SO SHE SAYS, "How you gonna pay me?"

And Elaine thinks to herself: Pay her? I thought this cat was a giveaway.

She's too embarrassed to say that, though, so it all begins.

"By check," Elaine says.

Thank God she had the money in the bank. One hundred seventy five for Jan the Himalayan, who wasn't much of a show cat, really, though Elaine Bartosavage didn't know a piggy nose from a crooked tail in those days, which was nine years ago, before she had 60 cats and she and her husband and seven kids had migrated from town to a place in the country near Woodbridge, which isn't the country anymore, but the suburbs. So everybody lives inside the house on Ridge Road, except Sinbad and Tom Foolery, the guard cats, who go out every day but return to sleep on Elaine's bed with Taco Tiki, Macbeth, Hangin' Around, Trouble, Flash, Trish and the rest.

"Oh, my gosh, what am I going to do with nine cats!" Elaine worried when a friend gave her four cats to add to the five she'd collected. "It's like eating one salted peanut: All of a sudden there were 25." Well, in for a dime, in for a dollar. So Elaine did it right, bought some real show cats -- Persians, Himalayans, Exotic Shorthairs, her specialty on the circuit today. That led to Woody, a Grand Champion red tabby Exotic with a round, flat face, tight ears and squat legs beneath a chunky body. Elaine mugs with him: He's 4 and she's 52, but, yes, there is a resemblance.

It's like the set from a feline sequel to "Willard" in Elaine's family room. Stephanie hops in Elaine's lap. Macbeth licks her leg. Flash is chewing on the poinsettia. "Stop!" shouts Elaine. Arctic Zone, a new arrival last week, is visiting one of the room's three litter boxes when Folly attacks. She's a mean one, Folly, and would like to be Queen Cat. No way as long as Trish, lounging regally in the center of the floor, is enthroned. "Trish rules with disdainfulness," Elaine says disdainfully. Misty, who held back her kittens until Elaine got home the other night, is in the kitchen with her three newborns. Erica, a week-long guest who doesn't know better, is shooed off the kitchen table. Gretchen, who moved in as an adult, is skulking timidly near the basement door, where the male cats reside. "Gretchen doesn't have a good personality like my cats," says Elaine. Fluffy attacks a plastic bag, Flash is back at the poinsettia, Erica is on the kitchen table again. Hangin' Around knocks over the planter. Living with 60 cats is what you call a life-style decision.

"If you don't have a cup of coffee with a cat hair in it, you're at somebody else's house," Elaine jokes. Dark dresses are out. Vacations are nearly impossible. Rolls of wide tape for removing cat hair are required. Plants must hang from the ceiling. Feet are always shuffled since Elaine's son stepped on a kitten and gave it brain damage. The dryer door is never left open since the accident Elaine still can't talk about. Cat food costs $600 a month and eats up most of Elaine's salary as a medical technologist, not to mention the the price of neutering all the cats she gives away, the sonic flea eradicator, the vet bill (one cat went on kidney dialysis), the germicidal lamps and the cleaners and the deodorizers -- all of which work pretty well. Get past the front door and the smell is almost forgettable.

Nevertheless, some friends have declined invitations, and social life has slowly gravitated toward cat people. The TV man couldn't make his repairs once, because the cats kept jumping all over the set. It's tough to read a book or write a letter. The 25 litter boxes must be changed several times a day. Every cat eye is washed every day. Show cats are bathed weekly, all cats monthly. Everybody is combed every few days. Everybody is touched every day, kittens three times. Cats have been born in closets, drawers, cars, beds and clothes dryers.

"My husband objects," says Elaine. "Just the other night he said, 'I can see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 cats on this bed. How many are under the bed?' " His cat, Tom Foolery, a neutered 22-pound Himalayan, hates Sinbad, Elaine's neutered 12-pound Lynx Point Siamese. (They are the only male cats allowed to mingle with the females.) "Many a night we wake up to 40 pounds of cat flying around," Elaine says. One night, her husband's chest even got cut.

"Wear pajamas," Elaine told him.

The cats aren't really a family affair, though the kids help out and even her husband will pitch in if Elaine gets sick or leaves town. Until recently, Elaine's chief aide was 25-year-old Lark McEntarffer, whose arrival was about as mercurial as that of Elaine's first cat. Lark and her husband had visited Elaine in search of a house cat. "We hit it off," says Elaine. So Lark and her husband moved in -- and stayed two years, until he was transferred out of town, leaving Elaine on her own again.

"I love cats!" Elaine says with finality. "Mainly because they are tolerant and easygoing."