A weary chain of scientists and reporters issues from each available telephone in the halls of the Washington Hilton. Signs at every corner shout, "This conference is over-subscribed. Entrance to sessions is on a first-come first-serve basis." Instead of the expected 4,000, there are 6,350 people attending the third International Conference on AIDS, now in its fourth day, along with more than 800 reporters.

"It's nuts -- this is worse than Paris," said one longtime AIDS activist, referring to last year's conference in France. "It was just as hot there, and very crowded, but it just seems that people are ..." She grasped for the proper words, but ended simply. "It's just overwhelming."

When the overwhelmed participants can take no more discussions of subjects like "Helping Young People Face Death" or studying charts labeled "HIV Binding to the CD4 Molecule: Conformation Dependence and Antibody Inhibition," there is one easy, if partial, escape. As at any convention, a massive hall has been turned over to vendors. Here, the glowing installations for drug and medical supply companies -- complete with charts, graphs, computers and test tubes -- have been joined by more modest tables bearing information from service agencies and advocacy groups.

An acquisitive tourist can pick up complimentary squares of chocolate from Genetic Systems and a free poster from the World Health Organization. At one booth machines stress-test condoms (one instrument simply blows the accommodating latex objects up into quite sizable balloons).

Over at Ansell International's extensive display, Senior Vice President for Marketing Gene Freed said, "We've been mobbed all day." Ansell bills itself as "the world's largest manufacturer of latex medical products"; last year, the company sold 700 million condoms worldwide and cornered one-quarter of the U.S. market with its "Lifestyles," "Prime" and other lines.

"We never expected to be the only condom company here," said Freed, but none of the other companies showed up. "A cross-section of everyone attending the conference has been here. Sooner or later, everyone's going to stop by the condom booth."

Paula Jones, assistant director of the National Association of People With AIDS, sat at a small table in a corner that had also attracted a steady crowd.

"We arranged for 50 scholarships to the conference for PWAs {People With AIDS} and arranged for volunteer housing for them," said Jones. "That's because people with AIDS couldn't afford to pay $250 to come and they need to be here. In many cases, they're treating themselves along with the doctors. They're as active in devising treatment as the scientists, and I think it's easy for them to be ignored."

Ron McAvoy, a member of Front Lines, a British coalition of PWAs, came to see Jones. "In the United Kingdom there are 300 people diagnosed, walking around -- out of the closet, so to speak. In our group there are about 60. Comparatively speaking to the United States, it's a very small number, but the U.S. was a small number a few years ago. Our biggest battle is to get the government to prepare itself for the situation."

Among the newly interested researchers, the suddenly fascinated reporters, the glossy displays, old-timers wandered through the conference, their curiosity laced with skepticism.

"I think it's important for people to recognize this is not new," said Anne Marie Silvia, education director at Boston's AIDS Action Committee. "For educational prototypes and other services, they should look to community organizations around the country. We can't just pretend this is new, that we don't know where to look for information ... {Vice President George} Bush said 4 percent of the cases are heterosexually transmitted, and that although 4 percent may not seem like a lot, it is. Well, what about the other 96 percent? Doesn't that seem like a lot?

"Now that it's getting so much attention and getting so much media, a lot of people feel they're getting swept aside after working so long and hard. Of course, people involved in AIDS are very pleased it's being addressed, but some of the ways that it's being addressed are a little disconcerting."

It has happened several times: Men come to Dr. Barbara Herbert and ask her to lie to their wives. Some bisexual, some former intravenous drug users, they are afraid they have been exposed to the AIDS virus and that they have in turn exposed their wives. Please, they ask Herbert, test her, but don't tell her for what.

Herbert won't do it, instead encouraging them to tell their wives truths that may pain and frighten them. In her work in the Johns Hopkins emergency room and at Baltimore's Chase-Braxton gay health clinic, Herbert sees a lot of fear of AIDS and an increasing number of women affected by the disease. They come to the clinic and they come to the emergency room, where they know they will be treated if they have poor health coverage. "Some people wake up terrified," she said at a press conference for Chris Norwood's recently released book, "Advice for Life: A Woman's Guide to AIDS Risks and Prevention" -- "and it is an emergency."

If they come seeking testing, the fear may only be beginning. "There's such uncertainty," she said about a positive test result. "It doesn't mean you're definitely going to die, but it does mean you're going to have to reconsider having children and many other things. It's an enormous burden we don't put on people any other time."

While there have been many protests and arrests during this conference week, they have, by and large, been carefully orchestrated affairs. But on Monday, spontaneous anger struck.

"I was not born to do this," said a weary Michael Hirsh yesterday. "I was just an average person -- I can't believe I've been forced into this."

Monday afternoon Hirsh, the former executive director of New York City's People With AIDS Coalition, returned to the Hilton after attending a march outside the White House during which he was arrested, as he had planned to be, and released early because of heat prostration. He entered the exhibit hall and discovered the booth set up by Paul Cameron's Family Research Institute. The booth, with its antihomosexual handouts, was an anomaly at the conference and generally was surrounded by conference attendees ranging in their reaction from fury to disbelief.

"Cut the pipeline: Stop homosexual travel," read one poster over the table. "Problem -- 1. A worldwide homosexual sex network ... Solution -- 1. Destroy the homosexual infrastructure/punish homosexual acts ...," read another.

"I called New York because my best friend is in the Cabrini Hospital Intensive Care Unit with pneumocystis {a form of pneumonia common among people with AIDS}," said Hirsh yesterday. "I'm sort of numb because I work in AIDS. I have ARC {AIDS Related Complex}. But the bottom line is, I guess, I was upset. I went into the hall and I couldn't believe they were there ... I went over and I accidentally sneezed on a woman twice."

And then, he said, he fell down and knocked over the table, also "accidentally."

Accidentally?

"What's the difference?" he asked in an exhausted voice. "It doesn't seem important."

Soon after the event, Cameron told the story this way: "We were assaulted by at least one person with AIDS who spat on the girls here ... Homosexuals have been known in the past for their uncivilized behavior ... That they should attack the girls -- the mothers -- who work here, is atrocious."

For the second time that day, Hirsh was arrested.

Dr. Jonas Salk was discussing the possibility of an AIDS vaccine being discovered soon.

"I think those who are working in the field know it's clear we have some way to go yet," said the developer of the polio vaccine. "The first work I did was on the influenza vaccine and what is being used now came from the work I and others did during the war. Then polio. Now this. That's what I call the evolution of vaccinology. Some of us were there 50 years ago, and some of us are now coming into this."

For Margaret Nichols, AIDS has already moved beyond the few, much-discussed "high-risk groups" and has begun to transform the way people view their world.

"I think the only way to go is to convince people to see their commitment as a more global commitment -- not just to gay, white, urban men, for example," said the executive director of the Hyacinth Foundation, a New Brunswick, N.J., group providing help for people with AIDS who live outside the larger cities. Some of the foundation's clients are impoverished drug users and their families, some suburban gay men -- few have access to the large AIDS organizations that have grown in the cities where there is a high concentration of the disease.

"They're beginning to realize that this is an AIDS movement, and everyone affected by AIDS is affected together," she said. "I'm 40 now, so I come out of the '60s. In the '60s, we were all very young and naive, and only understood militant tactics. Now, some of us who have been around for a while have a more sophisticated approach."

She looked at Hyacinth board member Pam Layng, who is 30 and has grown up with the "more sophisticated approach."

"Money," Layng said, smiling. "We think, 'Get money.' "