John Grazier has a show opening tonight at Zenith Gallery -- his best work ever. He's also on the verge (he hopes) of winning a commission to do 14 mural-size paintings for the renovation of the old Greyhound Bus Terminal downtown, which could bring him close to $100,000.

Meanwhile, he's living on the streets, sleeping under bridges. In good weather, he snuggles up in the soft, grassy cocoon of a cloverleaf intersection in Landmark. "It's like sleeping on the Appalachian Trail, except it's next to I-395," he says. "But it's going to get better. I'm going to be rich and famous. It all depends on this show."

Shows loom large in the life of any artist. But for Grazier, this one is crucial. Though he's lived on the edge all of his adult life, things were never this bad, he says, until two years ago, when he spent what was left of a small inheritance trying to regain custody of his two children after his wife divorced him and moved to a religious colony in New Mexico. He lost.

His show -- 11 haunting, pristine, masterfully crafted black-and-white airbrush paintings of tall buildings, empty offices and phone booths -- was in fact, produced on the floor of the dilapidated house Grazier was lucky enough to call home for four months last winter in exchange for paying a $600 water bill. Union Station was his office, the pay phones his lifeline to the world.

He often paints phone booths, sometimes rows of them, incongruously lined up in the middle of a grassy field. He also paints empty downtown offices, which look out onto fire escapes, other buildings or parked buses. Usually, in these pictures, there's a phone off the hook, either dangling from a cord or sitting unanswered on a desk -- all suggesting missed connections, nobody there.

There are never any people. "I don't use them because that's too specific," says Grazier. "As a result, people say my images evoke loneliness and danger. I don't like to hear that. I'm not lonely and I don't feel danger. I'm angry because I'm in this position, but I'm not a depressed person."

Here, as well as in his many paintings and drawings of Victorian porches and clapboard siding, the perspective is always skewed, just "off" enough to provoke an eerie sense of disjuncture, of things not quite right, of paradox.

"I'm creating challenging images," he says, "challenging because they look like phone booths and things people know, but nobody's ever seen them that way. They're really abstract designs in a realistic framework -- hieroglyphs for my feelings. I draw the way I do to catch people's attention -- it makes people look twice.

"I want to create an environment," says Grazier, "for someone else's imagination."

Early Works of Distinction If his show sells out, Grazier stands to clear $16,000, which -- after he pays off some $6,000 in loans -- could rent him a place to live and work again, preferably in rural Pennsylvania, where it's cheap. "Then on to New York," he says. "I'm going to be rich and famous."

It is not necessarily a pipe dream. At 43 -- though there is little indication at the moment -- Grazier has already had what many artists would consider great success. His first show, when he was 26, was held in the august halls of the Baltimore Museum of Art. The catalogue praised his drawings as "remarkable for their compelling and subtle imagery and high degree of technical accomplishment ...

"It is rare to find a young artist with such an unassuming yet powerful vision," wrote the curator of that show.

His work has also been universally praised by critics from the start. In 1974, David Tannous, writing in the Washington Star, called Grazier's drawings "magnificent lies," and Benjamin Forgey, then of the same paper, later spoke of his "tour-de-force drawings, his realism seemingly photographic, yet impossible."

Two Washington institutions -- the National Museum of American Art and the Library of Congress -- acquired his drawings early on. He has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.

Since then, Grazier's work has only gained in richness and complexity, and though the works in the present show still have the look of his signature black-and-white drawings, they are now far larger and more imposing, more dramatic. Executed in a laborious, meticulous method of his own devising, they were made with airbrush and India ink. (He currently possesses neither.)

As for dealers, he began with the best: Barbara Fendrick gave him his first gallery show in 1975, and says he always sold well. Harry Lunn took him on in 1980, and agreed to give him a $500-a-month stipend to keep him going -- a sum Grazier says ended up being closer to $1,000 a month for 18 months.

Lunn subsequently gave Grazier a show in 1980 that included several drawings of buses, with which, by then, Grazier had become preoccupied. With customary flair, Lunn rented a city bus in which celebrants were driven to dinner at a Georgetown restaurant. "We just drove around and drank whiskey," says Grazier. "It was great."

His dream, by then, had narrowed to obsession: to make enough money to buy a bus he could live in and use as a rolling studio and art gallery, parking it in front of museums around the country with a big sign that read, "JOHN GRAZIER AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY" or "JOHN GRAZIER AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM."

"It's still a great idea," he insists, though after two abortive efforts to own and live on a bus (the first blew up, scarring his right arm badly; the second broke down permanently after absorbing $5,000 in repairs), he swears he will not buy another until he's rich. His friends fear otherwise.

