Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini. -- Alexander Woollcott

There's a chance that one martini could change one's life forever.

Hope and desperation are what it's all about. Hitting the bottom. The bottom is calling every time one lifts a martini to one's face. The chilled glass itself -- the straight-up martini glass, with olives or a twist drifting inside -- has narrative drive. One sips and is slowly led somewhere. One sips and is pulled downward, through the point of the cone, down the stem -- designed so anxious hands don't warm the gin and vermouth -- down, down, down, beyond the broad base and through the floor, as though it were transparent, to that cool Realm of Fabulosity where every table is a table in the Ritz bar, every red leather banquette holds a millionaire and every girl is a rich little sister out of Raymond Chandler.

Martinis are everywhere suddenly, and bars are looking more like bars again, except they're filling up with people who don't look like John Tower or Zelda Fitzgerald or Thurston Howell ("Lovey, martoonis!") III. They don't look like chardonnay people or micro-brew people or latte people either.

The neo-martini culture is more diverse. Its members don't really have that much in common -- racially, economically, geographically -- except, perhaps, that they're young, and looking for something new, even if it's old. People like the Millionaire, the guitarist in Combustible Edison, and anyone who's crazy about the new lounge music.

You can sit on fuzzy leopard print bar stools at Xing Kuba on Wisconsin Avenue NW and drink martinis, pressing your knees against the padded leather bar. Lou Reed might be playing on the CD jukebox, or a samba. It's a Cuban place with 1940s overtones -- and eight kinds of vodka and four kinds of gin. The bartender is young and male and wears black jeans. On the far wall, next to the doorway leading to a dark red back room, there's a large print of a roaring tiger. On the other side of the doorway is a painting of a naked woman, a creamy nude in greenish tones, making one think, as one descends into the red region, of that short story -- all about choices -- "The Lady or the Tiger." And also of a poem by W.H. Auden.

Could any tiger

Drink martinis, smoke cigars,

And last as we do?

Ordering a martini suggests a certain approach to life, an attitude. At Rincome in Arlington, a Thai restaurant with roomy booths and a '60s bar -- where the green olives come punctured by glowing red swords -- the waitress shoots you a look of appreciation as she places the drink down, laughs to herself as though you must be fun, must be a troublemaker, must be her kind of girl.

And the martini says that maybe man isn't so dreadful. He might be better, stronger, than tigers. Civilization, such as it is, isn't so lousy after all. "When I see a martini glass," whispers a woman at I Ricchi, "it reminds me of how I want the world to be. But it isn't."

If you drink one at the Palm -- where the glass is so large it could support a goldfish -- it's a grand, lethal experience. A humming starts in your head. But if the room is busy enough, and it generally is, you might not hear it and make the mistake of ordering a second. Soon enough the voices across the table seem like voices across the room. And the doorknob to the bathroom has gotten strangely huge in your hand.

Sometimes there's a feeling at Coco Loco, in Chinatown, that you should be drinking something sweeter, livelier, possibly stupider. An almost delusional drink like a Caipirina or one the bartender calls "Sex on the Beach" -- amaretto and pineapple juice and vodka. But Camille Paglia, the extravagant social critic, went to Coco Loco the other weekend with her girlfriend, art curator Alison Maddex -- part of a whole night of martini-drinking -- and she wasn't the least tempted by the overly festive nature of the restaurant.

Their martinis came in short glasses, not stemmed. Gray swords were used for the olives.

"I never used to drink martinis," Paglia said. "In the '60s, they were absolutely unheard of. A martini was, like, Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8.' But two years ago I tasted one and just adored it. Absolut, very dry, with olives. But I just love those olives."

A twist can be awfully nice too. Inside the frosted glass, the lemon skin dances, suspended, a Mobius strip of bright yellow. Looking at it twirling, you think of the inside of an old marble, or a cold and sunny Sunday afternoon held in time. The more pith on the lemon skin, the more it floats.

Pineapple floats in vodka, Stolichnaya, inside a giant glass jar on the bar at the Capital Grille. The bartender looks familiar -- and he is. It's Cyrus Kehyari from Xing Kuba, with a new job. He puts a chilled martini glass on the counter and pours a "Stoli-Doley," ice cold.

Maybe the drink hasn't come back so much as the glass.

