then to have them enforced," Charell writes. If more people asserted themselves, "the sellers of goods and services would become more responsive. . . ." CAPTION: Picture, Ralph Charell: "Many people allow their rights to be trampled simply because they are unaware of how easy it is to ascertain these rights . . .", by Vanessa Barnes - The Washington Post