They sit there, hunched on red leatherette stools in a tarnished yellow gleam, while the sun comes up and Mom pours refills of java and Mike Barnes the night man rakes grease off his spatula and commits a fifth straight egg order to memory.

"Morning. What's yours?"

"Bacon, over easy, home fries."

"Say, how's that new boarder you got?"

"You mean the baby? Well, he's climbing the stairs now."

"Better watch him on that."

Cab hacks and insomniacs, jivers and schemers and all-night dreamers, a trooper in jackboots, a deejay, somebody who cleans the streets. They are brothers in their hunger.

"Got a piece of that cold Dutch apple back there?"

"Just coconut creme, honey."

"Then give me that and black."

It is 5:20 a.m. in the Tastee Diner, 7731 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda. "Return to Sender" is on the Rock-Ola; 26 cents is on the register. Business is about as usual, which is to say terrific.

"Scrambled, scrapple, home fries and a stack."

"Got it."

"Got it."

"Four light on two, sausage, home fries one."

"Ain't the bread man going to eat today?"

"Nah, don't have time."

On it goes, rolling to its own inner rhyme and comforting clatter. Outside it may be lonely, but in here is what Hemingway called a clean, well-lighted place. Human contact. Even hope.

In a little while, the graveyard shift will go off and the morning crew will come on. Butch Hubbard will take over the grill then -- popping eggs with his right hand, discarding the shells without looking slapping sausages with a trowel-like spatula, ladling out pancakes from a bucket he keeps in the Star metal cooler to his right. It will continue this way nearly without a lull for the next five hours. Then lunch will hit.

Plop.

Sizzle.

Scoop and flip.

Rake it on a plate. Wheel to the counter. Scribble out the check. And back to the grill. Turn the stack, slap on more home fries, grab a patty, pound down six more slices of bread in the toaster, dice through the scrambled: "Tat-tat-tat-tat."

He never slows. Not a movement is wasted. Butch Hubbard, 51, from Taylorsville, N.C., with five grandchildren and a blue tattoo on his forearm, is a pitcher in perfect groove, a bartender gone berserk, Baryshnikov.

"First timers come in here and they say, "Hey lady, is this a streetcar or what?" says a waitress named Carolyn, who's going off after 10 hours on. "We say, 'Yep, getting ready to take off any minute now.'"

A 24-hour theater of the unexpected, a cultural lunchbox: You don't always go for the food.

A while ago, Butch Hubbard chased a dine-and-dasher to the corner. "Great big tall boy. Got him by the tie. He said, 'Don't hurt me, I'm going to pay.' I said, 'I know you are.' He paid. Then he went outside and kicked the paper rack."

Another time, says a waitress, "these two guys come in. It's the middle of the night, maybe three o'clock. One guy asks me for a spoon and a pack of matches. He takes out this white capsule and starts grinding it into powder. I knew he was faking. I said, 'Okay, you got to snort it.' So he grins and sticks it up to his nose.You know what it was? A Tic-Tac. He got a nosebleed. Crazy guy still comes in."

Diner dreams: They glow in the imagination like a 1940 ad for Brasso. To be good, that is pure, the dream must reek of kitsch. Think of art-deco frosted block-glass in the vestibule, black-and-white patterned tile floors, little sunbursts of stainless steel shooting from behind the coffee urn (which of course is a three pot Bunn Automatic).

In the perfect American diner -- somewhere in Schenectady or Allentown or Waterbury -- there is a waitress named Louise who used to rivet bombers. There's also a grill man named Ernie. Ernie still looks Navy, 1953. Smokes Luckies. Has a screaming blue eagle tattoo. Louise stands over you, a motherly hulk, while you scan the menu. The menu is boxed with little ads like this: Buddy Wilson. Towing and Road Service. Anytime. Anywhere.

Think I'll have two poached eggs on toast," you say.

"Adam and Eve on a raft," barks Louise; the stub of pencil hasn't left her beehive.

"Couldn't I change that to scrambled?"

"Wreck Em, Ernie."

Diner dreams: Manicured hedges and a canvas crank-back awning and a metal shaped like a boomerang and lit with neon: PULL OVER. Inside, a rounded curve of grease-splatched ceiling and enough gas to start a Texaco. You park your Fairlane and hop in.

Frankfurters and beans? Not in here. That's "hounds on an island," buddy.

Pass the salt and pepper? You mean Mike & Ike. Also known as the Jones Boys.

Hash? That's "forever and ever": You keep recycling it.

But nothing is really forever, not even fantasies of the perfect diner. Once, these harmless little technicolor roadside temples blinked from practically every town in the Northeast United States. New Jersey alone had hundreds. U.S. 1 probably had a thousand. They had names like the Silver Top and the Tick Tock and the Day and Night.

At their height, in the wartime '40s, about 10,000 diners existed in America. PFC from Ft. Dix, a soldier's cap cocked at his ear, nothing on the plate before him but smeared catsup and cigarette ash: 'You maybe like a ride home when you get off tonight?' Trixie, with ruby-red lips and rolls of jet-black hair and crows' feet beginning to wrinkle her eyes: 'Sorry, soldier boy, got a husband.'

