Everybody was talking. Nobody knew what to say. It was like one huge national gasp, whine, groan, murmur, giggle, kvetch, the dry rustling of anxiety, the sigh of apathy, you name it, whatever ...

The subject was the stock market.

There was a waitress named Colleen Kruse at Mickey's Diner in St. Paul, Minn., who said, "I'm a 19-year-old waitress, I laugh at that stuff. It doesn't scare me because I don't hold any stock."

There was a bunch of commuters who nearly rioted on the train platform in Netcong, N.J., while they were waiting for the 6:43 to Manhattan. It seemed the Wall Street Journal vending machine wouldn't open. They pounded, they kicked, they got it open and stole every copy.

"They just wanted to loot something," one woman said.

There was Tina Fredericks, who sells real estate in the Hamptons. She was hearing what she calls "back-out noises," like when she called the client who'd promised to pay $655,000 for a five-bedroom house and the last words he said to her, as the stock market headed into one of the craziest days in history, was: "Oh, I'm just having these hot muffins for breakfast. Let me call you back."

There was Robert Starr of Northeast Washington, who was laying asphalt in a Takoma Park driveway. He said, "I ain't got no money in it."

There was a woman in San Francisco with a thick Russian accent and a thin mustache who was looking at the same computer terminal as the retired restaurateur standing next to her in the financial district.

She said: "It's down!"

He said: "It's up!"

She said: "It's down!"

They were both right, things were happening so fast. The Dow Jones average was up and down 200 points on the day. More than 600 million shares were trading hands.

There were the jokes: By afternoon, everybody had already heard how you call a stockbroker by saying, "Hey, waiter," and they'd recycled the one about down-and-out oil tycoons -- how the difference between a pigeon and an investment banker was that the pigeon could still make a deposit on a Mercedes.

Upon the Hill, the Democrats were advising anybody who wanted to jump out a window to watch out for George Bush on the way down. John Anderson, who ran for president in 1980, said, "There are going to be a lot of yuppies delivering Domino's pizzas."

At Morgan Guaranty in New York, an economist named Robert Mellman drew on all his training as a PhD from MIT and said that Monday's 508-point drop had been caused by George Steinbrenner hiring Billy Martin to manage the Yankees for the fifth time: "People were so depressed they just wanted to sell everything and get out of town."

In Chicago, a commodities trader named Jeff Bean said, "There are going to be a lot of white spaces on the dashboards of BMWs where the car phones used to be. You know what they're calling yuppie stockbrokers today? 'Puppies' -- poor urban professionals."

Who could explain it? Who could tell you why?

"Right now you can build a case for whatever you want," said Morgan McDonnell, managing director of Moseley, Hallgarten, Estabrook & Weeden Inc. in Chicago.

Since a lot of people thought that fear brought on by the crash could cause a recession, psychologists were asked about fear.

"The main issue around panic is the theme of losing control, of being trapped," said Reid Wilson, a clinical psychologist who has written a book called "Don't Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks." "We try to cover for the worst possible scenarios, like a fireman facing a burning building. Will these stairs cave in? How stable is the ceiling? We go back in our minds to the past to find something similar. Here we go back to 1929. That in itself brings out fearful thoughts."

"The people in here were saying, 'Oh, God, I hope this isn't 1929,' " said Bob Croke, owner of a sports bar in Herndon named Foot Anakin.

People talked about it. There was a whole new language that swept the country, you could hear the words coming out of people standing in cafeteria lines, waiting for Don't Walk signs to change, calling their wives from the office ... twin-tower deficits, meltdown, snowballing, and the ever-terrifying reassurance of "the world is not coming to an end."

At Wall Drug in Wall, S.D., manager Rick Hustead said, "It's a hot topic of conversation. It gets people talking about the economy and the state of America. It's like, this is pretty crazy but let's give it a little time. People aren't tipping over about it. The general feeling is that our economy is pretty strong."

On the other hand, in Cody, Wyo., Vera Boetter, desk clerk at Little America, which is one of the biggest gas stations in the world, said, "They are afraid it is really going to affect the economy. The economy here in Wyoming is depressed anyway."

Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.

