Consider what it feels like to stand in line at the supermarket, finally make it to the counter, unload your groceries, and discover you've left cash and checkbook at home.

This is worse.

How about leaving the house, slamming the door and then realizing you've just locked yourself out?

Doesn't even come close.

Or . . . invited to a formal dinner party, you show up, dressed to kill . . . the night before?

Not terrific, agreed, but for the epitome in angst, anxiety and aggravation consider the following:

You're in a rush. Guests are coming for dinner, you've worked all day and you have 30 minutes to drive to Georgetown, pick up wine and dinner fixings and drive home. A parking space beckons, right in front of the store. You slip right in, park the car and sail blithely on your way -- right past the sign that says parking 9-4.

Shopping completed, you return to the parking space at 4:05 and put the bags on the roof of the car while you fish for your keys. The packages crash to the street.

The roof of the car is gone. So is the car.

"Stolen," you yell. "My car's been stolen."

"Towed," says a man, leaning against the building. "Your car's been towed. Came by a few minutes ago -- you missed them by that much," he holds thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart.

"I don't suppose you know where they towed it?"

"Could be I does, and could be I doesn't," he says, taking a long swig from his brown-paper-wrapped bottle.

"Here, take this, a little Brie to go with your beverage."

"You wouldn't happen to have any Camembert -- maybe a few croissants?"

"My car, WHERE IS MY CAR?"

"Impoundment lot at 34th and K. Only couple of blocks," he says, cutting himself a healthy wedge of cheese.

Down by the water's edge I find my car, imprisoned in a giant Alcatraz for autos. "Don't worry about a thing sweetheart," I whisper. "I'll have you sprung in two seconds flat."

"How much," I ask the officer at the gate, "to get my car?"

"We have," he drones on robot pilot, "no facilities for accepting payment here. You have to go to Independence and 6th, pay your fine, or fines for past accumulated violations and then return with the release for the vehicle in question. A shuttle bus will take you to 6th and Indiana.Eventually."

"Wait a second; you don't understand. I've got people coming for dinner. They were coming for wine and cheese, but the cheese is gone and . . . Look, I'll just go over there and get my car. Free up a space for someone else."

"Your vehicle will be released when you return with the proper form."

Desperate -- and making mental apologies to Steinem and Abzug -- I affect my most winsome smile, accompanied by furious flutterings of eyelashes. The effect is immediate, if not gratifying. He flags down a tow truck.

"Better off you get in here with Lorenzo. The shuttle's not too regular and you don't look like you feel so good. Lorenzo will drop you off where you can catch a bus."

Lorenzo is very, very big. He is also very, very angry. He shoots a murderous look at Officer Helpful and steps on the accelerator. I try to make light conversation about the vagaries of the towing business. But Lorenzo, who seems lost without dragging something behind him, is mute.

"I bet you meet a lot of interesting people."

"The stories you could tell -- am I right?"

"What was the heaviest car you ever towed -- and why?"

Somewhere around Dupont Circle the truck comes to a halt and Lorenzo indicates, by raising one huge, hairy paw, that I am to jump into traffic -- immediately.

No bus in sight, I hail a cab to the Department of Transportation -- Bureau of Traffic Adjudication. I elbow through the crowd in the lobby and present myself to the computer. Pronounced ticket-free. I am allowed to move to the next window where the message is announced in big, bold letters:


They did: $50 worth. Freshly "adjudicated," I'm given the magic piece of paper that will parole my "Olds" as soon as I can find my way back to car prison.

The Master Charge Matron advises me to join the crowd in the lobby who are waiting for -- you guessed it -- the highly advertised, but seldom seen, shuttle bus. We all form a tableau that could be labeled "Immigrants in the New Land."

No one knows anything. Not when the shuttle bus last appeared, not when it's schedule to come again. Babies are crying and men are cursing.

"This is a helluva thing," bellows a rotund gentleman, with several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment hanging around his neck. "You come to Washington, park in front of a museum and what happens?"

Silence.We all know what happened.

"I'm in that museum, two, three minutes, come out and my car's gone. The world's tottering on the brink and the president is out towing my car. What a system!"

"Why do they must pick on tourists?" asks a woman with a soft, foreign accent. "We are here only short time and already we must pay to have our car taken away. We don't want it taken away. Why must we pay?"

"And another thing," says the camera man, "in New York this would never happen. In New York we go outta our way to be nice to tourists because we know they're all hicks and don't know nothing anyway."

"If this bus doesn't come soon I'll scream," announces an elderly woman sitting in the corner.

We wait 20 minutes, ignoring the woman in the corner screaming, until finally the bus arrives.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," says our spokesman. "No way is that van going to hold all of us."

"Women and children first," say the women and children.

"Oh no you don't," he growls. "I've been waiting here for this bus longer than Estrogen and Hooligan waited for that Godot fellow -- and I'm getting on."

The driver is very mellow and assures us we will all get on -- or we won't -- but the important thing is to love one another.

We vote to kill the driver.

Our journey has three stops, the three impoundment 'car-clogged lots scattered around Washington: Center City at 3rd between E and F, Brentwood at Brentwood Road and W Street NE., and "mine" at 34th and K, our last destination.

Finally, after chugging around the city dropping the towed, ticketed and booted masses, my car and I are reunited. The evening has cost 4 hours, $50 for towing, $25 for the traffic fine, $7.50 for cheese (paid to informant, may be tax-deductible), 4 confused and hungry dinner guests, 2 unruffled children (watching television and unaware I had not returned home), and worse . . .

One very smug husband who said, "My poor, tired, addlepated darling. Everyone knows you can't park on M Street at four o'clock, stupid."

Wrong. For $75 you can park anywhere you want to.