Federal Express closed early yesterday. Metro mobilized its "command center." Sales of bread, milk, rock salt and toilet paper soared, as if the local citizenry was preparing for the siege of Leningrad. There was the usual talk of cancellations and one television newscast even offered anti-skid driving tips.

But panic? Who said anything about panic?

When forecasts of snow come to Washington, panic is what everyone else does.

"I actually love Washington snowstorms because they are the greatest buildup to the least amount of snow I've ever seen," said Barbara Rohde, who is the director of the State of Minnesota Washington Office and therefore has a certain moral right to adopt a tone of meteorological superiority. When she left Minnesota Wednesday it was snowing and the temperature was 17 degrees below zero -- just thinking of a snowbound Washington made her chuckle yesterday afternoon.

"I love to talk about Washington and snow with anyone from the upper Midwest," she says. "We all get together and laugh about it."

She is not alone. Mocking the region's reaction to inclement weather is as common a local trait as insisting on referring to Washington as "This Town" (as in "This Town is the sort of place where the New Paradigm was old within three days and no one can drive on ice"). In fact, it was the general pessimism about Washington's ability to handle winter precipitation -- rather than any fear of the snow itself -- that convinced Federal Express to shut down early.

"It's a major issue as far as traffic is concerned," said Federal Express local operations director Jerry Leary. And if traffic is bad, the trucks don't get to Dulles on time and all those packages that absolutely positively have to be out of here don't make their 10:30 flight. "I think if you go to Boston," Leary speculated, "they're more used to driving in that type of weather."

Boston. Buffalo. Where the men are men and the children grow up driving snowplows. It makes a Washingtonian wince even to consider it.

Wince -- or maybe stock the shelves, depending on your profession. The Ski Chalet in Arlington was expecting great business yesterday. Who wants to buy skis when the temperature is in the 50s? And at food stores, Washington's awkward relationship with weather is a godsend.

"We find it uplifting," a jolly Jim Roberts said about the desperate stocking up on staples. Roberts is Safeway's public relations manager and although he does not want to revel in people's fear of being marooned in a snowdrift-covered house, he cannot pretend it's bad for business. "We're happy that people are cautious," is how he put it.

Caution takes many forms. At Safeway, they see hoarding of bread, milk, soda, beer and wine. "Microwave popcorn is a biggie," said Roberts. "Salty snacks. Soups. Chili. Crackers -- you got to have crackers with your soup and chili. We sell these fire-starters and fire logs. Those are big. Toilet tissue. Paper towels. Baby food and formula and diapers. Windshield washer fluid. And rock salt and cat litter."

The run on cat litter is not a sign of a sudden regional affection for house pets. "People can throw that stuff down on the sidewalk," said Roberts.

Eddy Neam, manager of a petite and pricey food store in Georgetown, said even people who live close enough to walk to the store stock up at the threat of snow. Yes, he knows Georgetown has not been an impassible, frozen wasteland since sometime in the last Ice Age, but he sees the urge to shop as more of a communal psychological glitch than a practical reaction. "It's the whole atmosphere, the whole feeling, the panic of being without food."

At the Washington Opera, which had no plans as of early evening yesterday to cancel its dress rehearsal of "The Magic Flute," there had been calls from opera patrons who were scheduled to watch the rehearsal asking if the show would in fact go on.

"I think it's wishful thinking on their part," said opera ticket services administrator Jimmy Legarreta. "If they can't make it, they don't want it to happen."

There are, of course, those who see bad weather as a blanket excuse -- for not wearing a tie to work, for not going to work at all, for avoiding other sorts of pain. Elizabeth ("I'm from Ohio and it doesn't stop us there") Swinford works in a downtown dental office and has heard all too many snow-related cancellations over the years. She refuses, however, to accept the possibility that people will use any reason to avoid going to the dentist.

"I think they just cancel everything," she said. "It's amazing. It amused me last night when we were watching the news and they were giving driving directions -- how to drive in a skid. My husband and I were laughing. We thought it was cute."

Cute? When was the last time you heard a major metropolitan area called cute? Take that, Washington.