WHAT I REMEMBER most about that night was fear - fear and cold, but mostly fear. It was late at night and I was going home from a date by subway and the car was unheated and the night bitter cold. I was drowsy and freezing cold and so I found myself a corner seat, snuggled into the wall and tried to fall asleep. Suddenly, the doors opened and three or four punks came on, drinking beer and having a good time. They were drunk and they offered me a cold beer. It was an order.

Well, I should have said yes and I should have been friendly and I should have laughed at their jokes, but I was cold and I was miserable and so I said no - no thank you, and I turned back to the wall. One of them grabbed me and one of them threatened me and one of them threw an opened can of beer at my feet. The punks laughed. The other passengers looked at me with terrified eyes and then looked either at the floor or the other way. I was on my own.

In the end, nothing happened, and in the end, for reasons that have to do with the strange behavior of drunks, the punks decided to leave me alone. They decided further that I was their friend so they sat next to me for the rest of the ride. When I got home last night I made one of my frequent vows and this one was to stop riding the subway late at night. I more or less stuck to that vow, and the shame of it was that other people were doing the same. The subway was scaring people.

I am writing this now because a young man named John Arthur Bowen who is 19 years old and whom I have nothing against. He is sort of a principle with me. He lives in Alexandria and on the night of July 4 he became the first person arrested on Metro's Blue Line. According to the charges against him, he was seen drinking beer in the Federal Triangele Station and was arrested by a police officer who not only seized Bowen, but the beer as well.

An argument followed with two of Bowen's friends arguing for a return of the beer. There was what a Metro spokesman called an "altercation" in which the police officer said he was altercated and Bowen and his cohorts split for the tracks. The power was cut and trains came to a halt. People heading down for the Mall and the fireworks display stood in their trains and waited while the police searched the tunnel for the three men. For 20 minutes, the power was off and no train moved. For 20 minutes, Bowen and his cohorts delayed thousands of people. He was finally found and arrested. The other two were never found.

Now I'll tell you something. I have nothing against Bowen, but I am sort of a religious believer in subways. I grew up in a place where they brought the subway out when I was already a teenager and so I vividly remember the first ride - the day a group of us went into what we used to call The City. We ran to the front of the car as we pushed our noses up against the glass and we peered into the darkness of the tunnel, seeing nothing but looking anyway. When we got out we chose a station we had heard of and so we came out at Times Square. It was a sunny day and nothing was ever the same.

We were kids and the subway was our toy. We went into The City so we could drink illegally and we took the subway to movies and we took it just to walk around and look at people - the incredible diversity of people you can not find in the suburbs. But we took it, too, to go to concerts and to the theater and to musuems where bloated whales hunk by wires from the ceiling and where towering mammoths stood in the lobby. We had Egypt in one room and knights in armor in the next and a couple of stops downtown we had paintings that could make a kid wonder and giggle. We discovered The City and as soon as we were old enough, right out of high school, some of us simply moved there. The subway did that.

So I am believer in subways. I believe they can move people cheaply and quickly and I believe also they can bring the city to kids who know only from cul de sacs and shopping malls.

But the subway I knew got a little rough after a little while. The punks came on and they terrorized people and they slashed the seats and splashed their names on the doors and windows in gaudy colors. After a while, people got scared and they stopped taking the subway at night or in certain areas and a piece of a great city died. Mothers told their kids not to take the subway.

So now we have this wonderful subway in Washington and now you have to wonder if history will repeat itself. You have to wonder if the system will belong to the people or to the punks and no one is more aware of this - of this need for public confidence - than the people down at Metro. That's why when you call and ask about the Bowen case they say things like, "Can you believe it?" On the night he was arrested for disorderly conduct - a charge that now includes putting a subway system in knots - he forfeited $10 coilateral and went home.

That's the way the end begins.