"If I came across a million dollars, you'd better believe there'd be a bus in front of my house that day," says Grazier. Fellow bus freak and newsman Jim Lehrer, who actually owns a bus, also owns one of Grazier's works, as do dozens of Washington collectors, corporations and law firms.

Asked how his preoccupation with buses began -- whether there was some bus named "Rosebud" in his past -- Grazier has no satisfying answer. Nor are there any easy answers to why, despite his extraordinary talent and determination to succeed, he is now in such dire straits, his family and friends worn out with trying to help him.

"He uses people up," says one fed-up friend. Another, however, let Grazier sleep in his house this week so he'd look good for the opening.

Artist by Default A realist in his art, Grazier admits he has had trouble dealing with reality in his life -- especially money.

His has not been a simple reality. Deaf in one ear from a childhood mastoidectomy, he also has diminished vision in one eye after surgery to correct cross-sightedness, which makes the meticulousness of his work all the more amazing. Seven years ago he began having occasional grand mal seizures, which required medication that, he says, left him in a stupor much of the time. He is now attempting to control the condition with Valium.

Given his present circumstances, his background comes as something of a surprise. He was born in 1949 to well-educated parents: His mother, Josephine Stein Grazier, attended private school and Wellesley College, and took an advanced degree at Radcliffe and Bucknell; his father, back from World War II, owned the Bellevue Inn, a hotel on the Delaware Water Gap, just across from Fred Waring's place.

"I've drawn it many times in my imagination," says Grazier, who was only 2 when his alcoholic father was diagnosed with cancer, went bankrupt and died. The family, which included an older sister, Kate, moved to Lewisburg, Pa., then to Fairfax County, where Josephine Grazier was a respected elementary school teacher until her retirement. She died in 1984.

His only monetary inheritance came from an uncle, Joseph A. Grazier, longtime president and CEO of American Standard, previously with the Manhattan law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. A director of companies ranging from Atlantic Richfield to the National Cash Register Co. and Bristol-Myers, he died in 1984 with no immediate survivors. John and his sister each received $32,000 legacies. The rest went to charities.

Grazier says he became an artist by default, after he was arrested, at age 18, for possession of marijuana and held in jail for three weeks pending trial. "My mother thought it would teach me a lesson, and wouldn't post bail," he says. Repeatedly raped, he finally was hurt so badly that he was released and the charges were dropped. "When I was let go, it was with the understanding that I'd go back to school, so I went to the Corcoran School because it was the only place that would take me," he says.

It was there that Bill Woodward and Frank Wright saw his promise and encouraged him, which they still do. He then attended the Maryland Institute College of Art for a year on a full scholarship, which led to the Baltimore Museum show that launched his career.

"I think the man is made out of steel," says Washington art consultant and artists' advocate Francoise Yohalem, who has often bailed Grazier out of bad situations by quickly selling off a new batch of work. She has also, on occasion, let him use her shower. "He has a fantastic faith in his own talent, and absolute determination to succeed. I really believe in him," she says, "and it would be nice to see what he could do under good conditions."

Whether good conditions are just around the corner remains to be seen. That will depend on fallout from this show, and whether he gets the Greyhound Terminal commission.

"He is being seriously considered," says Philip Esocoff, a partner of Keyes Condon Florance Architects, designers of the project, which includes a 500,000-square-foot office building now going up behind the historic art deco bus terminal at 1100 New York Ave. NW. Due to be completed within the year, the innovative design preserves the historic bus terminal in its entirety, incorporating it as the main entrance.

"John's work really captures the aesthetic essence of art deco without mimicking it," says Esocoff, who, while cautious, clearly hopes the commission will go through. "Originally, there were black-and-white photo murals in that building, which are now unsalvageable. Substituting these very striking black-and-white paintings -- and black-and-white is what was always used -- will add a layer of meaning, enrich the building with art and give people something more to think about. John's work would give us the opportunity to make a richer statement."

The decision is now up to the client, Manufacturers Real Estate of Toronto, says Esocoff. There is reason to be hopeful: MRE is the same art-minded company that kicked in $30,000 when Washington Project for the Arts, another Keyes Condon project, needed last-minute help in completing renovation of its new building.

Checking in from a roadside phone booth yesterday, cars and buses whooshing by, Grazier was exuberant with anticipation. "I'm going to be rich and famous, you'll see," he said. "This time it's going to happen. I know it is."

The Unique Vision of John Grazier opens tonight from 6 to 9 at Zenith Gallery, 413 Seventh St. NW. It will continue through July 14.