"I can't take you at 12:30 for lunch," said Milton, the headwaiter at the Golden Ox. "If you come at 12:15, okay."

What's the difference between 12:30 and 12:15?

"It's National Secretaries Day," Milton explained, "and they're all coming at 12:30"

Today is National Secretaries Day, the high point of National Secretaries Week. Secretaries have been singled out for years with the blessing of American florists, anxious to boost sales between Easter and Mother's Day.

This week 4.3 million professionals, mostly women, are being honored. They may receive a plant or flowers and possibly a free lunch.

The boss should choose a restaurant wisely to impress his secretary and keep her from straying. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, young women are seeking the more exciting careers opening up for them, and there will be a shortage of about 300,000 secretaries this year.

In olden times, secretaries used to be known as "Girl Fridays," and they did all sorts of odd jobs. Today's women consider these things demeaning, and they have a good case. To mark National Secretaries Week a few years ago, a group called Women Office Workers (WOW) held a contest to determine the most ridiculous chores women have to do for their male bosses.

One secretary said she had to dash to the corner newsstand every day to get a refund for the newspaper her boss had just finished reading. Another secretary said she had to scour the city to keep her boss supplied with chocolate marshmallow cookies.

No wonder many secretarial jobs go unfilled. Still, there is some evidence that secretarial work (mostly through the efforts of individual women and office-worker groups) has improved some recently. Women firmly refuse to be gofers, make coffee or clean spots off male executives' suits. And a few high-level executive secretaries reportedly make up to $30,000 a year.

But those do doubt are very few, so it behooves a boss with the slightest amount of common sense to treat his secretary right. Especially today.

During this period, when the question, "Can you type?" might elicit a black eye, we sought out a bright-eyed 18-year-old about to embark a secretarial career and a 68-year-old sec retary who came to Washington in 1942 and is still at her job.

The sidewalk cafe next door to the Washington School for Secretaries offered a close encounter with K Street traffic, noise and carbon monoxide.

Eighteen-year-old Rosemarie Wojcik sipped a coke through a straw. She lives with her parents in Hillcrest Heights and spends weeknights with her grandmother in D.C. She will graduate from secretarial school next and is full of optimism and dreams.

"Being a secretary is a stepping stone to other things," she said. "Originally I wanted to get in the legal field, but now I want to work for a labor union. The benefits are good and the working conditions are good. "Some girls are starting at $12,000."

Wojcik decided on secretarial school rather than following an older sister to college. "College offers a way of rounding yourself off," she said. "But I wasn't ready for it. "I will take some classes some day, as my parents said, when I get the money."

At the school she takes shorthand, typing, filing, bookkeeping, accounting, data processing and a basic background in office work.

"I'm now working on 120 words a minute in shorthand. My typing is about 70 words a minute -- 80 is considered on your way -- and you are only allowed three errors in a five-minute copy."

She likes to ski and someday wants to travel to Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, "all the ski places."

For now, well, she said the school is giving an hour and a half for lunch this week instead of the usual half hour.

Watching the people along the side walk, she added, "I'm happy, I love school, but I also love getting out. I love to walk the streets of D.C. Everyone looks like they have a place to go, and soon I'll be right along with them, having a place to go."

On her first day in Washington -- the year was 1942 -- Muriel Phillips went down to sign up at a rooming house at 18th Street NW at Connecticut Avenue, then took a long walk along Constitution Avenue. "It was exciting, I loved the buildings and the people. I had left Boston the day before and it was a long train ride. I was anxious to settle down and work at my first secretarial job."

She went to work for the Veterans Administration on Vermont Avenue, switched in 1950 to the U.S. Postal Service and moved to her present job in 1971 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"It is hard to think it was 38 years ago," Muriel said with a wan smile. "Things have changed so much, I had to be at work at 5 p.m. and got off at 12:30, and I walked home every night."

She is slender and about 5 foot 6, her hair is white now and cut short.

She touches it with a careful stroke and says, "It was once blond, when it began to turn white I used shampoo in some color, then for some strange reason it became auburn before turning white." As an after thought she added, "There were a lot of red heads in my family."

Her health is good, a quiet miracle, she recovered from a heart ailment. "My doctor was amazed," she said. "My heart is normal now, the last testing was perfect."

Muriel learned her profession at Burdett Business College in Boston. She attended two years, taking the executive secretary course that included business law and economics.

"It was still the depresseion years," she said. "There were no jobs. I was unemployed for two years, then took a job as a waitress. When war broke out there was work in Washington, so I came here."

With her tough working hours, there wasn't much time left for entertainment, but she did get to see movies at the Capitol Theatre and the Warner.

She married and moved into an apartment. Her husband died in 1958.

She's given a lifetime to her work. "I wanted to visit England, France, Germany," said Muriel, her blue eyes looking at something distant, "but I had so much working as a secretary there was little time for anything else.

"I put in a lot of overtime, mostly at the Post Office."

She looked rather early New England in a blue-and-white print dress, a coat-sweater of a lilac hue, and soft comfortable shoes and seemed a bit nervous being interrogated.

"When I was with the Post Office, I was taken to lunch during Secretaries Week," she said.

"I like to go to Hogates on Friday."

Muriel has half-thoughts about retiring and said, "Maybe in a year, I don't know. There is a lot of work to do.

"I'm sorry, I have to get back to work.