If she had not accompanied him to the roller rink that February night, and if she had not stored her earphones in his van while skating, and if the dog in the van had not eaten the earphones, then he and she might still be speaking.

But "if" was not to be. So she took him to court.

"It was the only way I could get what I wanted," said plaintiff Gloria Ransome, 20, a waitress at American University. "He tried to make a fool out of me."

"I thought the whole thing was unneccessary," said defendant Herman Stokes, 28, a cook at AU who moonlights as a guard at the Alexandria Roller Rink. "But I wasn't surprised."

Ransome v. Stokes -- The Case of the Eaten Earphones -- went to trial in early April. The forum was the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch, Civil Division, Superior court of the District of Columbia, better known simply as small claims court.

The court's jurisdiction is limited to disputes of $750 or less. And in a typical year, the court disposes of more than 20,000 lawsuits, ranging from fender-benders to bill-collection.

Although a legion of third-year law students helps conduct conciliations, the court holds some 700 trials a year -- all tape-recorded for posterity.

Occasionally they take on the trappings of a solemn high tribunal -- or sink to the level of TV's zany "People's Court." Judgments nearly always are final; appeals are few and far between.

"Last year there were 22,000 new cases filed," said Thomas Hammond, chief deputy clerk of the civil division. "That's a heckuva lot of cases -- a massive load. People are fighting for things today that they may not have fought for yesterday."

Like Ransome, for instance. To try to recover $47.70 plus interest and court costs from Stokes, she paid a $1 filing fee, another $1.55 for a certified letter to Stokes informing him of her claim, plus $24.28 to a professional process server.

She said she lost three days' work tending to legal details. "It was getting out of hand," she said. "But I didn't want him to think I'd give up so easy after going through all the arrangements."

The day of the trial, in a fractious mediation session conducted by a volunteer law student, she refused Stokes' settlement offer of $2. So unfolded the 3,216th small claims suit of 1983.

Ransome was sworn in at the witness box of Courtroom 8: a beige room robbed of its corners by a hazy round fluorescence. Litigants, lawyers and witnesses sat in pew-like benches, squirming through the proceedings like mourners for a hated uncle. The wiry Stokes, fidgeting, was seated at a table: a crescent of polished butcherblock with two chairs each for opposing sides.

Ransome faced the Honorable Sylvia Bacon, a tiny, brown-eyed woman in a pleated black robe. The judge perched to Ransome's right, whipping briskly through papers in a manila case jacket. After a while she spoke.

"Do I correctly understand that there has been a stipulation that certain property was destroyed by a dog?" Her cadence was precise, like her steel-gray chignon.

"Yes, your honor," Ransome replied. "The defendant and I went to the skating rink he works at. I left my radio headphones inside his van because I was afraid they'd get stolen if I brought them into the rink while I was skating. The dog stays in the van most of the time. But the dog is not ferocious."

Judge Bacon gazed at the plaintiff through designer glasses and took notes. "Did you ask him what his dog's habits are vis a vis earphones?"

So it went, Bacon slightly frowning and writing on a yellow pad. "Would you have any testimony to give, Mr. Stokes? . . . Is the dog obedience-trained?"

Stokes considered.

"Yes and no, your honor. I trained him so he doesn't mess in the van. But the dog is a young dog. He's always chewing on stuff. He chewed up my wires to my radio and my speakers, the upholstery on my chair and the dashboard, a pair of boots, and some of my tapes in the van, too."

The judge made more notations, and asked further questions. For several moments, she sat perfectly still and scrutinized her pad. At length she looked up and spoke with measured dignity.

"The court concludes that you cannot recover on your claim, Ms. Ransome. The court finds that you voluntarily left your property in a vehicle with a relatively young dog. The court finds and concludes that if you leave your property with a creature that might destroy it, then what happens after that becomes your responsibility. The court would thus deny plaintiff's claim."

Trained in the Ivy League and seasoned in the Justice Department, Bacon, 51, has been a judge for the last 12 years. She was named to the Superior Court by Richard Nixon and has been mentioned as a prospect for the Supreme Court.

But now she was in the thick of a less exalted enterprise: hearing disputes about blue bedspreads, floor tiles and brake jobs. She started her six-week stint at the beginning of April -- a step in the normal cycle of judicial assignments.

"There's a tendency in the profession to look down on small claims," she said cheerfully in her chambers. "But I think it presents a wide spectrum -- landlord/tenant disputes, written contracts, oral contracts, consumer complaints. You have it all."