Nowadays people prefer vodka to gin. There are martini bars popping up around the country serving "martinis" made with flavored vodkas and giving them funny names. (At Morton's in Georgetown, there's a martini menu listing 30: the Star Light, the Blue Sapphire, the Iceberg . . .) In any case, gin or peppered vodka, there's a sense of renewed enthusiasm for the old forgotten drink, which has been around since the 19th century and been called a "martini" since 1888 (before that it was a "Martinez," named after a town in California).

"I hate to sound cynical, but I'm a professor of classics," says Lowell Edmunds, pretty much considered the guru of martini wisdom, "but about every five years there's a story about how Latin is making a comeback, and it seems the same for the martini."

Edmunds wrote a book in 1981, "The Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization." And, quite charmingly, he deconstructed the meaning of the cocktail, reducing it to seven "messages":

1. The martini is American -- not European or Asian or African.

2. The martini is urban -- not rural.

3. The martini is upper, not lower, class.

4. The martini is a man's -- not a woman's -- drink.

5. The martini is optimistic, not pessimistic.

6. The martini is the drink of adults, not children.

7. The martini belongs to the past, not the present.

Another book, more of a coffee-table sort of thing full of movie stills of stars with martini glasses in their hands -- William Powell in "The Thin Man," Sean Connery in "Goldfinger," even a picture of Ernest Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich drinking martinis -- is coming out in late April. It's titled "The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic." And the author, a good-natured man named Barnaby Conrad III, says it has "everything you wanted to know about the martini but were too drunk to ask."

Conrad, something of a bohemian blue blood, is from San Francisco, and like Los Angeles and New York, his home town has become, in the last few years, a big martini-drinking place, more evidence that the Quest for Fabulosity can happen anywhere, anyhow, anytime -- even in the Herbal Tea Capital of the World. Conrad, 42, says he started drinking martinis about six years ago, when he repatriated from France. "And this neo-martini culture just started happening around me," he says. He joined an informal martini group -- Wednesday nights at a restaurant called Eric, where, according to Conrad, between 500 and 700 martinis are served until closing.

"It's not as banal as drinking white wine," says Conrad. "And it's a bit like fly-fishing -- a bit of a club. People who drink martinis are generous people, good people. They're outgoing. And women who drink martinis are intriguing, adventurous and pretty good sports. Fun to be with."

Nobody's drinking three-martini lunches, of course -- as if many ever did -- and even two martinis might require some planning (a designated driver, aspirin, no afternoon appointments). Along with the doorknobs, everything else starts becoming fuller and smoother, even people's faces. And their eyes meet yours more slowly, and you are less quick to look away.

"We're all going to die, you know," Conrad continues, "even though everybody likes to forget that."

Salvation comes as you sip a martini and taste the onion bread at Sam & Harry's. And the possibility of perfection. It soon becomes obvious that you are beginning to have a relationship with a cocktail. H.L. Mencken said martinis were "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet." The food writer M.F.K. Fisher confessed: "A well-made Martini or Gibson, correctly chilled and nicely served, has been more often my true friend than any two-legged creature."

A Gibson is simply a martini with onions bouncing around on the bottom, like ghost olives, but everything else about the mixology of martinis is complicated. The old martini culture made it complicated -- the neo-martini people will drink almost anything. Before World War II the ratio of gin to vermouth was something like 4 to 1, and later the dry martini was 7 to 1. The postwar martini just got drier and drier. (There is even something called the Montgomery -- a ratio of 15 to 1 -- named for the British field marshal who supposedly refused to attack the enemy until he outnumbered them greatly.) As the Rat Pack legend goes, some people like their martinis so dry they just whisper the word "vermouth" over the glass before pouring in the remaining spirits.

Initially cold, the martini causes an inner warmth. A pleasant rubberiness ensues. The sad thing is, as soon as this feeling begins, you can't help wondering how long it will last. It's as though you've plunged headfirst into a wonderful affair, but the end is already in sight -- and you alone are causing it. But before the unhappy ending, you are warm and big-hearted and kind to strangers. Also, you remain able to express yourself nicely. "It's an airier buzz," muses one young martini drinker. "It has more space in it. That's why you can still think."

You don't exactly drink a martini to think, though. You drink one for a perfect feeling -- wholly and completely and exactly perfect -- and the sense that it could last forever. CAPTION: The blast from the past: Actress Myrna Loy and new husband John Hertz Jr. at New York's Stork Club in 1942.