What builds character, broadens your horizons, and fills your mail with money? A big-league contract, writing a best seller? Maybe for the fortunate few. But the rest of us can get those benefits closer to home: at the local unemployment office.

No matter how humanely the ax falls, there's no denying that losing a job is a major jolt. Your income evaporates, along with a social world and maybe even a self-image. This might be the first hole in your artfully constructed resume.

Collecting unemployment undeniably builds character. You'll have few better opportunities to cultivate the virtue of patience, and you'll also get plenty of chance to practice humility, or at least to produce its facsimile on demand.

It can give you the chance to meet people and see things you might otherwise not have known, and it offers one of the few opportunties for adults under retirement age to see how it feels to have independent means. It's all a matter of attitude. A stretch of unemployment may not be something you'll choose, but it needn't be something you'll have to regret either.

Your ego may have taken quite a blow, but probably not as bad as the one to your cash flow. You'll need money to see you through the crisis, so the first step is to inventory finances. And for once the folks who ordinarily help empty your bank account can help fill it. Most unemployed in the metropolitan area can get real help from the government. Some of your [actually, your employer's] tax money is going to come back, to bankroll a potentially very fruitful period for you.

That help can be quiet substantial. In the District benefits can reach $172 a week and last for 32 weeks. Maryland and Virginia pay smaller, but still sizable, amounts.

For the first time unemployment benefits are taxable this year, but how much you pay depends on your own earnings; it could be very little. The formulas for calculating the size and duration of benefits are arcane and arbitrary, and you won't know for sure until you receive official word from your unemployment office word you do have rights of appeal if you think you haven't gotten fair treatment.

Don't let anyone shame you out of taking your unemployment insurance, any more than you'd hesitate of collect on your auto or theft policies, calling them "charity" or "the dole." This really is insurance, designed to protect you from a specified risk and financed by "premiums" paid by employers. Your boss may not have deducted the amount from your paycheck, but you can be sure it was factored into the salary you received, along with your other fringe benefits. There is no means test, no snooping into your other affairs. The money is yours by right. All you have to do is claim it.

Claiming it means going to the unemployment office in the jurisdiction where you worked [not where you live.] You'll need proof of your Social Security number [such as your driver's license] and ex-federal employes need forms 8 and 50, supplied by their personnel office.

In the District you'll have to turn up at an assigned time and day every other week, but in Maryland and Virginia you'll only have to come twice in person and then report by mail. But don't feel bad if you travel downtown twice a month. Not only are you getting outstanding hourly pay for your efforts, but you'll probably be introduced to as interesting and varied a social circle as this city offers.

You'll find a remarkable, heartening camaraderie with your companions in line [the same people week after week, assigned to report at the same time you are]. It is strong enough to override an astounding diversity of background. A woman who waited in line 2-3 while I waited in line 4-5 displayed in the course of a winter, a stunning wardrobe of fur coats. A young man with an auburn pony tail completed his liberal education, moving, as the weeks passed, through Joyce, Eliot and Henry James. To a man in a green crocheted cap [and especially to his cassette recorder], I owe a useful, if involuntary, education in soul music.

Talk with everybody. The old-timers are cherry, helpful, and well-informed about the system; they can be a real source of comfort and strength in facing a body of regulations at once complicated, grudgingly explained, and unimaginatively enforced.

Standing in line together forges a special bond. Should you run into a comrade in some other situation, you may not know each other's names [people rarely exchange personal information], but you'll share the delicious secret knowledge of where you met.

And remember, a period of unemployment lets you trade money for time. You have the chance -- indeed, you have no alternative but to peek over the rim of your rut -- to see what else life offers. You are required by law to look for a steady job, but until one comes along you can earn a limited amount of money without jeopardizing your benefits. Thus, you can try out temporary or part-time jobs, or your checks can help finance your long-delayed first novel, or the reading you meant to do, or the improvement of your backhand or spiritual life, or the birth of your own business.

It could be the only time you'll ever get to try what you've put off for "someday." For Comfort On the Line

If you find yourself in an unemployment line:

Wear comfortable shoes.

Bring something to read, preferably something both absorbing and not spoiled by interruptions.

Bring something to nibble.

Bring your sense of humor. You'll need it.

Don't arrive at the head of the line more than a few minutes before your assigned reporting time; you'll only have to go back and wait.