HARVEY DUCHOLM, a former state representative of Wisconsin, once said: "The poor get just as much ice as the rich, but they get it in the winter." It was impossible not to think of the poor as the limousines swished through Washington during the past week. I do not mean this in a spoilsport way. There is something to be said for some showiness in an inauguration. But one felt discomfited all the same.

It was not difficult during the week to catch some of the accents of callousness. Not deliberate callousness -- although one could hear that also -- just blind callousness. It is all too easy to forget the poor. They become invisible to us. We stop seeing them.

Nigel Nicholson in "Portrait of a Marriage" tells how Vita Sackville West returned early one summer with a friend to her London home. A charwoman was cleaning the steps. She wrote in her journal: "We stepped over the dreary slut." Exactly. They stepped over her. She was not a person. She was something in the way. It is in fact surprising that they noticed her at all. Such people still say that their town houses are empty in the summer, even when they are inhabited by a staff of perhaps several people. An American friend has told me of her grandmother, a woman personally of great understanding, to whom the old family nanny once exclaimed: "I have always wanted to go on the yacht." The old lady replied: "But where would you sit?" No place could even be imagined for someone who at one level did not exist. In her station she was seen, kindly teated; out of her station she was invisible.

Both of those stories are drawn from the upper class, American as well as English, and from a day when class boundaries were more impassable. Yet we can all forget the poor; we can all simply stop seeing them. Why will they not just go away? The poor are not in the Style sections of our newspapers. Why cannot life be like that?

But the people whom one really contemplated in Washington during the past week were The Rich. Anyone who has tried to write about The Rich knows how difficult it is. One is soon dissatisfied with the famous exchange between Scott Fitzgerald -- "The rich are different from us -- and Ernest Hemingway -- "Yes, they have more money" -- for their money does not in the end explain them. