I could have bet my life on it. A brisk stroll through the newsroom, a journey of high professional purpose to pick up the mail and the gossip, and someone called out, "Hey, Schwarzenegger!"

I made the large mistake of turning in the direction of the voice. A pack of cackles began to cascade across the cluttered desks and piles of yellowing paper. The cackles sounded as if they might never stop.

"You're hiding those famous muscles awfully well," noted one resident genius.

"Well, your typing fingers are in shape, anyway," called another.

"When Arnold gets gray, he'll look just like you," offered a third.

There is only one known cure for such vitriolic abuse. I clapped my hands, once, smartly. That's the age-old signal for yet another plenary session of The Water Cooler Caucus, the oldest (yet the quickest-witted) deliberative body on earth. As always, we dispensed with the opening prayer and the reading of the minutes and got straight to business.

"Gentlemen," I said, politely if incorrectly, "I want to know how you'd handle this one. Got a call the other day from a college junior. She says she has searched her soul, and the only thing she has discovered therein is newspapers. Can't imagine anything else as a career. Loves the biz. Ink in the veins. Wants my advice. I'm curious what you would have told her."

"Take the law boards," replied Sage One, the hopeless cynic.

"Tell her to get a blood transfusion and wash all that ink away. If she doesn't, the ink in her blood will soon be mixed with bitter tears," noted Sage Two, who has never been accused of knowing anything about physiology.

"Tell her to get a job on a small paper, cover police, then courts, then politics, and work her way up," said Sage Three, who is known for assuming that the only way to do anything is the way he did it.

"What I told her is to hope very hard, because she'll need to. I also told her that by the time she's ready to do this work for money, the job market may not be as awful as she may have heard," I said.

"And what gives you such optimism?," asked Sage One. "Haven't you seen what happened to the American press in the third and fourth quarters of 1990? Record downturns. Layoffs. Endless choruses of the blues."

"Besides," said Sage Two, "there isn't as much turnover as there used to be, because there aren't as many free spirits in the business as there used to be. So the only way young people are going to get newspaper jobs is for muscleheads like you to leave theirs. Most of the younger set won't want to wait that long."

"I grant both points," I said. "But what I told this student was that she should be widening her horizons. If she wants daily newspapers, she may be disappointed. But if she decides that she wants to write for some other kind of professional publication, she'll probably do fine. Information and the need for it aren't exactly going out of style, you know."

Sage Three had been mulling. Now he plunged in with both feet.

"The problem is whether her experience is convertible," he said. "When I came out of college, all I knew was how to write a basic, tight news story, so that's the kind of job I got. When this girl comes out of college, and discovers that not so many papers want the basic, tight story any more, she may have trouble claiming that her talent and experience are useful in, let's say, magazines, or TV, or newsletters."

"But how could they not be?," I piped up. "Anyone who can marshal her thoughts and get them onto a computer screen in an orderly way has to be on the fast track for some kind of reporting and writing job."

"Fast track for a job that pays $14,000 a year," said Sage One, who can always be counted on for a few sprinkles of cold water.

"I'm not sure that's true any more," I said. "I saw a survey the other day that said $19,000 to start is more like it. Not a king's ransom, to be sure, but . . . ."

Sage Two was waiting with a haymaker. "Are you really telling this girl to pledge her heart, her soul, her sacred honor, to this business?," he asked. "It's like the old song, 'Sixteen Tons.' There's a lyric that goes, 'If the right one don't-a get you then the left one will.' In this business, if the hours and the pressure don't-a get you, then a dopey boss will."

"There are dopey bosses everywhere," I said. "Can you guys think of any other business that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning?"

There was silence. Of course, with this bunch, it was brief, as it usually is.

"Well," said Sage One, "if I had muscles like Schwarzenegger, or Bob Levey, maybe leaping wouldn't be a thing of the past."