No more than a couple thousand diners remain in America now, most in shabby disrepair. There's a mint one in Seattle, another in Milwaukee, one in St. Paul. Depending on how you count, Washington has five diners extant. Bob & Edith's, on Columbia Pike in Arlington, has a fake potted fir tree in the doorway and a stabbing orange illustrated menu over the patrons' heads: "Why is she smiling? She just finished eating Bob & Edith's veal cutlet, $2.30."

There are no diners left in the city itself. Once, there were two -- one owned by a cab company near 24th St. NW, another at Vermont and L, called the Dee Cee Diner. The Dee Cee was populated by news printers and cops and prostitutes. Also the Daughters of the American Revolution when they came for convention. Or so says Wallace Hutchins, who had the Dee Cee from '45 to '63. "Miss that damn old place," Hutchins says sadly. "We had folks come down from Baltimore, up from Richmond, just to watch my boys cook." Today, Wallace Hutchins owns the H&S Cafeteria at Connecticut and L. That is not a diner at all.

What makes a diner a diner is ambience.You should be able to walk in at 4 in the afternoon and order breakfast. Diners are the common and uncommon man's private club, 24-hour assembly lines of nourishment.

Irony has its ways: The Tastee in Bethesda sits, frozen in time, across from the Golden Crown Unisex Hair Salon. The Tastee's patrons are a spray of gas-station mechanics and downtown office workers, glitter rockers and late-night bowlers. It was only a few years ago that the Tastee stopped handing out wooden chips with each cup of coffee. The chips were redeemable for a free cup next time. Dreams.

These days, the American diner's rightful home is the Smithsonian. Or a Raymond Chandler novel. Or an Edward Hopper painting. In Hopper's famous "Nighthawks," the lunch counter becomes a bath of saving light in a darkened city.

The movies had their dreams. "Little Caesar," with Edward G. Robinson, has a terrific diner sequence. So does the film version of Hemingway's "The Killers." In jazz singer Tom Waits' anthem, "Eggs & Sausage," he wails: Nighthawks at the diner Of Emma's 49er, there's a rendevous Of strangers around the coffee urn tonight.

Streetcar companies from New York and Philly would sell their abandoned trolleys for as little as $10, install them on vacant lots, fit them with counters and kitchens. Bingo, you had a diner.

The one manufacturing firm that hangs in from the old days, Kullman Industries in Avenel, N.J., builds them now to seat 300, with gaudy carpets and white Grecian columns and smoked mirrors and crystal sconces that shadow-light the blue suedecloth walls. Phantasmagorias of excess. They are to the real thing what Dolly Parton is to Twiggy. "The automobile moved from the Model A to the Camaro, didn't it?" says Roberg Kullman, executive vice president. He is speaking from a conference phone in his office as he clears his desk and dictates to secretaries. Kullman builds diners for half-a-million on up. In the old days, the Jerry O'Mahoney Co. used to build them for $70,000. The history of diners will tell you a lot about America.

And yet there is a quiet movement afoot to recognize the real McCoys before they pass. This fall, Harper and Row will publish a cultural history called "American Diner" by Richard Gutman, who thinks diners are important to us all not only for their contribution to roadside vernacular -- along with the tourist court and the early gas station -- but because they are a uniquely democratic institution. There was once a diner in Northampton, Mass., where the president of Smith College regularly sat down to steak and eggs with sheet-rock workers.

There is now on the National Register of Historic Places a diner in Pawtucket, R.I., called the Modern. Tourists come by. Bloomingdales, never one to lag on a possible trend, now sells pop-up postcards of a diner. Cost: $3. That's more than sausage, two eggs, home fries, toast and coffee costs at the Tastee. Diners may turn out to be chic before they die.

America's No. 1 diner maniac may be New York artist named John Baeder. Baeder paints warm, loving canvases of diners.He has well over 100 and there is a book out of his work. His paintings of diners hang in museums in Denver and other cities; some sell for $8,000. Baeder gets in his '68 Chevelle wagon, called the Nomad, and goes in search of his diner dreams. "I always feel like an archeologist on a dig," says Baeder, 40, who has been mad at them since he was a kid in Atlanta and used to marvel at the cook's choreography at the Majestic, across the street from where he lived. Oh, those Camel-stained fingers. The guy never missed a flip.

"I see diners as icons, as extensions of the hearth and the general store," says Baeder. "I think it's the symmetry I like. I like the sit. I like their color and their gesture. Sometimes, for some reason, something unconscious in our lives pops out at us. That's what happened with me and diners. They said, 'Hi, there, talk to me."

Currently, Baeder works in his Soho studio on a painting of the Good Food Diner in Front Royal, Va. He's been painting the canvas for six weeks. He has great hopes. "Of course, it's a major painting; it's a major image." The Good Food, which still exists, is slathered outside with the menu, he says. "The owner took a spray can and went crazy. I think it was a statement on what McDonald's was doing to his psyche. His place screams out, 'Don't starve. Eat here. Help me.'"

