THE Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare was coming home. He was in a government car with a government press secretary and a government aide. He had been preceded by what amounts to a government advance man. The advance man had gone to the sixth floor of an apartment house in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and he had told the woman who lives there that Joseph Califano, the secretary of almost everything that really matters in Brooklyn, used to live in her apartment nad he would like to stop by. He was coming home.

So now Califano, who was in Brooklyn on other business, was standing before the woman and he was going through the motions. He was asking her if he could come in and he was telling her that he used to live there, but the truth of the matter is that he did not live there. He used to live down the hall. Someone had changed the numbers on the apartment doors.

Califano knew that right off. He sensed it the minute the elevator arrived at the sixth floor. He started to turn to the right but the man from the regional office said it was to the left. "It's to the right, isn't it," Califano asked and the man from regional said, "No, Mr. Secretary, it's this way." Everyone went off to the left and Califano followed and he wanted to have everything stopped like it was a movie, freeze the frame, while something was said about following your instincts and not listening to staff people.

After all, Joe Califano had made that turn from the elevator about a million times. He lived in that building until he was 17 years old and he made that turn for his meals and to change his clothes after school and to get his skate key and to play the games you play on rainy days. When you live in an apartment house you know the floors you're on from the sound of the elevator's motor and you know your neighbors by the smells of their cooking and you know after 17 years of this sort of thing which way to turn when you get off the elevator. There are things you know.

But the thing had been set up and the advance work done and the woman already briefed, if that's the right word, and so now Califano was touring the wrong apartment, looking for the things that were the same as in rhe real apartment - things like radiators and wall moldings and the layout of the rooms. When he spotted something like that, he would remark that he remembered it and then quickly and politely he left the place and went down the hall to the right apartment. There was no one home.

It seemed to be a bust - a nice idea with no payoff and some would say it was quintessential Califano. Some would say it was Califano to a T, a liberal without apologies who talks about the poor, for instance, but is against providing them with government money for abortions. People don't like that. They don't expect it of bright, liberal Joe Califano and so when he goes to the sort of parties where you have to sit on the floor and balance your plate on your knee, women in million-dollar dresses crawl over to hom and give him bloody murder.Joe Califano, they say, you don't know what it's like to be a woman or poor, or, God forbid, a poor woman, Joe Califano, you have no heart - all staff and no heart.

Out on the street there were men doing nothing at the corner and all around there were signs that the neighborhood was fighting for survival. Califano walked around pointing at this and pointint at that, saying what it used to be and then he walked over to St. Gregory's which is both the school he attended and the church where he worshipped.

It is a wonderful Romanesque church, built for Italian immigrants, and it probably has it counterpart somewhere in Italy. It has a separate bell tower and a graceful, columned porch and once it was more than just a church. Once when you tell people you went to St. Gregory's it defined who you were.

There was a woman in the church and her name was Helen Garcia. she was short and old and was waiting for Califano when he arrived. There was word that he might come, so she had gone through the records. She knew a lot about Califano - about his baptism and the marriage of his parents and that sort of thing. It all happened in this church.

"I knew your grandparents," she said to Califano, "I knew Mrs. Scotto, too. Mrs. Scotto - that would be an aunt."

"Yeah," Califano said. "They lived at 1329 and I lived at 1340."

"Do you remember Father Foley?"

"Yeah, he married my mother and father."

"He baptized you, too, Father Foley. I checked the records. He would have loved to have been here. He's retired and living in Flushing. Yeah, he would have loved to have been here, Father Foley."

The old woman continued to talk. She remarked on the wonders of the church and she called the roster of relatives and neighbors now gone, on the attendance of the Sunday mass of the old days, how it was so jammed in there you couldn't get the collection basket down the aisle.

Califano listened and then he started to walk around the place and now when he said he remembered this or he remembered that, there was a touch of wonder in his voice, the edge of excitement. He had been that way, actually, ever since he has walked over to St. Gregory's. It had started tin the school. He was standing in the middle of the large room, talking about how little that room had changed. There was a poster on the wall and it showed a mother and an infant and it said, "Respect Life."

Joe Califano was home.