The transformation takes only a few minutes. Basil Hangemanole retreats into a back room, and when he returns the green polo shirt and bluejeans are gone and he has vanished into the anonymous black and white uniform of the waiter. By now he is rushing, preparing for the evening, struggling with the temper that will flare when the kitchen is slow or a customer insists on interrupting an order to tell a joke. And there is more he must quell before his shift begins -- the frustration, the embarrassment, a dark sense that life has gone wrong and is pulling him down.

He used to build houses. Now he carries prime rib specials and stuffed mushrooms. This is his nightly world, as it has been for several months and will most likely be for many more. Basil Hangemanole has lost his job. When he's not despairing he considers himself lucky to have even this.

But years spent working outside in construction, with hard-talking men around him and rough physical labor at hand, were no preparation for a large, dark restaurant in Wheaton, where everything depends on having the equilibrium to keep his emotions hidden and a tray with a dozen plates perched on an upturned hand.

"I get very depressed about it," he says bluntly, naming this bleak emotion simply, as if it were a hammer or nail. He is talking not so much about working at the restaurant as about what has happened to him and his family over the past six months.

"Little things get to you and you say, 'I'm just going to pack my bags and get out of here.' Well, you can't do that. Or you say, 'I'm just going to shoot myself.' Well, you can't do that either. Your mind goes through all the possibilities and you figure out what you can't do, so you just keep going because it's going to get better. And even if it doesn't get better, you've already gone so far that you might as well keep going."

His is an experience thousands of other Americans are sharing and tens of thousands fear. Slowdown. Economic downturn. Recession. It is something our society measures best in numbers: How many houses are sold, how many jobs created? Are stores crowded? Have stocks dropped?

But for the men and women whose lives have been overturned by the choppy economy, the reality is both much smaller and much more enormous. If you are Basil Hangemanole, you keep your fireplace empty because firewood is too expensive. You drive a car you hate -- your wife's car -- because yours uses too much gas. You tell your young son no, there will be no trip for burgers after soccer practice. You tell your teenage daughter no, this holiday you cannot fly her down from Canada, where she lives with your ex-wife. You work on Sundays and your beloved Redskins become merely background noise overheard from a restaurant TV. Choices are replaced by necessities. The breadth of what is possible shrinks each day.

All this is the more unnerving to Basil and Lynn Hangemanole because they are not the sort of people given to pessimism or possessed by their possessions. They never lived on credit -- did not believe in it -- and until last spring paid off every bill immediately. Their only visible extravagance is a ski house in Massanutten, Va., that they own with another couple.

But now the credit cards are essential. They have had to rely on his mother for loans. There will be no skiing this year.

Taken one by one, the changes do not seem cataclysmic, but what is really happening behind those alterations is massive and wrenching.

It means nearing 50 and realizing the plan has crumbled. It means watching the fissures in a family and a marriage widen suddenly and dangerously. It means working almost every minute to keep fear at bay.

For Basil and Lynn Hangemanole, it means falling through space and hoping they land soon.

Renovations

Last May, Basil Hangemanole was laid off from his $60,000-a-year job as a project manager for Kerwin Homes in Montgomery County. The company built the sort of expensive houses -- the ones that cost $300,000 to $1 million -- that have recently become as anachronistic as Versailles, and when months had gone by without a sale, Basil was out.

"It has changed my whole life," the 49-year-old man says. His family's life together has been frayed as well. He is holding down two jobs now, and often he leaves too early and returns too late to see either wife or 6-year-old son Trace. Some nights he sleeps at his mother's house because he is too tired to make the long after-midnight drive from the restaurant in Wheaton to their home in Upper Marlboro. There are times when he and Lynn realize they have not spoken to each other in days.

He leaves the house each morning before 6:30 to begin work as a salesman, the start of what he hopes will grow into a career selling roofing supplies, although the industry he is courting currently finds itself hard-pressed to sell the roofs it has already built. He has won a few clients but there is no real money in the job yet, and by 3:30 he is on his way to Ferdinand's in Wheaton, the restaurant owned by two uncles and a cousin and the source of an income that has plummeted to $20,000.

He is a self-proclaimed conservative, she a devoted mother and lover of children. Although Lynn, 36, long supported herself and her son from a previous marriage with a bank job in Colorado, when she and Basil married three years ago they agreed that their family would be a traditionally imagined one: His salary would support them, she would find a job that let her spend time with her child. Now she works part-time at the after-school day care center that Trace attends.

"It gives me all those kids to love," she says of her job, which has convinced her she wants to become a child counselor. It does not, however, pay much -- $8 an hour for 25 hours a week -- and since Basil was laid off she has had to stop work on a degree in education, as well as the physical therapy she needs for a neck problem. They have thought about her looking for a better-paying job, but the high price of day care worries them and neither has wanted to relinquish the original vision of their family.