"I don't think the implications for most people are very wide," said Edward Carl Neal, an administrator for minority business at the Small Business Administration. While other newspaper readers on his Metro train were studying stories on the stock market with wary frowns, he examined the small print on the sports pages with a wonderful ease. At 56, he had memories of the Depression, he said, but not bad ones. He said he feared the effects of a bad economic downturn, but he said it as a longtime Washingtonian, someone who has seen trouble come and go. "My father was a butler in the White House under Hoover," he said. "When Hoover left the White House, they found my father a job at the War Department."

It was hard to find anyone who'd admit to holding any stocks. Small investors tend to buy mutual funds nowadays. But big losers never talk a lot. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump was pleased to announce that he'd bailed out of the market completely over the past month at a profit of about $200 million, but he was kind enough to advise that anyone who was "lucky enough to escape the catastrophe of {Monday} should remain where he is -- stay in cash for a while, see where the world is going."

At the National Capital YMCA, the talk was all stress. Asta O'Donnell, an exercise therapist in Alexandria, said she got calls from two stockbrokers at 8 a.m. yesterday. Neither had been to bed. Both were looking for stress-relieving exercises.

"I said, 'Go home, rotate your shoulders, turn your head slowly in both directions, take a hot bath with epsom salts, take a nap and sell,' " O'Donnell said. "What's happening on Wall Street is their backs are going out. The only benefit is to the medical community."

Erica Kramer, the masseuse at the YMCA, expects her business to profit. "You could say I'm banking on it." She was sitting on an exercise bike and was quite cheerful considering her losses. "I'm wiped out and I think it's hysterically funny. Well, not hysterically funny, that's a little strong, but amusing. It's a fitting beginning to the end, which I think is inevitable in an economy that is as fictitious as this one."

Themore she talked, the harder she pedaled. "I love watching Reagan and Thatcher get up and say the economy is sound. Whose economy is sound? I was talking to a friend last night who lost a lot of money. What are you going to do, jump out a window? It was all fake anyway. It's all unreal. It's the age of Reagan and Hollywood. Everything is two-dimensional. People are hearing the information. But they're not jumping out of windows, which are three-dimensional."

In downtown Manhattan, the Black Monday market hadn't even closed before hawkers hit the street with post cards showing executives getting ready to jump from skyscraper ledges. Two for a dollar. "Mementos of the day," one buyer said.

At the retirement community of Leisure World, out Georgia Avenue, the residents had seen it before, and they were playing golf now, weren't they? How bad could it get?

"If anyone here took a big loss, he isn't talking about it," said Ralph Haupt, a retired astronomer.

"I've got some Pepco stock," said William Swain, 85, "It's an old man's stock but it suits me. It's not going anyplace."

At the Yale Club in New York there was said to be a man who'd cashed a check for $20,000, and now he was sitting around brooding with 20 $1,000 bills in his wallet in case he had to feed and clothe his family.

"What is frightening is that the computers have so much to do with it," said Lady Acland, wife of Sir Antony, the British ambassador. "One feels one's almost gotten in the hands of a robot."

The interest has been "among the higher interested," said Stacy Johnson, restaurant manager at the Pavilion Marriott, St. Louis, which is World Series headquarters. "Last night we had a lot of the media people in here. When the news came on they were all standing around the big-screen TVs."

At the corner of 17th and Corcoran here, the only fear and loathing pertained to the Dallas Cowboys.

"Where's those 'Boys fans at?" a Pepco maintenance man demanded as he entered Cairo Wines and Liquors. Owners Joe Golfer and Howie Aaronson shrugged. They were the only people talking stocks.

"My customers? These guys? Are you kidding?" Golfer said.

"Fear and loathing? Nah," Aaronson said. "But then I'd be the one to hear it. They wash away their sorrows here."

One regular customer, a stockbroker, called to order three bottles of champagne. "At $80 a bottle," Aaronson said.

"They were going to jump out the window," Golfer said.

"She said they decided to drink instead," Aaronson said.

Across the street at McDonald's, social workers in town for the Council on Social Work Education mused about the panic -- but didn't seem in the least affected by it. Like others in the neighborhood, what they had noticed was a sardonic glee.

