Hell itself! Down below the astonished tourists being knocked aside by television cameramen, down endless escalators past the Glasnost Cafe' with its gourmet carryout, down below the Soviet press center, down even below bewildered conventioneers of the Keep America Beautiful campaign watching journalists help themselves to their coffee, lay the lowest ring of the summit inferno, the pit of frustration and frantic self-importance called the J.W. Marriott Hotel's Reagan-Gorbachev Summit International Press Center.

It was almost 1 o'clock in the afternoon, less than an hour before Reagan and Gorbachev would sign the INF treaty, and still the noon briefing by American and Soviet spokesmen Marlin Fitzwater and Gennadi Gerasimov hadn't been held, and now the journalists were starting to turn on each other.

"I saw Marlin Fitzwater, but I haven't seen Gerasimov," said one reporter.

"Jerasimov?" said another. "You pronounce it with hard G. You see, there's no aspirated H in Russian, and if you wanted it to be pronounced ..."

No escape! Print reporters transfixed by their own words on computer screens! Television reporters transfixed by their own faces on television screens! Donaldson, Wallace, all the White House heavies ... even some of the print reporters who work the talk shows, like Morton Kondracke (of The New Republic and "The McLaughlin Group"), have gotten that look that must come from too many years of watching themselves on tape and unconsciously adjusting their faces, micromuscle by micromuscle, until they acquire that peculiar two-dimensional shouting-death-mask-with-a-microphone look of the television age.

There were snubs, there were arguments.

"It's not a state dinner because Gorbachev isn't a head of state, he's secretary general of the party," one reporter insisted.

"Well, it's a state dinner for someone who isn't a head of state," said another.

"What you have to remember is that when Brezhnev went to France in 1972 ..."

At the Soviet press center in the hotel's Dirksen Room, info-crazed journalists even snapped up a whole stack of booklets entitled "On the Task of the Party in the Radical Restructuring of Economic Management," along with guides to the various Soviet republics, all except the ones for poor little Azerbaijan. What did Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Byelorussia have that Azerbaijan, "a mountainous country with many fortresses, fabulous riches and a huge number of fruit trees," didn't?

Meanwhile, a TV crew closed in on Pierre Salinger, who had been President Kennedy's press secretary during the disastrous Vienna summit in 1961.

"Vienna was much easier than this," he said. "We had film cameras, not television, and no satellites."

When Fitzwater and Gerasimov appeared there was no surcease from the anguish, of course. They said they couldn't say anything about the morning meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev, but the journalists, in their plaintive ferocity, had known that all along anyway. Now they were free to bustle back out into Washington in search of the only redemption available -- the great god of history.

"We have made history," Reagan said, after spending three minutes signing the INF treaty, referring to it as a "history-making agreement."

Modern man may doubt his significance in the bleak sweep of science's cosmos, but we're convinced that history will save us.

"It's not every day you can go to work and see history happen," said Laurie Church of Bethesda, who stopped on her way to work at the Association of Arbitrators and Mediators to wait for Gorbachev to leave the Soviet Embassy for the welcoming ceremonies on the South Lawn of the White House.

"This is history," said Roxanne Dodds of Alexandria, and "It's very exciting to be a small part of history," said Doug Blaney of Pasadena, Calif., in the same manner as CBS' Dan Rather said, "Welcome to history in the making." Georgetown University's Madeleine Albert said, "We're going to have to count how many times the word history is said in the next few days."

And no matter what else happened to construction supervisor Wayne Bennett for the rest of the day, or the week, or even his life, "at least," he said as he watched the ceremonial cannons next to the South Lawn pound their welcome across the Ellipse, "I can say that I was here."

Making history. By afternoon, at a gathering inside the Soviet Embassy, Gorbachev was engraving himself into the psyches of American culturati including Yoko Ono, Norman Mailer, John Denver, Carl Sagan, Paul Newman, Henry Kissinger, Billy Graham, John Kenneth Galbraith and Joyce Carol Oates, most of whom, as it happens, are at that stage in their careers where they've got plenty of time to spend on the international cultural exchange circuit.

Outside, 5,000 or 6,000 journalists picked over Washington -- it was as if the city was being stripped naked by them, foundering like a cow caught in a stream full of piranhas.

Dimitrios Koulourotis, the hot dog man across from the Madison and Vista hotels, where a lot of Soviets are staying, had given six interviews by yesterday afternoon, "three without cameras, you know, writing, and three with cameras, but I don't know the channels."

He told them all: "Last week one Russian came, he bought two hot dogs and a soda."

Six interviews for the hot dog man, but the demonstrators in front of the White House had to chase journalists across Lafayette Park to hand them their literature, plead for their attention. How many chances would the press have to interview not one but two Neville Chamberlain look-alikes? How often is America graced with a Soviet Hare Krishna devotee who has flown in from Sweden to chant and drum in front of the White House? So many opportunities: the robed followers of Elijah Hong, who believes that Mount Zion, as prophesied by Isaiah, is located in Taiwan; the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front from Ethiopia; the Vietnamese who flew in from Houston to wave their pre-Communist Vietnamese flags; the Cambodians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Latvians with their pre-Communist flags, the Afghanis with their wounded children, and eight Nipponzan Myo Ho Ji Buddhists (up from three on Monday) making a huge racket with their drums. They all wanted attention.

But no, the journalists stood in the middle of all of this looking bored. And still, there were unanswered questions. Nobody seemed to care about Gorbachev's progeny, for instance (he has a daughter, Irina, a doctor who is married to a doctor, and two grandchildren). Did anybody ask if the Soviets made those Zil limousines that ugly on purpose? How many people gazed at Gorbachev's head and wondered if he knew he had that birthmark before he started to go bald?

Sometimes it seemed the hardest thing to find was an old-fashioned man-in-the-street interview. If Diogenes went around Greece with a lantern looking for an honest man, Channel 4's Jim Upshaw, among others, went around with a television camera looking for the democratic equivalent -- an average one. He stood across the street from the Treasury, asking people how they felt about the signing of the INF treaty.

"It may be serendipitous ...," one man in pin stripes began, and it was clear that Upshaw hadn't found what he was looking for.

"Boy, the demographics in this town," he said.

Feeding frenzy. Not only was WAVA radio planning to turn today's "Morning Zoo" over to the Tass Top 20 between 7:30 and 8 (The hot new single by Vladimir Kuzmere and the Time Machine! The latest from Alla Pugacheva!), but Tass radio and Tass television were also going to go out to the studio to cover it (and you read about it here first).

Has it always been this way? A World War II photograph on the wall outside the Soviet press room at the Marriott shows American soldiers greeting Soviet soldiers in an obviously staged pose, and one in which an American soldier is staring at the camera. Something about Soviet relations makes people self-conscious.

Does it have to be this way?

Said Pet Ohlsson, a Swedish newspaperman waiting around like all the other journalists in the nether world of desperation and importance in the Marriott's Press Center: "If you want to get rid of all this, hold summits in the Eastern Bloc -- do it in East Germany.