For the first two months after he was laid off, Basil says, the depression was almost impenetrable, and was made worse by the trap of a new responsibility. Just before he was laid off, the Hangemanoles sold their place near Wheaton and moved to Upper Marlboro. It was a quiet neighborhood, he would be only minutes from his work, and although the house was worn down he could renovate it himself. But that was a plan from an earlier life. How could he finish a new home and find a new job at the same time?

The essential renovations are now complete. Theirs is a peaceful home, a comfortable home, and to an outsider nothing looks wrong. But for Basil and Lynn the physical world has been shaken and distorted, and as they show a visitor around, what they see is a map of incompletion. Suddenly this place with its tree-filled yard and the friendly neighbors has been changed from a home into a collection of things left undone, a reminder of what has gone wrong in the past six months.

Closet doors lack knobs. The molding in the living room has not been hung. Out back, a plastic pipe that drains the garden lies raw and clumsy, waiting to be hidden in the earth. In the driveway a small pile of construction debris sits until there is time to borrow a truck and haul it away.

But here in the living room, a Norman Rockwell book has been set just-so on the table and a cup of coffee rests on a coaster as it should. There is about the room and its inhabitants a tidy perfection.

As they talk about their lives he sits still with concentration, but a rocking chair cannot contain her. She springs up, searching out paper and pen and scissors, and then, lowering her long, thin body to the floor, begins to trace maple leaves onto stationery for her day-care class -- talking, tracing, cutting all at once.

This, she says, is how she gets by. She cleans. She organizes. She does not stop moving. "If I stop long enough just to let things catch up with me, I get a little panicky. Even late into the night I stay busy because I don't want to lie down with my thoughts. You bear down, work harder -- it makes you more tired and you can sleep."

Both of them have known hardship before but both are resilient. The son of a Greek-immigrant father who worked long hours as a beautician, Basil shared his father's determination, but for him it was a determination to be free, to explore the world. He dropped out of college and traveled, served in the military as a paratrooper, got married, had his daughter Anastasia, got divorced, learned to ski, taught the sport. Eventually he finished college at the University of Maryland, but for years before and after he wandered the country as he chose, a builder who watched his industry rise and fall but could always find work. Then, in the early '80s, he decided it was time to settle down and came home.

Lynn grew up in Kansas, married, lived in Colorado -- loving the small towns, the beauty of the country. From early on she knew life would not necessarily be easy, and several years raising her boy on her own only proved it to her.

They are people who value strength -- the strength of family, of morality, of the will. But what they are facing this year has obviously shaken them.

By now the house kept orderly by anxiety is neater than it needs to be and Lynn knows it. "I have so little control over so many things -- I keep things in order here because it calms me." Far more than the loss of money or prestige, their powerlessness frightens Lynn and infuriates her husband.

"I loved my job," he says. "I loved it because it was a job that had real high energy and you have to be driven. You think about the things someone building a house has to know. You're talking about the customer, the government, the weather, the permit-issuing agencies, the safety agencies. You have to work with architects, interior designers in our models. You're working with a lot of different personalities and it's fun and -- "

"And," Lynn interjects to tell him, "it's a matter of control. I think that's something you've always wanted in your job. And your marriage. You want total control."

It is a statement he barely acknowledges, let alone refutes. This is clearly not a new observation -- she says it with the suppressed smile of someone repeating yet again the same old jibe, touching on a tension that lives somewhere between joke and argument. It is the sort of marital fact that becomes as familiar as the shape of someone's face. He will be talking and she will get swept into the story, interrupting him, quick and animated, telling it her way, finishing it for him.

"I tend to be very aggressive," he says, "and sometimes I have to stop and say, 'What the heck, I'll let Lynn tell the story.' " Clearly it is hard for him. But these days any clash feels especially dangerous. They have learned to be cautious with each other, despite their forthright personalities and the habits of a marriage that even began with an argument -- he proposed as they sparred over the relative merits of Washington and Colorado.

Such quarrels have become less romantic recently and the couple works to avoid them. But the carefulness of tact can harden into silence. Sometimes the worries take so much out of them, she says, they cannot even speak to each other. It was not until recently that she realized "I could tell all my friends how proud of him I was, but I couldn't tell him."

Now of course, as they sit in their living room, she is telling him just that. But neither says anything more about it, and the confession rests for a moment in the air and then is gone. Perhaps he knew it all along. Perhaps the saying of it is too strong an act to be acknowledged in front of a stranger. Perhaps a stranger's presence made it somehow safer -- possible.

