Gators! (Grunt, grunt, hiss, hiss.) Wear 'em on your Izod shirts! Wrestle 'em! Get down and writhe like 'em on the beer-swamped floor of your fraternity house, this being known as "gatoring." Wear 'em on your belts, sweaters, shorts, and bathing suits! Eat 'em! (The Louisiana State Wildlife Office sells a book of recipes, including Gator Creole.) Get eaten! (Grunt, grunt, hiss, hiss, three people in Florida since 1973.) Feed them gators marshmallows! Big mean old 14-foot gator gets silly as a kitten when you chuck a couple of marshmallows into the bayou. Hypnotize 'em! Priscilla Presley did it on "Those Amazing Animals." (Grunt, hiss.) Wear 'em on your socks, jogging shorts and velour sweatsuit! Now that they're off the endangered species list and ripping pet dogs right off the ends of the leashes in Florida, you don't have to feel sorry for 'em. Wear 'em for shoes! Tote 'em for purses! (Nancy Reagan does.) Drink Gator Ade!

Hey, could this be some kind of major trend here? Is the whole world going gator crazy? Are we about to see a new Goodyear blimp in the shape of an alligator? The big media-PR hypola?

The '70s was the decade of killer bees, this is the decade of the gator. Total mindless goony opportunism.

Consider the fact that gators may be getting very big out in Hollywood. We're not talking movies like "The Curse of Tartu," here, we're talking the movie "Alligator," which has a 32-footer named "Ramon" not only attacking a garden party but gnawing on a Cadillac. Plus a "Hill Street Blues" episode reviving the old and untrue (alas) gators-in-the-sewers stories we told ourselves back when everybody brought baby gators back from Florida, then flushed them into the sewers at first bite. Think of it: the bowels of our cities crawling with childhood disappointments grown huge, albino and blind. New York is the usual site of these apocrypha. As Thomas Pynchon wrote in his novel "V": "The alligator was burbling in the sewage, blowing bubbles and growling gently. Is it saying anything, he wondered. To me?"

Yes. Grunt, grunt, hiss, hiss.

The alligator (from the early explorers' Spanish, el lagarto , meaning "the lizard") may well be the beast of the year, making a bid for all-time trademark status, like the Coke bottle or the Camel pack or the Campbell's soup can.

Actually, it isn't an alligator at all that you see on all those shirts, shorts, etc. It's a crocodile. It's a crocodile because the shirts were created by Rene LaCoste, a French tennis star of the 1920s. He was known as "le crocodile," at least in part because they don't have alligators in France. They don't have alligators everyplace except the southeastern United States and part of China. (See the pattern? The Chinese and American gators standing as allies against the Russian bear? No wonder the gator is big.)

Okay, you're screaming: What about those dudes slurping down the banks of the Amazon or the great gray green greasy grimy Limpopo River or wherever it is they shoot the movies in South America? Well, they aren't alligators, they're caymans , is what they are, and they don't get as big as alligators, which is good, seeing that they've already got piranhas and people with blowguns down there in South America.

Forget South America. We're talking gators: How about those T-shirts with the markings of an alligator and a motto that says "EAT PREPPIES, NOT ALLIGATORS." Preppies have been wearing the shirts for decades. They liked the long tails, they liked the fact that nobody else wore them, and they especially liked the fact that in French sizes, an American large was equivalent to an extra-large. This said something about the French and about Americans that preppies liked hearing.

Besides the fact that France has no alligators. They have to go all the way to Africa and even then they only get crocodiles. Mark Cross, the leather-goods firm in New York, tried to work out a deal with Uganda to breed crocodiles there, but failed, which is good, seeing that they've already had Idi Amin and those crazy people with machine guns over there in Uganda. Grunt, grunt, bang, bang.

Not that America doesn't have a few in south Florida (crazy people with machine guns -- six of the 10 most crime-ridden cities in the United States are in Florida, plus all of our crocodiles, which are not to be confused with our gators).

