Robert A. Anderson, the friendly and fiercely independent 31-year-old District Heights man who sold newspapers to the morning crush of commuters at the Ballston Metro station for the last five years, will not be at his post today.

Anderson, a dwarf whose Arlington newspaper stand was the means by which he supported himself and his partially paralyzed mother, was fatally injured in a car accident early New Year's Eve.

Only one other time since the Ballston station opened did Anderson fail to set up his newspaper business. That was last July, when Metro officials decided system rules did not allow him to sell papers on Metro property.

But after Metro was inundated with complaints from Anderson's regular customers, and after the intervention of Metro Board Chairman John G. Milliken -- by telephone from the Democratic National Convention -- Metro officials permitted Anderson to return to his spot, from which he sold some 600 papers a day.

"What a shame," said Milliken yesterday when told of Anderson's death. "I'm very distressed about this."

Lynn Anderson, Robert's mother, said her son was returning from visiting a friend in Virginia early Monday morning.

Anderson was northbound on Shirley Highway just before 3 a.m. in his 1964 Ford Galaxie when, police said, 300 feet south of the 14th Street Bridge he struck a signpost and the car rolled over.

Anderson died 12 hours later at Washington Hospital Center. District police said he apparently had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Anderson was something of an institution at the Metro station where he daily greeted hundreds of customers.

"He was out there every morning, rain or shine, snow or blow," Anderson's mother said yesterday. "You know, he really enjoyed it. He said he didn't want no office job where you'd have to sit inside all day. He wanted something outside. . . . He never wanted no handouts."

All last week, Lynn Anderson said, her son brought home Christmas cards and gifts from his appreciative customers. "There were so many Christmas cards," she said. "And $5 was the smallest amount in them."

Among the gifts was a $10 check from a House of Representatives staff member who didn't even know Anderson's name. The woman had written in the memo line: "Merry Xmas!"

"I really don't know how I'm going to survive without him -- physically or financially," Lynn Anderson said.

A dwarf herself, she was widowed in 1955 when Robert was 2 and his sister was 8.

A 1980 car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down.

In July when Metro officials initially held fast to their decree forbidding Anderson to sell newspapers at the Metro station, it was unclear how mother and son and seven cats would survive on her $314-a-month social security payment.

Yesterday, Lynn Anderson, surrounded by family and friends, said she'll give up the snug District Heights home she shared with her son "as soon as possible. . . . There are too many memories here."