IT SEEMS that every evening when I come home I find my coat loaded down with business cards of people I don't know or ever hope to see again.

My problem is not that I accept the cards, but that I refuse to throw them away. There is something in me that says someday I will want to get in touch with the vice president of the Timesure Disposable Watch Company, or "Thomas Furth, Birdbath Appraiser." The cards pile up on the dresser, and every once in a while, my wife asks if she can throw them away. "Are you crazy?" I yell. "Every card on that dresser is a potential friend or a customer or someone who can provide a service."

She'll pick up one of the cards. "What can Clarence Dogwhistle do for you?"

"Clarence, if you must know, sat next next to me on the plane and happens to raise Arabian horses. If we ever go to Arabia, he could provide us with a horse."

There is a social pecking order to business cards that many people are not aware of. Very low on the scale are those who have everything printed about themselves on the cards. "Henry Gluestein, Fur Repairs, New Linings, Collar Renovations, 153 Main Street, Brooklynn, N.Y. Established 1923. Telephone: 333-5460. Open Mondays through Saturdays 9-6, and Thursday evenings until 8. We accept credit cards."

Next on the ladder are those who must still identify what they do for a living. "Nancy Gordon -- Attorney atLaw, Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Badfriend," with address and telephone included.

Finally, at the top, are the people who have cards with just their name on it, and no further identification, address or telephone number.

These people are so secure, they assume you'll know who they are and what they do -- and if you don't, tough luck for you.

A few weeks ago, I found one on my dresser that just said "Ira Harris" on it. I stared at it for an hour, trying to remember who Ira Harris was and why he gave me his card. I turned it over, but there was no clue there. Then I held it up to the light, hoping against hope that there would be an invisible watermark that might tip me off. Nothing.

Rather than forget about it, I started every waking moment to "Ira Harris." If he had just put the city or state where he came from on the card I'm sure I would have recalled what he did. I wondered if he had a family, and whether he was having a nice summer. Did he play tennis, or was he a golfer? Did he own his own business, or did he work for a multinational? It drove me crazy until someone gave me a card that just said "Maude Urmston" on it -- and nothing else. I immediately forgot Ira Harris and started fantasizing about Maude. Was she a "9," or was she a "10"? It was much more fun trying to recall Maude than it was Ira.

People deal with other people's business cards in different ways. I have a friend who keeps everyone else's business cards in his wallet. When a stranger gives him his card, my friend gives him one from the stockpile he carries with him. He feels he's doing a public service because he's keeping everyone's business cards in circulation.

I have another friend who is a practical joker. He'll take a stranger's business card -- let's say a vice president of the Bank of America -- and hold it until a pal checks into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Then he'll give the card to the room clerk and ask him to put it in the pal's box. On the back he'll write, "Waited for you for two hours. Will be back at 8:30 tomorrow morning. Please be in the lobby or the deal is off."

The importance of business cards in American life cannot be overestimated. They are to grown-ups what baseball cards are to youngsters. I treasure every one I ever got.

I've been offered $400 for my "Maude Urmston" card by a collector in Seattle. But I'm not selling until I find out who the hell she is.