The caste system of snow is based on headgear: the aristocratic tilt of Russian curly-lambs that fold up like fat wallets, the old-school Irish tweeds, the reckless near-retirement motoring flats. There's a student air to the knits and puffs, a part-time worker look to the sweatshirt hoods and a glossy magazine artificiality to the occasional Vitas Gerulaitis sheepskin shag.

The Common Man--the hard-working, no-nonsense type--and the school kids, temporarily freed from servitude, wear their Redskins hearts upon their heads.

The feet are almost as eloquent. Only the foolish few wear boots with spike heels (they fall), canvas running shoes (they squish) or loafers (they slide). Self-propelled motion requires serious gear--cross-country skis, wading boots, snowshoes. The hardiest of commuters flaunt ankle boots. Leg warmers, it seems, are the province of the young.

The overall outfit reveals much about a person's attitude toward the snow. The people who see it as a holiday, as a one-day return to innocence, bound forth in blue jeans, rubber-topped L.L. Bean boots and garish wool scarves and mismatched gloves. The Scrooges treat the snow as an aggravated form of monsoon, tromping in galoshes and hunching their shoulders under gloomy umbrellas. The mere skeptics--the ones without any imagination--just sit silently on the bus, stomping their feet from time to time.

Best are the singers: the woman who hums "Winter Wonderland" off-key, the man on the bus who tests a seat partner by saying, "Christmastime is here again." Down the city sidewalk strides a bearded young man with a shovel on his shoulder, whistling the Bruce Springsteen version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."

There is a dreamy quality about the scenery that comes not only from the pale, gray snowlight but from its curious flattening effect--a loss of depth of field. In the dimness that is upper Dupont Circle shine two red messages: "DONT WALK" and a palm-reader's neon hand, upheld in warning. Downtown, without the clue of shadows, the horizontal swirl of snow produces a kind of vertigo, turning the world 90 degrees onto its ear.

It's also the slow-motion effect--the series of Camaros, turned at 45-degree angles to the road, crawling up the Massachusetts Avenue hills; the sideways sidle of an intractable Ford. Waiting and wet at a bus stop, a young girl hails "Jeep!" in hopeful imitation of a snow-day commercial.

The freedom, the sense of abandon, is summed up by the woman whose feet slide down a curb ramp and straight out in front of her. Laughing helplessly, she throws handfuls of slush straight up in the air, letting it shower back on her head. "Snow with the flow," she says with a shrug.