The air conditioning isn't working, the air smells of soured cream, the linoleum floor hasn't been white in years, and there is a scale with thigh-level mirrors by the door. But ice cream fanatics ignore it all for a few hours of life in the fat lane at Gifford Ice Cream on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, a place for no-nonsense ice cream eaters where a sundae is a Sunday, a jumbo sundae is a Jumbo Sunday, the ice cream and sauces are homemade, the whipped cream is real, and the butterfat runs high.

Amanda Didden, 5, has already decided that chocolate chip is her favorite lifetime flavor. Her parents have been coming for years. At Christmas they exchange Gifford's gift certificates.

Shihab and Joan stop in to introduce out-of-town visitors to ther idea of Washington's most impressive monument. The couple have been friends with the Gifford's staff since the night during the February blizzard when they defied emergency-driving-only restrictions for their weekly fix of the cold stuff.

All night the line at the counter stretches to the door. The tables are pushed together and pulled apart of accommodate every sort of extended family.

Critiquing each others' choices ("Pistachio! Eww, ugly") is the general topic of conversation. Life-threatening concoctions are tested-- the night's winner a pistaschio/rum raisin/butter pecan milkshake. But vanilla, serving as a backdrop for more exotic toppings, is the big seller, going at the rate of 40 gallons on Saturday night.

Eating ice cream may be a wholesome, all-American pastime, but some Gifford fanatics are there on the sly-- breaking dates and diets. One man, accompanying a woman who is not his girlfriend, does not want to be photographed.

And then there is Doris, who says she can never go back to work if her co-workers find out she is eating ice cream. She spends Saturday days shopping for clothes and talking about losing weight; she spends Saturday nights gorging at Gifford's.