Grunt, hiss, bang. The way you tell the difference is that the crocodiles have two teeth jutting up from their lower jaws, and the crazy people have the machine guns. The alligators have neither.

What alligators have is this look of total existential gooniness on their faces, which are less elongated than those of crocodiles but still more than those of crazy people with machine guns. But then the crazy people don't get up to 19 feet long, which is good. Then again, they don't go into trances if you flip them on their backs, either, which is bad. Then again, Bobby Tiger, a Miccosukee Indian in the Everglades, doesn't have to wrestle crazy people with machine guns for the tourists, which is what he's been doing with alligators, flipping eight to 14 of them a day onto their backs since 1942, not counting a year as an amateur in 1941.

"Every day. They just keep coming," Tiger says, referring to the tourists, not the alligators. "Sometimes I like to take a little vacation but it's not easy to get a standby."

Anyhow, existential gooniness: Consider the gator's grin, a sort of reluctant, even terrified grin, the sort of look you yourself might get on your face if, say, you were riding on the subway and a complete stranger came up behind you and started scratching your back, and you knew the relationship was bound to get even more peculiar, but it felt too good for you to tell them to stop.

Consider the gator's bellow, described by GEO magazine's Jack McClintock as being like that of "a large unmuffled truck engine, in low gear, trying to back out of a mudhole," and not unlike that of right-thinking Americans trying to back out of the slough of despond they find all of us in.

Consider the gator's existential existence, which is described by naturalists as one of "saturated habitat," meaning that there are not only a lot more alligators in the last 10 years, there's a lot less swamp for them to live in. Back in the '60s, the gator population from South Carolina across to Texas war reconed as verging on extinction, depending on how dire a wildlife type you talked to.

Rather like preppies.

Now it's 200,000 to a million in Florida alone.

Lotta gators, not to mention the whole United States alive with the alligator shirts, socks, belts, etc., even a custom-order alligator telephone.

Lotta preppies. It's a glut which has provoked the manufacture of a button bearing the picture of an alligator in a circle with a line drawn across it, the international stop sign.

Consider the metyological implications alone of September 19, 1973, at the Tampa airport. A big old commercaial airliner hunkered on down to the runway, except instead of that little puff of burnt-rubber smoke you usually get behind the wheels, well, suddenly the air was full of handbags, which is to say a six-foot gator who didn't quite have his tray table in the upright position.

Said an FAA official: "It sure made a mess of the gator."

Consider the fact that an alligator is the worst possible combination of a chain saw and your grandmother floating in the waves in Atlantic City.

"There was one man pulling weeds under his dock, a gator bit his arm and killed him. When crocodilians bite, they twist, they use their tail as a lever and rip off whatever it is they're biting. I've seen 'em out there in the water spinning like a lathe," says Tom Goodwin, who's in charge of handling the 4,500 alligator complaints (about, not by) the state of Florida get every year. Since alligators went off the endangered species list, the next stop for a complained-against gator after your swimming pool is apt to be the counter of Neiman-Marcus as a $2,000 purse.

Goodwin adds that the secret of wrestling alligators is that "you can hold their mouths shut with one hand." This is also the secret of wrestling grandmothers, crazy people with machine guns and maybe even preppies and crocodiles.

Shut, now, not open.

Ed Froelich, who runs a gator farm west of West Palm Beach, has been known to say: "A big gator can grab a hundred-pound hog like a potato chip, spraying brains 25 feet."

In 1941 a gator got loose in the basement of the Commerce Building and was dubbed "the crawling terror of the humid crypt."

Do you really want these things on your shirt? Wouldn't you rather have, say, the National Lampoon's knitted shirt adorned with their famous double-amputee frog? Better that than your grandmother or a crazy person with a machine gun.

Look at it this way, gators aren't mean, they're just hungry. It may well be alligators that economic theorists are talking about when they say that "supply creates demand." But then that's true of your grandma, preppies and crazy people with machine guns too.


Grunt, grunt. Hiss, hiss.