Later, Lynn considers that moment. "We both have to maintain such a control over our emotions now," she says, explaining it to herself as well. "Any kind of sentimentality breaks you down. Any little thing that involves tenderness or being soft can really open the dam, and it can get out of control."

What could be ignored in the past no longer can be, and Lynn finds it hard to fight off a familiar and pained nostalgia for the small Colorado town outside of Aspen, a place of beauty and solitude where she got divorced, raised her child and met Basil, and that she left three years ago for him. She still does not feel completely at home here.

"Whenever things go badly for us, I want to go back to Colorado," she says. "But you don't get up in the middle of a tornado and stand up and let something hit you. You hunker down and wait for the storm to pass."

Even to talk of Colorado is dangerous, a form of standing up and daring the gale, and recent hardships have deepened her sense of displacement. "This is where his life is and this is where he'll stay," she says of her husband. "I have to assume we will stay together, and I just hope my acceptance will come slowly."

"Be realistic," the pragmatic man says grimly to his wife as she talks about the desire to flee everything and return to mountains and snow and solitude. "Even if you wanted to end it tomorrow, we couldn't afford it."

They are quiet for a moment. Both have been divorced and know that marriages can end. "Not that we're thinking about it," she says. "But it's been very hard."

The Plan Gone Wrong

Ferdinand's Restaurant in Wheaton is the sort of place where the sturdy, aging waitresses know everyone's name and the customers are regulars who order the large specials and take the leftovers home. In this family-owned place various cousins work in the kitchen, and when life gets tough any Hangemanole knows Ferdinand's is a waiting haven.

But it was not a haven Basil Hangemanole hoped ever to need.

"I have a love-hate relationship with Ferdinand's," he says. "I see my old neighbors, my old friends, and here I am slinging hash."

The dinner shift has not yet begun and he sits in a booth, checking his watch. "Suddenly, I'm out of work," he is saying. "I'm a guy who's got two cars, two kids, a second home. The irony of the whole thing is I'm waiting tables at my cousin's restaurant and these cousins were immigrants my father brought over from Greece."

Those cousins have done well, but business is off here too, as it is at the restaurants of many of the family's friends. Some nights, waiters and waitresses at Ferdinand's who had grown used to making $100 a night in tips have gone home with as little as $20.

Despite the pressures of the present, he holds onto the future with a determination that has about it the feel of an immigrant's dream.

"I'm trying to position myself for the next upturn," he says. "I have faith that the market is going to come up." He believes he can stop waiting tables within a year. There is movement, he says, possibility. His wife is less certain.

"He's working on a long-term footing here," Lynn has said. "I'm working on short-term panic."

But in fact he too slides between planning and panic, one moment talking about the future with assurance -- why he chose to sell roofing, how many clients he will need to make a good living -- and then a moment later lurching into frustration and disbelief.

"When I first got into it, the money was so great I never thought this would happen," he says of the local real estate market. "I also thought, 'This isn't going to happen to me.' I thought, 'I'm too good at this.' And I do think that still."

Sometimes he looks at the people he grew up with, comfortable in their large houses and large careers, and thinks about how -- while he was moving from city to city and job to job -- others were saving money, mastering computers, getting degrees, surpassing him. "I got kind of a late start because I kind of kicked around when I was young," he says. "Those people are always going to be ahead of me. I'm completely helpless. No matter how hard I work, no matter how skilled I am, there are people who are more skilled than I am."

In such a statement there is inevitably some bitterness, which he recognizes, but there is also a private dare. "I pride myself on meeting a challenge, doing something people say I can't do." And so he will not leave the building trade, the profession he has devoted himself to and believes in.

For years he has heard the criticisms of development and developers, but he says to himself, "That doesn't sound like me. I love trees. I'm just providing one of the three basic needs -- food, shelter and clothing."

This is the pragmatist and adventurer, the man who made 40 parachute jumps in the military, who continued the sport as a hobby, and who -- after a bungled drop brought him seconds away from dying -- took one more jump just to prove to himself that he was not afraid. He then, pragmatically, gave up the sport forever.

When Basil Hangemanole was young, his father hoped he would be a doctor. It was a dream so powerful it swept the son along without question or resistance, but then he reached college and the work was tough and he soon accepted that he was not made to fulfill his father's dream. There is something in him that allows him to talk about that realization without rancor -- he learned what he could do, that some dreams were possible and others were not.

Builders believe in cycles and Basil Hangemanole has been a builder for a long time. He knows that people need houses, that working hard has never been hard for him and that he has enough faith in himself to last for a while longer.

But now it is time for his shift to begin. He puts on the tie, the white shirt, the black pants and gets down to the business of holding on.