"Gallows humor is a good defense mechanism," said Don Brieland, dean of social work at the University of Illinois. "It's typical of sophisticated people, and more sophisticated people are in the market."

"It's like the time I had three funerals in one week in my family and I tried to get a group discount from the undertaker," said Grafton Hull, professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater. "He took it seriously but he didn't give me the discount. He had no sense of humor."

Some people didn't care at all.

At Gary's Beautiful Cars, a used-car lot on Bladensburg Road, customers were not discussing the stock market, said owner Gary Gordon. "But these people, you're not talking way uppity-uppity."

So let's talk way uppity-uppity. At Sotheby's, the auction house on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a Londoner named Laurence Graff handed over $3.85 million for the Porter Rhodes diamond. He was taking the long view, the way people with that kind of money do. "If the market crashes or the market goes up, there won't be another one of these around."

Asked about the impact of Monday's 508-point crash on the art market, Washington gallery owner Kathleen Ewing said, "I thought I was in a twilight zone. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I'm hoping that people will see that art is the only stable investment in the whole wide world." Then she sighed very deeply.

At Annapolis Yacht Sales, owner John Burgreen said everybody had been talking about the market all day. Would it hurt boat sales? "God, I hope not," he said. But there was no telling. "In times past, with bad markets, people have put their money into boats. But then, if they get hurt, they won't buy anything. Today, a lot of people giggle and say nothing."

At the Tung Bor restaurant in Wheaton, cashier Mickey Chung said the lunchtime crowd kept asking her: "How much money did you lose? How much money did you lose?"

At Roche, an upscale hair salon on M Street, there were a lot of cancellations. Owner Dennis Roche said two stockbrokers canceled their appointments and a third came in trying to avoid work. "She didn't want to know what was happening," Roche said. "She thought it was funny. She said they were all doing their Chicken Little number running around saying, 'The sky's falling.'

"The funny thing is, people who have never mentioned anything about being in the stock market are talking about it. The hair stylists are talking about it, which is the last thing I'd expect ... Everyone's been talking about it. Fear. Fear of the unknown. My mother even called me up. A stockbroker was trying to reach me trying to find out where I was, was I in a panic to sell like everyone else."

The broker never reached him, which is just as well because Roche did not intend to sell. "It's going to go back up," he said.

Don Andrews, a beauty supply guy, watched and nodded. "I was listening to a guy on the radio. He said, 'Buy when there's blood on the streets.' I've been trying to get through to my broker. I want to buy. But his line is busy."

There were plenty of questions, there were plenty of answers, but it was like trying to match up buyers and sellers, bulls and bears, fear and greed -- they couldn't quite fit together and so the word kept changing as fast as the market, and all people could do was try to keep up with it.

In Pittsburgh, the businessmen were going over to the Duquesne Club to hear Ravi Batra, who wrote a best seller called "The Great Depression of 1990." Batra said the market collapse is "a foretaste of things to come." Another "logical outcome," he said, would be a surge in sales for his book.

In Washington to give a speech, Paul Erdman, author of "The Crash of '79" and "The Last Days of America," said, "I am not of the Batra school, the blood in the streets stuff. It's a financial crisis, but by no means will it be followed by any great depression."

At Lily's restaurant, near the San Francisco waterfront, a bartender with headphones on kept shouting out the Dow Jones average to passing waitresses. "The market is up 28," he said, adding, "I talked to guys this morning -- one guy was in Europe, his broker couldn't reach him last week to tell him to sell, he's losing 50 grand today."

Nearby, Pauline Minser, manager of the women's clothing store the Limited, paused between racks of miniskirts and said: "I'm 30 years old, and I guess I'm looking toward my future. And you think about real estate and what happens to that, and when you think of the Depression, it's like ... I worked so hard for this much of my life, and what's going to happen now?"

Staff writers Cynthia Gorney, Art Harris, Elizabeth Kastor, Michael Kernan, Jane Leavy, Jim Naughton, Donnie Radcliffe, Lois Romano, Paula Span, Jacqueline Trescott and Charles Trueheart and special correspondent Judd Tully contributed to this report.