For a second, passersby stop to stare at the sick street man before stepping around him or picking up their pace -- diplomats in gray worsted, chauffeurs, deliverymen, women carrying briefcases.

Across the street from the State Department and opposite the bright, billowing flags of the Pan American Health Organization, the man lies on a hot air grate where the rain plummets onto his body and drips from fingers that have lost their nails and are now sausage-sized.

He has been the center of a drama that has divided the neighborhood around 21st Street and Virginia Avenue NW between pathos and cruelty, and raised the serious constitutional issue of a man's right to choose possible death over life.

"He's rotting before our eyes," said Bryan Cullins, manager of the nearby Peoples Drug Store. "He's going to die if we don't get some help for him," added Alice E. Kopp, who lives in the Governor Shepherd Apartments, before which lies the street man, known as "Charlie."

"Sometimes I wish the guy would die so we could get rid of him, and it's against my Christian feelings," said Mary Turley, the Governor Shepherd's resident manager.

Charlie, who is forty-ish, wore dirty jeans and a blue sweater on top of several layers of clothing on a recent day. He refused to talk to a reporter and raised his graying head to growl at a photographer.

"Get away from me," he told Alice Kopp. "I'm not trying to commit suicide, I'm taking a risk."

The drama of the street man and Foggy Bottom began more than two weeks ago when he crawled onto the grate in front of the Governor Shepherd Apartments and restaurant.

Most of the city's hundreds of street people bed down at night on their favorite grills. Rarely do they intrude upon the daytime tranquility of the workers and residents outside such public places as D.C. Police headquarters, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Kennedy Center. But this man was sick and appeared to be getting sicker every day.

Kopp noticed that the clammy steam from the hot air vent was irritating a skin condition that "had left his back a mass of blood." She brought him water and food. He refused to seek medical help and simply lay on the grate, often in a heavy sleep. "People had to step over him to get inside the restaurant," she said.

From occasional talks with Charlie, Kopp pieced together a picture of a one-time businessman and war veteran who dropped out of society five years ago and who fears the police and doctors.

Cullins recalled that Charlie had not always lain prone on the sidewalk, his leg occasionally flopping into the gutter dangerously in the path of cars veering around the corner of 21st street. A year and a half ago, Charlie wore clean blue jeans and tennis shoes, smoked a pipe and carried a black camera case.

"He looked more like a tourist than a street person," Cullins said. Then, a few months ago, Charlie showed up in the park near the State Department "pulling up one pant leg . . . His leg was raw and swollen. The next time I saw him he was totally eaten up. He looks like he's been lying in the desert sun."

Bryan Cullins began calling around to try to find help. The U.S. Public Health Service had no jurisdiction, he was told, and referred him to a District government agency, which said it was not responsible either. He tried another approach and called both the public service section of Channel 4 and Contact Four, that channel's consumer help program. "They seemed not to know much," he said. "They told me to call the Mayor's Command Center." The pharmacist told the command center, "A street person is dying." He was put on hold.

Eventually, Cullins was transferred to Yvonne Better, a command center employe. She sent an ambulance. The ambulance team, apparently failing to awaken the man, "tossed ammonia up his nose [to revive him] and he reared up on all fours," Cullins said. The D.C. fire department's emergency ambulance service said the use of ammonia under the circumstances is routine. Charlie refused to go with the ambulance.

"I was told not to worry about him any more," Cullins said. By now more than a week and a half had passed.

Said Mrs. Better: "We tried to help. We called the Metropolitan Police Department and we sent an ambulance. He refuses medical help and he has committed no crime. There is nothing else we can do."

The Department of Human Resources has services to help the poor, but "no one can pick him up and make him take advantage of any of it," said Evelyn Ireland, acting administrator of the Mental Health Administration. A psychiatric nurse she dispatched to the scene apparently examined the wrong man.

Charlie occasionally gets up, although the swelling has made his walk like a Charlie Chaplin shuffle. He seems to have a little money with which he buys aspirin to medicate himself and Vaseline to smear upon his skin.

The public defender's officer thinks Charlie has the right to be left alone. Harry J. Fulton called it "sad" and "awkward," but adds: "Unless the person has some obvious sign of a mental illness we are obliged to leave him alone." If a man chose to die within the privacy of his home, it would be only his business. If he chooses to forgo medical help on a grill in front of the State Department he can engage the attention of dozens of neighbors and workers.

The law says a man has a right to die as well as to live. Says Kopp of Charlie's presence: "It raises all kinds of moral questions, but unless something happens, we're going to watch him slowly die." On Sunday the police moved Charlie for the pope's procession. By nightfall, he had returned.