On the bench she is a willing witness to the workaday world, digging for facts and applying law -- no matter how wild or mundane.

In one case, an elderly man wanted a judgment against him from a 1975 traffic accident wiped off the record.

"This is a very old case, sir," Bacon finally said. "At this stage, you probably ought not to be driving anyhow."

"But I don't drive," he said with sudden fury.

Bacon blinked. "Well, what can we do for you?"

"Somebody's been using my name," he repeated.

She offered a consoling smile. "Please step to the side and the clerk will assist you." The man thanked her feebly and left.

Bacon later reflected, "I think lawyers can be very helpful in presenting an effective case in small claims court. I think, though, that as a judge I can help people who are confused or inarticulate -- though, obviously, I can't take sides. It's hard not to be patient with them."

What about people who lie under oath?

"I do not assume that they do," she said. "I do know that if we were to prosecute all the perjury on the witness stand, we'd never complete the procesing of complaints and litigation. A woman came before me this morning, claiming that her burglar alarm system was stolen from her car during repairs. She gave me a sales slip for the burglar alarm, which was dated six months after the car repair." Bacon rolled her eyes. "If you're going to perjure yourself, at least forge your receipts!"

On an unusually crowded day, with 11 trials scheduled, Seasonair Inc. sued Ziggy's Deli and Carry-Out. Each was after the other over the costs of refrigeration repair. Both parties had counsel, as corporations must under court rules.

"I'm sure that both of your clients realize that they have paid more for attorneys' fees than they have any chance of recovering here," Bacon said. William Bethune, for the plaintiff, and Thomas Bacas, for the defendant, said nothing. "Then let us proceed -- as foolish as it may seem."

Before long, Bacon was showing annoyance over detailed testimony about condensate and copper wires. "Let's get down to this matter," she brusquely interrupted."I'm learning more about this than I need to know." She erupted at another point, during cross-examination, "Sir, I am only going to tell you once. You can't testify and you can't summarize the testimony."

Finally, she informed the lawyers sharply, "You have taken over three-quarters of an hour in presenting your evidence" -- and awarded $710 to Seasonair and $440 to Ziggy's.

At day's end she said, "Well, I didn't get to three cases. I heard eight, and six of them had counsel. I withdraw anything I said to the effect that lawyers are helpful."

Five days a week, plus the occasional Saturday and Wednesday night, the people's court is in session. It opens promptly at 9 in the morning, when the court clerk calls the day's calendar -- often more than 100 cases -- and closes with judgments, continuances, warrants and writs becoming part of the permanent file.

In the court's windowless anteroom, Georgetown law student Nick Lamb tried to officiate in the matter of Safe v. Habtom.

"This would have been the first time in 20 cases that I hadn't gotten the parties to settle," said Lamb, a participant in a program called D.C. Law Students in Court. "I usually try to hold out the worst possibility -- tell them that the court is like a crapshoot, with the mystique of trial and the mysteries of justice."

But Rachid Safa and Waldu Habtom weren't disuaded. Safa was suing for part of a security deposit; landlord Habtom was counter-claiming for damages to his apartment. Lamb reported failure to Judge Bacon.

"Let me take a few minutes to talk with you if I might," she told Safa and Habtom. "We have at issue here $125.59," she said from the bench, and went about proposing a 50-50 settlement.

She sent them out to haggle. Fifteen minutes later, Lamb brought them back.

"The parties are now $18 apart, your honor, and they are unwilling to settle."

Bacon fixed a frown on Safa and Habtom. "Both of you must realize that for $18, it's really not worth the risk of a trial. You might be risking $120, Mr. Habtom, and you might be risking $450, Mr. Safa. It appears to me that both of you are reasonably intelligent people." Suddenly she brightened, and turned to Habtom. "Why don't you pay him $52.50 and be done with it?"

"I will accept any judgment you can reach, your honor," Safa piped in. "I don't want to argue any more."

"$52.50?" Bacon pressed. "All right?"

At length Habtom nodded.

Folding a freshly drawn check for $52.50 into his wallet, Safa said, "I was really impressed with the speed of the final decision. I'm a lawyer in Beirut, but I'm studying international law at Georgetown. And I was thinking about trying to adopt such a system in Lebanon. The small claim suits in Lebanon waste a lot of time, with a lot of dilatory tacts. This sytem I like -- only a couple of hours of phychological war. Not that I would ever like to watch something like this on television."