"Buses" - every snatch of the conversation overheard on the street was about buses. "Are they running?" "I don't know. I don't know - maybe some of them." "How am I going to get home?"

Rush hour was startling and storm clouds threatened in the distance. Washington's sidewalks were filling fast with perplexed, frustrated, often angry people. At every red, white and blue Metro sign the lines just kept growing, and the minutes - and then the hours - ticked away.

It was only 4:30, but research consultant Andrew Strauss had already been waiting nearly an hour at 15th and K Streets NW for the D2 bus he normally rides home. When someone else in line explained to him that the bus drivers were striking because they wanted more protection, he shook his head.

"They may need more protection after today's activities," he said.

The bus strike may have caught the city off guard, but some how people managed to cope. As they flooded out of their offices, their anger - at the bus drivers, sometimes just at fate - soon lapsed into resignation, a rush on pay telephones an the search for other ways to get home. And some people don't blame the drivers.

Ronnie Taylor, 28, who worked as a postal clerk at the Benjamin Franklin Post Office, sai he had taken a cab to work yesterday morning because his bus was not running.

Asked how he will return home, Taylor said, "I'll probably end up calling someone but that'll be after rush hour. Traffic is just as bad coming into the city as going out."

Asked how he felt about the strike, Taylor said, "They should have police protection on the buses anyway, regardless of whether it's a man or a woman driver. They've been having trouble there."

At the 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, 19-year-old Frank Mikell asked a woman in the Metro ticket booth how he could get a bus to Martin Luther King Avenue.

"None of them are running," she told him.

"What am I gonna do, walk?" He said he had just come up from Charleston, S.C., and this was his first day on a new job. He didn't understand the elaborate alternative directions she spelled out for him.

"I think this is disgusting," said Mikell. "Some hoodlums raped a woman and they take it out on all of us."

Katherine Bell, a cleaning woman at the Veterans Administration had been waiting for an hour and a half to go home to her house on Gallaudet Street NE. "One bus passed and they said no more were coming. Cags come by and they won't even stop." She finally called a friend, but she did not know when he would arrive.

"This is a shame," said Frances Wilson, a statistical assistant at the Veterans Administration, who was waiting for the D2. "They could have warned us. They said it was just certain lines. I came in this morning and my bus line was fine. I came out at 4:30 and no bus."

For many people, at first, Metro-rail seemed a good alternative to the buses, but when they got off in Silver Spring and looked for buses to take them the rest if the way home, they found that those, too, were few and far between.

In Silver Spring, as people poured out of the trains, lines began to form not only at the bus terminals, but at the telephones and in front of every Metro policeman or supervisor standing on duty. They were told only 5 percent of the buses were running.

David Churchill had waited for some time before he found out the S line on 15th Street and Georgia Avenue was not running at all. Churchill, who lives across from Walter Reed Hospital, said he would call his wife for a ride. "Unfortunately," he said, "my wife also takes the S line. I'll have to see if she was able to get home."

Montgomery County's "Ride-Out" buses, which take people to Langley Park, Wheaton Plaza and White Flint, were "inundated with people wanting to get home," said Bruce Carter, the program's supervisor. "We've got every bus we own working tonight." He salso said he was trying to get buses from Gaithersburg, but he stressed the fact that his buses do not follow Metrobus routes.

One passenger who said he had been waiting 25 minutes for a Y bus to Glendale angrily told a Metro official, "Metro will have a hard time collecting my fare tomorrow morning."

Other stranded riders were worried that Metro would not be able to collect their fares last night.

Harry Catewood stood at 12th and E streets at 5:30 yesterday evening without enough money to take a cab. Catewood, a Howard University student who works part-time on Capitol Hill, had arrived at his usual transfer stop at 4:45. At 5:20 he had yet to see a bus come by that could take him to his home on 16th Street NW.

"I just bring enough for bus fare every day," said Catewood. "I hope the buses come. If not, I hope a friend comes along. If not, I guess I'll wash dishes for an hour."