"So, they keeping you busy, Butch?" says a huge man with a clip-on tie and a white belt and white shoes. He has just hunkered down on a stool."

"Well, moving along."

He has been doing this job for 35 years. It's the only work he knows, Butch Hubbard says, though he worked in a sawmill in Carolina once and was raised up on a farm. He's worked Toddle Houses, and he's worked Tastees. It's the same old story: Cook it plain and serve it fast. He gets up every morning at quarter to 3 -- even Saturdays and Sundays. "Been doing it so long to quit." A crinkle of grin. He wipes his hands on his apron, slurps his coffee.

Once, in a Tastee (not extant) in Rockville where he worked, Robert Mitchum came in. These days Hubbard rustles eggs for Gordon Peterson and Jerry Smith. On Saturdays, one half of Harden and Weaver comes in, gets coffee and a sandwich in a sack. Once, they think Walter Cronkite came in -- nobody knows for sure.

"You can say hello. But you got to keep your back to them. Bad to get behind."

Butch Hubbard shakes his head. All the memories. All the WORK.Later, when he is off, you suggest his moves might almost be set to music. He cackles. So does the rest of the crew in earshot. No one in the Tastee Diner thinks his or her job is anything but work. Don't talk to them of preservation of a vanishing American landscape.

Susy Yates, waitress: "Tonight and tomorrow night I'm doubling up. I worked days all week. When I get off at 6 a.m. Sunday, I'll be like this." She makes a sound like somebody who has stuck her finger in a socket.

Some of these people have nowhere to go, Yates says. Funny, "I know them more by what they eat. There are people I wait on two, three years, I don't even know their name. But as soon as they come in, I know what they'll order."

Bar-be-cue all the way, Butch.

Double-clutch me over, bacon, home fries.

The stories, Susy Yates says, sucking on her cig. She is at the far end of the Formica counter, counting out her tips: piles of quarters. "Coca-cola Cowboy" is on the juke. ("You walked across my heart like it was Texas . . . ")

One time a guy comes in, orders a hamburger, asks for mayo. Then a dish of mayo. Then his check. He takes a knife and smears mayo on the check. Then he eats it.

"Remember that guy who wanted chipped beef on his apple pie?" calls over Bob LeMar from behind the counter. Bob is part-time these days. Has a weary smile. "All my life," he says, when you ask him how long he's been in diners. Shakes his head. Deliver me, Lord. A good grill man can go 12 orders in his head, LeMar says. "Then the waitress will come over and say, 'Change that to wheat toast' and he has to start all over." He's known grill men to used to carry their own tools. He's known a lot.

Do you ever get tired of it, want out? Susy Yates is asked. It is a dumb question. "Yeah, sure, of course." She's looking down, holding in her smoke. "You take a day or two off, you come right back. I wouldn't work in a restaurant. Diners aren't restaurants. Diners are friendly places. Kinda like home, y'know?"

Betty Schwanebeck will tell you that too. To the customers and the help, she's just "Mom." There's a tiny flag in her blouse and three little red valentine hearts in the left lens of her glasses. She's worked here a couple of decades, the night shift for the last 10 or 11 years. She wears a blue waitress jacket with checks on the pocket. She is soft and tough and motherly and middle-aged-sexy all at once.

"You either understand diners, or you don't," Mom says.

She says this in between waiting on two guys in T-shirts and painter pants. One has on a canvas Benjamin Moore Paints hat turned backward with the bill up. They've just slid into the worn wooden booth behind the cash register. One drums his fingers on the tabletop, the other flips through the selection cards of the miniature juke. "Merle Haggard," he sighs. He punches up Frank Sinatra. "We gotta hump it today."

Two middle-aged men sit in the booth behind them. This is their day off; they've met for breakfast.

"That old woman of mine's got the keenest sense of smell," says one.

"Yeah?"

"I'll be sitting down there in the basement and she'll holler from upstairs: 'You smoking again?'"

Mom takes their order. She doesn't comment.

The men watch a young woman come in. The woman has a baby in a sling on her back.

"Carrying a damn baby on her back."

"Yeah, just like little animals."

"I think this women's lib has made them coocoo."

"This Western yours?" calls over the cook.

"Coming."

"Black, isn't it?"

"Yep, and let me have some mash and corn."

"So where's Sue Angel Today?"

"Getting her teeth pulled."

She'll sleep today, you better believe, Mom says, checking out. She'll get home by 7, when her neighbors are struggling to raise the blinds. She'll take some coffee, maybe flip on the news. The sun will be out, the moon will have faded, and so will she. Tomorrow she'll be back.

Maybe we like them because they're little lamps against the night. Or because they propose to be nothing more than what they seem -- architectural metaphors for rest and fueling. Whatever, the reason, there is a certain spiritual lift to be had from stopping by the American diner before she goes. Even if you're traveling at high speed.

"So what have you got working?"

"Four on two. Put bacon with the fries."