Wherever he is in Manhattan -- in the artists' bars he drinks in; or walking home in the odd nighttime quiet of the garment district with its empty buildings dwarfed, somehow, by the clamor of depravity in Times Square, not far to the north; or even lying in bed in his loft, staring at the pressed tin ceiling crusty with paint -- Mr. Apology knows his phone will ring any second.

We are all guilty, after all. Nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa. And Mr. Apology has made confession just a dial tone away.

The phone rings. A red light glows in the darkness of his loft, illuminating the pictures of saints around his answerind device. The pictures, Mr. Apology says, are an accident, merely souvenirs of Mexico. Mr. Apology is an artist, not a priest; he is a professional sculptor in his mid-30s, a cabinet-maker, a painter, a dabbler in physics and, in his youth, in shoplifting.

That was back in his Washington years, his salad days, he'll tell you, when he wandered from store to store in an overcoat equipped with fishhooks on the inside, all the better to snag steaks and blues records and power tools . . . ah, but that's in the past, and has nothing to do, he'll tell you, with the pictures of the saints, or the phone ringing hundreds of times since Oct. 20, as it rings right now, in the cluttered expanse of an old manufacturing space.

Mr. Apology limps through it -- he fell off a ladder the day before -- and turns up the volume on the answering device. He nods with a half-smile you'll see on his face a lot, the look of someone who feels either superior or ill at ease, it's hard to tell which . . . maybe both. . .

In my life I've taken all sorts of drugs and they've made me very crazy, so to say, a woman tells the answering device in a sad, sad, tense murmur. So many of the people talk as if they've been saying these things over and over to themselves. And I killed a man when I was with my boyfriend robbin' a drugstore and we killed him but we didn't mean to and . . . it's on my mind and it's a guilty feelin'. . .

Sometimes there are threats, which is why Mr. Apology doesn't give out his real name. I think I'm gonna come and get you. I think I'm gonna blow you away, the man says, being seized now by the hell-grimy delight of his idea. I'm going to firebomb your ------ place, man. The breathing gets heavy. I'm going to kill you. You're in big trouble.

In October, Mr. Apology printed 1,200 posters and pasted them up all over Manhattan: ATTENTION Amateurs, Professionals, CRIMINALS Blue Collar, White Collar You have wronged people. It is to people that you must apologize, not to the state, not to God.

Get your misdeeds off your chest!

Call APOLOGY (212) 255-2748

And they have, hundreds of them since Oct. 20, to avail themselves of "a way for people to apologize for their wrongs against people without jeopardizing themselves." The poster advises them to call from a pay phone and not give their names. They are warned: "When enough statements have been collected they will be played to the public at a time and place to be advertised."

They keep calling.

"When there's publicity, like the radio-station interviews I've been doing or the article in the Soho News, it doesn't stop ringing," says Mr. Apology, who is planning to put up similar posters in Washington soon. "But it's like fishing. Most of the time you just get nibbles. Whole offices will call up, they'll say 'Call this number, you won't believe it.'"

They listen to Mr. Apology's invitation to confess: "This is Apology. Apology is not associated with the police or any other organization, rather it is a way for you to tell people what you've done wrong and how you feel about it. I know that a one-way conversation with a tape recorder is an intimidating experience, but just relax and take your time."

Most people hang up. But with the next call, or the one after that, a strange undersea monotone cuts in, like a manta ray talking to itself.

A man calls and says: I'm a psychiatrist. I'm admitting people to the hospital and I don't know what I'm doing.

A lovelorn woman calls and says: I'm sorry I didn't tell a person what I could offer him, but I didn't and I can't tell him now. But things are meant to be, aren't they? That's the only consolation that I have.

Another man: I'm a mugger of sorts. Ya see I get, I, ah, I beat homosexuals and I take their money off them. Just sort of . . . Not that I really need the money, I just like to beat homosexuals. And once in a while they wear gold and I take their gold jewelry too."

And one ring later, the mugger is back on the line to shout obscenities. Mr. Apology listens. He smiles. Wouldn't you listen to people confessing heinous evil.? They talk with a drab desperation which inspires -- after a bit of flinching -- a half-smile at your own curiosity, their pathos, your embarrassment, their despair.

"Somebody said I should rent a seedy little office someplace, and have somebody else pick up the tapes at the end of the day, because somebody might try to kill me," says Mr. Apology. "I'm sort of like a sink for emotions people can't contain. It's like being a lightening rod. I feel like a potential victim to somebody with more energy than I could handle."

Not all the calls are menacing, or even depressing. One apologist called to play "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," on a xylophone. Some contrition is cheering in its triviality. One man called long distance to say: I'm really sorry that I haven't written my mother since I moved out to San Francisco from Detriot. Another confessed that when he lived in Portland, Ore., he stole a copy of the New Yorker every week from a chain store. I don't really know if I'm sorry if I did it, but I guess that general uneasiness has remained.

Lots of people call to say the have nothing to apologize for, their tone implying that the very presence of such a service threatens them: You gotta be kidding. Who is gonna apologize? I'm glad for what I do. I go out and beat the ---- out of somebody and rob 'em. If I find you, I rob you too.

Call after call, day after day, tape after tape.

They have even become a lure for young women, an '80s version of the etchings young men used to invite them up to see.

"That too," he says.

