"It is easier," said M one Sunday morning, "for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a yg. prof. cpl. to find an apt., unfurn., D.C."

F paid no attention to him.

"We are resp.," he continued. "We have ex. refs., we make 30,000 p., we have neither pets nor kids, we are avail. immed. sWhat's our prob.?"

"We're too picky," said F, who was poised over the classifieds with her red felt-tipped pen. After a month in Washington they were both disc. and depr. They had been staying with F's parents and they had contemplated desperate measures. They had, for instance, almost rented an Eng. bsmt. on Cap. Hill.

It was lg., spac., and lux. It had track lighting trained on the expose. brk, It had innumerable folding doors and shutters. The w/w/c was deep shag, about the same color and thickness as Raggedy Ann's hair. M and F had put down a deposit, filled out an application, and submitted to the interrogation of a management agent who thought he was a junior Gman. They were about to sign the lease, having pretended to read and understand all 39 of ilts clauses.

They were standing in front of the f/p in the empty liv. rm., listening to the tubercular chortle of the CAC, taking in the view through the barred windows. Pedestrians were cut off at the knees, but they found themselves exactly at eye level with a passing dachshund.

"It's low," said F decisively.

"Subterranean," M replied.

"Dim."

"Moist."

"Dank."

"Moldy."

"What's that noise I hear?"

"The formation of stalactites."

"We can grow mushrooms."

"Breed bats."

"Sweetie!"

"Darling!"

They understood each other perfectly, and the moment when the junior G-man returned their deposit was perhaps the sweetest in their first weeks of apt. seeking. They could hence-forth rule out all Eng. bsmts., just as they ruled out all effs., party bldgs., hi-rises, and places that were yummy, cute or super. The words invariably meant only one thing: overpriced.

Unique was the codeword for overpriced and weird; rec. renov. was shorthand to indicate someone had just borrowed a junk of money from the bank to fix a place up and had to start paying it back, which boiled down to overpriced. In fact, M and F found that everything was overpriced, but their original distress had been eroded by thousands of ads and had given way by degrees to aphasic torpor. They no longer even flinched when 2 BR w/d, w/w/c, a/c, pkg., listed for $500 p/util.

They didn't look at apts. that expensive, not yet, but they were experiencing their own runaway inflation; their price ceiling was rising at a rate of $25 a week. Having begun at $300, it had climbed in one month to $400, and F was now marking apts. that rented for $500 with the most wistful of all symbols -- $ $ $. But they still clung to the belief that somewhere in D.C. a good deal existed, and the first apt. they looked at on that Sun. morn. sounded as if it just possibly might be one.

Sunny 1 BR, den, sep. din. rm., liv. rm., hdwd. flrs., $325 p/util. F, the cryptographer, had given the ad a circle and two stars, and that was as close as she ever came to a rave. They were excited when they got off Dupont Circle -- M zipped around the circle three times, but the third time it was just inertia, not confusion, that kept him in orbit -- and found the street and aprked.

It was, alas, on eof those streets that in the course of a single block deteriorates from appealing to appaolling. The apt. was way down in the appalling zone. True, it was sunny, but that was because the one tree out front was dead. It hadn't even lived long enouth to outgrow its braces. True, the apt. had hdwd. flrs., but the sun falling through the windows lit up splinters that bristled like punji stakes. True, it had a sep. din. rm. -- a converted elevator shaft. They walked throug the antediluvian kitchen, through the den with walls that had an advanced case of dandruff, through the bathdroom where the mighty odor of Lysol was competing with still mightier odors.

On to 2 BR, W/D, D/W, A/C, PATIO, PANELING, GRD. FLR. PRESTIGE BLDG., $395. Prestige! The bldg. looked like the embassy of a sheikdom or the HQ of a small, discreet philanthropic institution. Polished brass, arched windows, broad stone steps.

"Something's fishy," said M as he rang the bell.

From under the steps, from a doorway neither M nor F had noticed, emerged a large perdon with a clipboard. The landlord, of course. "I certainly hope you don't feel misled," he said merrily, after explaining he'd just come back from Europe, where ground floor meant:

"Bsmt.," muttered F.

