MOAN! The restaurant was closed and the waiters were talking in a little group right near my table. Moan. They were reaching into their jacket pockets, taking out their checks and comparing tips. Moan. Pretty soon the moaning rose in volume and you could hear the name of Jimmy Carter being taken in vain - roundly cursed, in fact. His people, the waiters said, were deadbeats.

"The good times have ended," one of the waiters said when I asked what was up. "The good times have neded."

The waiters were angry, but they were not crazy, and so we had to do some negotiating. They asked me not to mention the name of the restaurant or their names and they said I could not use the names of customers. One suggested I use his CB radio name which is Big Red Leader and another said I could call him Deep Swizzle. The rules having been agreed upon, we commenced to talk.

Big Red Leader showed me a check. He flipped it over so I could see that the credit card was issued by an Atlanta bank and then he turned it over so I could see the tab - $58.27. The tip was $5 on the rose, which is less than 10 per cent, which in itself is the bare minimum, a virtual insult - the kind of tip you give a waiter who has spilled soup in your lap and made a pass at your wife. Big Red Leader returned the check to his pocket. He looked at me with sad eyes. This is what he said: Moan.

"All the waiters are talking it over," one of them said. "Maybe the Carter people just haven't been broken in yet. I'm breaking in this one guy. He comes in and says he's going to be a regular. He says he's going to be with HEW.J&B on the rocks is what he orders. Everyday he comes in and you know he's going to have J&B on the rocks. He comes in and he says, the usual for me." I say, 'what's that, sir?' This goes on for a couple of days and the guy gets the message."

By this time the crowd had grown. The guy who parks cars and the person who checks coats had joined us and they had stories of their own. The guy who parks cars says that the Carter people are always asking him where to go for some action. Just that night, he said, a Carter person asked him where the action was and flipped him a quarter. For a quarter he directed him to a pizza joint on M Street. The person who checks coats was sipping scotch.

"I'll tell you what happened to me tonight," she said. "A guy puts down 50 cents on my plate. I'm lucky he got only one. That's what happened to me tonight."

"Carter people?" I asked. "Carter people do this?" Heads nodded. "How do you know they're Carter people?" Everyone started to talk at once Big Red Leader said the Carter poeple are not shy. They announce who they are. Deep Swizzle says he can spot Carter people by their accents and he wonders out loud what kind of city Atlanta is - this place of 10 per cent tippers. Everyone agrees that the Carter people sometimes wear buttons in the shape of little peanuts in their lapels.

Then we started to talk about what kind of tippers the Republicans had been. The waiters called the roll of the 20 percenters and the 15 percenters - all those who had been good to them during the Nixon-Ford years. You came away thinking that if there is one thing Republicans have in common, it is that they know how to tip big.

It was time for Big Red Leader to speak again. There was hurt in his eyes. "You have to remember, I'm a Democrat all the wlay. I voted for Carter. Someone else joined in. "I wore the peanut button." Someone else says, "I did, too." Pretty soon everyone was declaring their allegiance to Jimmy Carter. To a man the waiters had voted for him.

So there it was. Done in by their own people. I know the felling myself. I remember sitting in Madison Square Garden listening to Carter's convention acceptance speech approving of his commitment to Democratic liberalism. He mentioned equal justice and in my head I cheered. He talked about universal voter registration and again I silently cheered. Then he mentioned tax reform and suddenly the cheering in my head stopped.Carter meant it. He said he meant it. This man was going to do it. All of a sudden I sensed that he was talking not only about millionaires and oil companies, but me - me and my hard-won, not to mention well-deserved, tax deductions.

Back at my table the waiters were still talking. The wonderful, golden years were over. They didn't have the sense to have voted their pocketbooks. Their own friends had done them in. I think I'll know that feeling.

Moan.