There's lots of atmosphere, the fatigue and dinginess of Bohemia in the left: old swivel chairs with split-level seats, a 10-speed bicycle, shelves overloaded with art books, a King Pleasure record leaning against the wall, clothing hanging on chairs, empty beer cans with cigarette ashes on the tops, sculptures and paintings by Mr. Apology and his friends, a bottle of rum, a bottle of Absorbine Jr., a bottle of cough medicine . . . the key being a low and minor one of pain and confusion, an artist's studio. He's no dilettante. He's an educated professional, with a bony, preoccupied face. And it's art that he's after with Apology.

Crime is merely the medium he's chosen to work in, much as he has worked in plexiglass, or as conceptual artists have worked in piles of stones or conversations or typewritten descriptions on the walls of galleries.

Mr. Apology's most recent work is a machine in a plexiglass box with the words "Crime Time" written on it. The art patrom is invited to spin a dial labeled "Fate," then reach inside a hole to try to steal a marble out of the machine. If the Fate wheel has spun ill, you will not lose your marble, but a plastic manacle seizes your wrist for 30 seconds.

Mr. Apology smiles his half smile at a loser caught in a half-squat before his machine. He says, "Now you'll see how long 30 seconds can be."

The motto, he says, being the old jailhouse wisdom: "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." When he talks, he watches his listener, as if to make sure a joke is being shared. Sometimes the listener isn't sure.

He says: "After doing 'Crime Time, an obvious thing to do was a suicide piece, like putting a loaded gun inside a box. But it seemed sloppy and inelegant. The idea of the box led to a confessional. I added an answering machine to that. I printed up the posters. It cost me three or four hundered dollars. I won't make any money out of it. I can't even get famous. But society has provided me with a machine of my dreams. At times it makes me a little crazy. It gets very intense."

It's the biggest hit he's ever had.Hundreds of calls.

Well, I don't know how to say this, says what sounds like a middle-class white male adult. But I should apologize for killing someone. mActually I killed a Negro. And I haven't been able to live with myself since. That's all I have to say. Goodbye for now. I'll be in touch.

One morning Mr. Apology woke up and understood what it all meant, he says.

"Being in New York, I thought about the idea of 'hippie,' versus the idea of 'punk.' I used to be a hippie. The hippie was basing his lifestyle on the outlaw, the whole Western myth. The outlaw isn't a victim of society, he stands outside it. But the punks are into criminal-victim thing, with their facist garb and victim stuff like safety pins through their ear lobes. Their myth comes from America the limited."

We've changed, he says. The Urmyth is no longer the glory and terror of freedom, but the small, sad, vicious, fleeting powers to be had from evil.

"Professional criminals don't call up," he says. "I don't get bank robbers or hit men."

No, the callers are people who are fearful -- or proud -- of the hoofprint of the Fiend, Himself.

Mr. Apology comes home to find lots of apologies from the only crime recognized in every society in the world as evil. Incest.

She always seduces me, says a wisp of a voice. Disgusting. But I enjoy it.

Mr. Apology does not need to do this to get in touch with the seamy side of life. For one thing, he lives in New York. A woman in his building was walking with her baby recently and a man came up to her and said: "Give me the groceries or I'll punch the baby."

For another, he was what he calls his "streak." It was the streak that led to his shoplifting, back when he lived in Washington. He once spent a month and a half building a rifle-stock slingshot so he could fire a half-inch lead ball at the window of an insurance company he thought was ugly.

When he was a kid he wanted to be a burgler. "The idea appealed to me, creeping across rooftops at night."

Who hasn't wanted to be a cat burgler?

The problem is that senseless crime has become just another part of life in America. In "Crime and Punishment," Dostoyeevsky had Raskolnikov define and assert his existence by murdering an old woman. In "The Stranger," Camus' hero murders an Arab on the beach for no reason at all except the existential dilemma. There was a time, in this century, when the great machinery of the State or the Church or Society seemed to be grinding down the philosophers and artists among us. Then, senseless crime had a certain philosophic rationale to it, an aspect of cosmic terrorism.

Now senseless crime is hideously ordinary -- a 16-year-old girl in California opening fire on schoolchildren because, as she said, "I don't like Mondays"; taxicab drivers with their hearts torn out in Buffalo; murdered children in Atlanta. So Mr. Apology has invented something new: the senseless confessional. There's no penance, no absolution. There might be a little catharsis, he says. "Maybe it just lets out a little bile. Gives them a vent."

A man says: I am a human being. I think that's my greatest crime.

Another man: I want to apologize all the time. I feel sorry all the time. I walk down the street and feel sorry. I'm sorry I made this call.

Says Mr. Apology: "We've been getting off on crimes for generations in movies and TV. Did you ever watch 'Caught in the Vice' back in the '50s? Or 'Confidential'? I loved those shows. Maybe it's time we should honor the criminal. I told one guy I'm giving criminals a voice. I know in my heart of hearts that Apology has an effect. It makes me feel enormously vulnerable to say I shoplifted, but it's an enormous relief."

Not that he feels guilty, really. But he sits and his collection of icons -- a model cathedral his ex-wife gave him, pictures of saints and holy infants -- and records and power tools, all the clutter of an artist's studio, some of it dating back to his old shoplifting days. He drinks rum and orange juice. He smiles his half-smile. He listens to the old cage-style elevator rising and falling from loft to loft in the hush of the garment district at night.

He denies that he feels very guilty about his own crimes. He denies that it means anything that his tape recorder is surrounded by holy pictures. He admits that he's scared someone will try to kill him.

We used to kill the messengers who brought bad news. Maybe now they kill us.

"You have to risk your life to the fullest to live a little bit," says Mr. Apology.

The phone rings.