There was not a stray animal in sight that night; it's against the law, you know, to keep a pet outdoors in weather like this.

But there were Earl Austin and William Cooney, human beings of sorts, and their fellow steam-grate mates.

I qualify their humanity only because of how we treat them. Stripped of all dignity, they have survived the winter so far by fighting for space on downtown steam grates and foraging for food like rats.

"I eat out of garbage cans," Cooney said, pulling a blackened ball of meat from a damp and dirty McDonald's bag. "You'd be surprised how much food people throw away."

The men were huddled over a steam grate at 18th and D streets NW near the American Red Cross and across the street from the Daughters of the American Revolution's Constitution Hall. Wrapped in damp layers of blanket and cloth, they looked like casualties of that war waiting for Clara Barton.

"Don't let your fingers and toes get too cold," said Austin, who, at 48, is the veteran of the group. "When you stop feeling them, that means they froze and they have to be cut off."

The District government's hypothermia vans were passing out blankets, and private do-gooders had donated hot chocolate and loose change. But most of these men need much more. They have mental problems that should have been addressed a long time ago. Cooney, for example, believes he is on a mission to warn President Clinton that Adolf Hitler's daughter, Linda, is hiding out in Foggy Bottom.

And, in any case, the blankets got wet and the hot chocolate was soon gone, and Cooney and others were on the verge of freezing to death. Their shivering silhouettes made for a pathetic glimpse into the worm hole of America's fabled economic cornucopia.

A uniformed Secret Service officer on patrol that night saw the men huddled in the steam and remarked, "It looks like they are cooking themselves."

What they were doing was trying to keep from freezing to death.

The men on the grate said that in the event of a big snowstorm, such as the one that hit yesterday, they would camp out in public restrooms. Or, if push came to shove, they would roam the alleys in search of an unlocked garage door and hide out until the storm blew over.

"I had a friend who got drunk and passed out in the snow and died of it," Austin said. "He had gotten into a fight over a sleeping grate and couldn't make it to another one in time."

Each man could recall only snatches of the story that led to his life on the grates. Austin said, "A woman took my house, three cars and a motorcycle." Troy Melvin said, "My mother put me out when I kept asking her for money to buy reefer." Keith Wages said, "I think it was inflation."

The District has the capacity to house 2,600 people, but none of the men on the grates wanted to move into a shelter. They said they feared getting robbed or catching some disease.

"If you get lice, you have to walk around half naked and freezing just to scratch," Austin said.

But the steam grates pose their own health problems. The air comes from a maze of tunnels that carry steam pipes from central heating plants to large buildings. When air inside the tunnels is heated by the hot pipes, the warm air forces itself up through the grates, where it turns to vapor in the cold air--much like your breath on a cold day.

Also, some tunnels pass through openings in the city's sewage system, according to government officials, which means that the discharged air is not the freshest. And although the air is warm, it is also wet.

Sleeping on a steam grate leaves clothes soaked. And if the temperature is cold enough, wet clothes will freeze to the body.

"You definitely don't want to get frostbite," Austin said. "What you have to do is go as fast as you can to the nearest bathroom with a push-button hand dryer, take off your clothes and dry them before a security guard shows up and runs you out."

From a plastic milk carton crate of personal belongings, Austin pulled out a bottle of beer.

How did he get that?

"Asked for it," he said. "I say to people, 'We sleep outside and we ain't got nothing, but we would like some money.' And they say, 'For what?' And we say, 'For a beer.' We never lie."

The sight of the bottle brightened the eyes of the men on the grate, and they drew closer to Austin as he broke the seal.

"All I need now is a mattress--and a Lamborghini," he said.

Frost coated Austin's mustache, and water drops that had not yet frozen to his skin flowed in dirty rivulets down the cracks of his face. He had a deathly sheen, like a man made of black wax who was beginning to melt.

Wages took a hit and began to mumble something about seeing the Red Sea part. He smiled, then bedded down for the night like a dog.

CAPTION: A group of homeless men gathers for warmth on a steam grate at 18th and D streets in Northwest Washington.