The first thing you notice about him is the smile and then the smell of cologne, fragrant and fresh. He greets you at a cold gray door and welcomes you aboard.

For nearly 38 years, from the vantage point of seat in an elevator at the District Building, Theodore R. Wade, 69, has seen the ways of power and politics come and go in Washington. He was given advice to the mighty and direction to the forlorn. And through the people who have passed through his elevator over nearly four decades, he has watched the city change.

But at the end of the month, "Mr. Wade," as he is known to nearly everyone in the District Building, will give up his elevator operator's job and retire.

"I've seen a lot of changes here, but one thing that I will miss the most is the people," said Wade, who plans to spend his days traveling "to all the places that I've never seen."

No one will take Wade's place when he retires-all four elevators at the District Building were made fully automatic a year ago. The other elevator operators found new jobs, but former mayor Walter E. Washington kept Wade on, so he could work until the time came for his retirement.

"Everybody loves Mr. Wade and I call him my 'main man,'" said Washington, "Sometimes at 8 or 9 p.m. when I would leave the building, during the difficult days in that position, he would cheer me up."

"But it wasn't just for me, he did it for everybody," Washington said. "He made everybody fell they were something special. He was a psychologist, sociologist, economist, all wrapped up in one.

"He was a man who was on the fringes of everything, and an ambassador who met the foreign heads of state when they came to visit."

"I may not have much of an education, but I have mother wit and I have done better than a lot a people who have college degrees," said Wade.

Like many in the city, Wade managed to eke out his holding a full-time job at the District Building and two part-time jobs at the same time.

Alan Grip, a public information officer at the District Building, said he hired Wade's moving company to move his furniture three times.

Wade, who drives an Oldsmobile 98 with a prestigiously low tag number, live with his wife Josephine in a two-story brick home in Northeast, "a neighborhood so clean we don't need a street cleaner."

The couple's only child, Theodore R. Wade Jr., whom Wade calls his "heart," died at age 22 after an asthma attack several years ago, just months before he was to graduate from Northern Virginia Community College.

"I lived and worked for that boy," Wade said.

Appointed and elected city officials came and went, but Wade stayed and became a city hall fixture.

"I learned right off that it's not what you know but who you know," said Wade, who reluntantly admits he used his contacts-and knowledge of the way city government operates-to help those in distress.

"I can remember when a mother came in here and she was crying because the city cut off her water," Wade said.

"Just about that time, Maoyr Washington came down the elevator, and I walker over to him and explained what the problem was and he went back to his office, called, and had the woman's water turned back on," he said.

Wade said he developed a closeness with many city officials, including Washington, through the years. He was privy to the elevator conversations of politicians, businessmen and others.

"I have learned that you don't discuss what you hear people saying in elevators," Wade said, when asked about the conversations overheard.

But from time to time, he said, he would get together with Washington and others to "discuss matters."

"I could go in and see the mayor, and bring people up to meet him . . . the mayor was like that," Wade said. "We would talk about different things and if I felt that something wasn't going right, I would tell him.

"I told him plenty of times, 'My man, everybody who smiles at you is not your friend.'"

From his elevator, Wade said he saw a sleepy town when he came here in 193o turn into a bustling city, He watched the years pass, through a world war, and the coming of civil rights activism that opened up department store employment to black people who needed jobs, allowed them to eat at lunch counters with whites and to ride in the front of buses.

He remembers the riots of 1968 and the thick black smoke that covered the city in a pall, the excitement of the appointment of a black man as the city's first mayor and then city-wide elections that signaled the beginning of home rule.

"Mr. Wade represents a generation of black people who, in their lifetimes, have seen many symbolic and some real changes in the conditions and position of black people in our society," said Mayor Marion Barry, who will host a party for Wade before he leaves City hall.

"I anybody had told me back in the old days that we would have a black mayor and that all these black folks would be working in government, I would have told him he was crazy," Wade said. "I never would be moving back into the ghettos, I never would have imagined all these changes." CAPTION: Picture, Theodore R. Wade, "on the fringes of everything." By Joe Heiberger-The Washington Post