But the merry landlord had hopped back down the cellar steps -- literally hopped on large, blue, iridescent jogging shoes -- and they had no choice but to follow. They duly noted the Weldwood paneling, the orange Formica, the lavender tiles. They marvelled at the way the landlord hopped, as if he were mounted on an invisible Pogo stick. It accelerated appreciably when he reached the patio, a sooty concrete slab under the fire escape. "This could be just charming," he exclaimed, "but of course it takes some imagination."

At that point their imagination would no longer bear the strain, and they moved on to a cheery renov. twnhse. w/everything. There they met Rese, who was watering the tiny boxwoods she had just planted. She got things on a first-name basis right away and led them inside to introduce them to Phil. Rose just adored the place and loved to show it. Wouldn't M and F like a Coke or ginger ale or something -- and really she almost wished that she and Phil lived in this apt., instead of upstairs -- had they been looking long? Because they'd made all the mistakes in their own apt. Wesn't it dreary to look for an apt.? And it was so suspenseful to fix a place up for somebody you didn't even know. She and Phil were just amkateur speculators, ha-ha, but really it was just so much fun to be in the building game. It wasn't business, for heaven's sake, not when your tenants were going to be your neighbors, though of course when it came right down to the bottom line, it was hard to find people that you really liked, and it would seem like such a waste to let just anybody rent the place...

M and F were getting woried.

Rose had her crisis in the terrific kitchen. "You seem like nice people," she said. "Don't you like the apt.? I mean, I'm just judging on first impressions, but what else can I do? I've been stuck here every weekend all summer. I want to play tennis. I want to go to the beach. I think we'd all get along, don't you? I like you. I like you both very, very much. Won't you please rent?"

M and F ran from it.

Not all landpersons were like Rose. Many were scarier. That Sun. M and F had to deal with a Tarzan-type who appeared capabel of dicing them into small pieces and feeding them to the iguana on the mantel. They looked at a dump owned by a blonde Amazon who let her two Dobermans do the talking. Other landpersons, the pros, were less importuanate, for they knew that D.c/. was full of apt.-less cpls. exactly like M and F.

And apt.-less they remained, thoiugh they persisted until F had X'd every O on her copy of the classifieds. Late that afternoon, feeling defeated and reckless, they looked at their first $500 apt.

The neighborhood resembled the site of a bombing. Strlding through the rubble and devastation with the indomitable air of a Churchill was a man who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with his title: Real Eastate Tycoon. Hale, stout and brick-faced, he gave the impression even on this breezeless day of being heavily buffeted by the winds of capitalism. They felt when they joined him as if they stood on the bridge of the good ship Speculation. The Tycoon owned the entire block, and as he squinted toward the horizon, he saw windfall profits.

"The apt.," said the Tycoon, thrusting his jaw at them, "is a knockout." It had, naturally, all amen., not to mention 2 f/p, skylight w/stn. gls., or bay wdw. M and F weakened. In the $500 category abbreviated fantasies were replaced by something more insidious -- tempations. The Tycoon sensed his opportunity and bore down on them hard.

"You won't find a better deal for the money," he claimed, and he advised them to get in on a good deal while the getting was good. When he'd finished the whole block, they wouldn't be able to touch the place for half a grand. "This street's gonna be hot," he predicted, and offered them a beer.

They stammered a refusal.

"Other people have looked at this place," he said ominously, and they understood that was an ultimatum.

They withdrew to a sidewalk cafe to mull it over. There under the yellow umbrellas everyone seemed to have a D.C. map and a copy of the classifieds. M and F overheard fragments from conversations in the language they all shared, the common speech of seekers everywhere: liv. rm., BR, CAC, etc.

M gazed into F's eyes. "This is the universal condition," he said.

"What?"

"Apt. hunting. It is the common denominator. Some of these people have apts., but they are still seeking. Do you understand what that means?"

"What?"

A waiter set their beers before them, but M kept orating. "Apt.-hunting is a sport and a pastime, a way of life, a vocation. Seeking is not everything; it's the only thing. There is no ldeal, Platonic apt.!"

"We couldn't afford it anyway," said F.