The gold dealers -- they call themselves traders -- were in town again two weekends ago. The ones from New York. They ran a huge ad in the paper, rented a room at the Holiday Inn at Tyson's and proceeded to buy up the inventories of suburban households.

Mine was one of those households. I had been perishing with curiosity ever since metal prices started to climb, and dealers began advertising, "Buying GOLD AND SILVER . . . HIGHEST PRICES PAID." I couldn't resist any longer. Besides, my car insurance premium was due.

I found the motel, and went in expecting to find the traders set up in a big banquet hall or something, but instead was directed to a regular room, with the door open, and a couple of chairs in the hallway beside it.

I lined up outside the door (only two customers at a time allowed in the room), with my plastic bag of silver bangle bracelets from high school, a big silver tablespoon, an old Mexican peso, and assorted other bottom-of-the-drawer finds. Next to me was an old gal with dyed black hair and a tiny shopping bag from Garfinckel's.

Both of us had brought along a girlfriend for moral support and protection in the parking lot. I had promised mine a free lunch and an adventure; I don't know how she got hers to come.

Both of us were a little ashamed of what we were there for, and covered this up with nervous chatter as we waited our turn. A handsome young man came out of the room and announced that he had just received $93 for his high-school ring.

Inspired and heartened by his announcement, my friend and I followed a little, dark, polite man into the tiny motel room. They had taken out the beds. A uniformed guard with a gun stood stocially facing two long tables, placed end-to-end. Behind each table sat a trader, and in back of them was a man with a cash box resting on a folding TV tray.

The blinds were closed, and each table had a large motel lamp. I started feeling like I had come to a place where they sell pornography. I sat down facing my dealer, hoping for some reassuring exchange of pleasantries. There were none. "Whatcha got?"

I laid my booty bag on the table in front of him. The dealer didn't touch it. Instead, he threw me an annoyed look and I realized guiltily that I supposed to hand him things from the bag.

I noticed that his hands were dirty. Metal does that, I guess. He put my silver in a stainless-steel mixing bowl on a scale next to him (I couldn't see anything but the top of the mixing bowl).

While he busied himself with weighing and calculating, I studied him. Curly dark hair, about 35 years old, shirt opened to display several gold chains, one with a heavy, dangling bar. He quickly finished his calculations. c"Sixty-nine fifty."

Not enough to cover my car insurance payment. Then I realized I had withheld two pieces I had brought: the old peso and a silver-handled bottle opener. I offered the bottle opener. "It's weighted. We don't want it."

"You mean you can't be bothered to take it apart."

"That's right, lady."

He scraped the peso across a whetstone and dropped some chemical on the mark it made. I asked him what was supposed to happen. "Nothing. If it turns green, you're outta luck." It didn't turn green.

He asked the other dealer about the rate for pesos, and began weighing and calculating again. I watched as the other trader returned to his customer, the black-haired lady. She had just handed him a watch, and he was telling her the band was worthless. She also had a plastic sandwich bag full of rings.

I felt sorry for her as she continued chattering to the wooden-faced dealer.

She seemed to need reassurance. She had come to the wrong place for that.

My dealer offered me $6 for the peso. It was an old one -- 1943. I fleetingly wondered what it was worth to a coin collector, but I said okay and he filled out a piece of paper for the cashier behind him. Then he bent over his whetstone, diligently cleaning it with sandpaper, and rinsing it in a small bucket. He repeated the ritual several times.

"By the way," I said, "how much are you giving me per ounce?" He mumbled a reply without looking up from his cleaning, and I heard "Fourteen." I think he said $14.25.

I had checked the metal prices for that day in the paper. No doubt he had, too. Silver was listed at $33 per ounce, and I had figured I'd get half that much -- $16.50. So much for illusions.

The cashier stood up and asked if I'd be willing to take part of my money in ones. I agreed, and he gave me six 10's and 15 ones. I guess they saved the larger bills for the people who had brought in their wedding silver.

I gathered up my plastic bag, empty now except for the rejected opener, took the cash, and carefully placed it in a separate compartment of my purse, away from my other money. I had this overwhelming urge to launder it.

I grabbed my friend's arm, and we headed for the door. She looked catatonic, and I realized she hadn't said a word the whole time, I, too, felt a need for space and a lot of fresh air.

We almost bumped into a man who stuck his head through the door as we left. He had on a tweed hat with a little feather in the band.

"How much are you giving for German silver?" he asked timidly. "Whatcha got?" came the reply.