I once went to New York, was pickpocketed and didn't have enough money to get home. A friend referred me to a temporary employment service; I worked two weeks and earned the money to go home to California.

When I moved to Washington, I had no savings and a six-week wait for an unemployment check. I saw a classified ad for a "temp" service, registered, and worked fairly steadily for five months before landing a permanent job.

I recently decided to pay off a debt, so I took a one-week paid vacation from my permanent job and registered with a temp service I found through the Yellow Pages. The service paid me more per hour than my permanent job, and I'm out of debt.

If "temping" didn't exist, I'd be soaking the government, living off friends or . . . sitting in jail. Many of the estimated 100,000 area residents who "temped" last year could be sharing one of those fates, if the city's 62 office/medical/industrial/technical temp services didn't exist.

People "temp" for a variety of reasons, according to temp service managers. Temps are housewives and displaced homemakers reentering the job market, retirees keeping busy, students juggling budgets and class loads, seasonally-scheduled flight attendants, professionals between jobs, graduates taking a respite from job-hunting pressures, newcomers to the area, artists financing more creative endeavors, travelers wanting ready mobility, and moonlighters supplementing inflation-diminished incomes.

Those who choose to temp know fringe benefits aren't forthcoming until they work a certain number of hours. They know some assignments involve doing a regular office worker's dirty work. And they know they'll sometimes be lonely, an office outsider, left to answer phones while everyone else is at lunch.

But many temps say they acquire insights they couldn't get otherwise.

Says Karen Amelang, who started temping in college, where she studied African history: "I've learned how Washington works behind the scenes, the games people play and how various offices overlap. I've learned how to case a joint for the things I'd want in a permanent job. And I've been through the secretary's school of hard knocks -- I've learned formally in school."

Lenora Fuller, 28, who has a B.A. in public affairs, temped three years before accepting a permanent job: "I worked for organizations having great order and great chaos. I developed a pretty good opinion of how an organization should be managed. That experience was helpful now that I'm a management analyst in the government."

Three-year veteran Ernest Johnson, 22, began temping in Washington during summer vacations from Oberlin (Ohio) College, from which he graduated last year with a degree in economics and communications. Since July 1979, he's been temping 5 days a week at the World Bank as a statistical typist in accounting and finance.

"Some companies are hard to get into permanently when you're applying from the outside," says Johnson. "Working temporary for them gives you a better chance." Besides, he ads, "I'm one of the few people who likes to type."

A few temps have turned down job offers because they prefer temping.

Lisa Dickson -- "I'm an 'Army brat' and have lived all over the world" -- says she's temped for four years because she wants the option to travel. She likes being her own boss, and even though she's left out of office socializing, she'd just as soon skip company politics.

More than one temp mentioned that after completing an assignment where no permanent job was available, the satisfied customer's parting words were, "If you ever need a recommendation, feel free to give our name."

"When you leave an assignment," says one longtime temp, "they always thank you because they think you've done them a favor."

Temping is a good way to get a permanent job, and temp services know this. Although they expect a steady turnover, some services resent being used, or perceived, as a personnel placement agency.

"We are the employers of our temporaries," stresses the regional manager of one service. "We're responsible for unemployment insurance, OSHA claims, payroll procedures, withholding tax, workers' compensation, bonding, and, of course, recruiting. Many people don't know that the temporary doesn't pay us a fee . . . When a client confuses us with agencies and asks for a temporary to try out in a permanent position, we make it clear that we screen and fill orders for temporary work."

Instead of charging a fee, services pay temps an hourly rate and then charge the client an hourly rate 25 to 60 percent higher. If a temp makes $5 an hour as a clerk-typist, the client is billed roughly $7.50 an hour. (This is why services strongly discourage -- the word is more like forbid -- temps from doing personal business on a client's time.) This mark-up rate is, however, a bargain for companies that have fluctuations of activity, seasonal turnover, changing job descriptions, and staff cutbacks because of inflation.

Office temps earn $3.25 to $9 an hour; some highly skilled temps make more.

One service pays engineers $22 an hour."In 1972," recalls the branch manager, "we had an engineer make $28,000. Three years ago, Pierre Salinger requested a French-to-English interpreter and we paid the woman $15 an hour." r

Many office assignments are, it is generally agreed, mundane. But clients are usually honest about their asignments. So a temp with a Ph.D in literature shouldn't be too surprised to find herself typing envelopes or a law-school graduate typing instead of writing legal briefs, actual cases.

An adventuresome temp might work as a Santa Claus, or as a buyer of goods for spot inspection, or a door-to-door survey taker, or a product demonstrator. f

The Houston branch of one D.C. service got an order for a roller skater to demonstrate the sturdiness of a flooring material -- the perfect job for the state roller-skating champ, who was registered with the service.

Whatever the assignment, temps generally feel they can turn to their service if a job problem occurs. "If a client treated my people rudely, I'd intervene or possibly drop the account," says one customer-service rep. "You'd be out of business in a minute if people didn't think they'd get treated right."

Although services try to match a temp's skill with the job order, some well-educated temps are often over-qualified for their assignments. If a Ph.D. feels dejected about doing clerical work, says an operations manager, "We make the distinction that he or she is doing this temporarily for survival, and we'll supply him with any job enabling a continued search for something more satisfying."

Says a woman who's been in the business three years, "I've found the most highly qualified people are the most flexible. They're not intimidated, so they have no qualms about sitting down to a typewriter."

Despite steady turnover, some services build up an ongoing rapport with their temps.

"I know my people," says one service rep. "I know whose kids are sick, who's having problems. I know the fear of a housewife reentering the job market, because I was one. This is a high-pressure city, people get scared and lonely and they need someone to talk to. I once had a woman call and say she was going to commit suicide, but she just wanted to talk.

"If this were a meat market," she adds, "I wouldn't do this job."