Swishing her Scotch and water, 27-year-old Gisla Tolle's eyes lazily swept the room. A fire crackled in the small brick fireplace. Evergreen branches hung from the rough-hewn rafters. She smiled, slinking onto her stool. It was Christmas Eve and she was home. Not in Wisconsin with her mom and dad. But the next best thing -- P. W.'s saloon on M Street.

Earlier that day the very same street teemed with life; bureaucrats, clerks and others woozy from office parties, weaving among the last-minute shoppers.

Now most of them were flying the friendly skies to faraway homes or tucked safely in suburbia with family, Christmas cookies and presents.

It was nearly 10 p.m. and raining. The store windows were dimmed and once again, the holiday lepers, the singles, were faced with the inevitable question: Where do you go when the Christmas music stops?

Feeling the captivity of lonely condos and houses echoing of broken marriages and Christmases past, many had come to the handful of bars that had stayed open.

"This is a place for regulars tonight," Tolle said, flipping her long blonde hair. She and her brother have come here Christmas Eve for four years to keep from getting depressed, she said.

Behind the bar, David Essex grinned as he whipped up a round of shooters for a trio of carousing American University alumnae.

"We keep the place open on Christmas Eve as a public service," he said, gesturing around the barely filled bar. "It keeps the suicide rate down."

As he spoke, David Romm, a preppy young lawyer, swigged his Heineken's.

He had been at his parents' house in Alexandria. But then his married brother and his family went home. Then his sister and her husband also went home.

"I'm too old to stay with my parents. So it's either go home and do nothing or go out."

On the juke box, Bruce Springsteen rasped about being born to run. P. W. owner Rick Stewart, 33, estimated that only 10 percent of his usual crowd was there. He acknowledged he would not make money staying open this night.

"On New Year's Eve you can't get in here but Christmas Eve is very slow. Most people have responsibilities. We want to stay open because this is people's place. But the action isn't out tonight."

Down the street at the Pierce Street Annex, disco throbbed with the twinkling Christmas bulbs and the backgammon tables were jumping.

One young man said it was a lucrative white Christmas. He was selling cocaine.

"I'm all sold out," he said. His thin face remained expressionless as his two girlfriends twined themselves around him.

He claimed he'd made about $3,000 that evening. He never handles the powder or the cash directly, he explained, so he isn't afraid of getting robbed or caught.

Clad in their finest leather jackets, velour shirts and thin gold chains, the crowd of about 100 mostly male, blue-collar suburbanites were looking for companions.

Billy Devine, a 24 year-old Wheaton car salesman, was spending his first Christmas in six years without his girlfriend and he didn't like it.

"It's a dead Christmas," he said. Then his buddy nudged him nodding towards a gyrating blonde in tight jeans. Hope geamed in Devine's eyes.

"I've been humiliated so many times tonight," sighed Kevin Duplain, a divorced salesman in a natty tweed jacked. "I could get tear-jerky about it, but I won't."

Instead he asked the blonde in the tight jeans to dance.

By 1:30 a.m., and still raining outside. Back at P. W.'s, Gisla Tolle and her brother were having a last Christmas toast with the bartenders before heading home.

Out on the street between the two bars, an old lady, one foot wrapped in rags, begged for change and searched for a warm dry place to await Christmas Day.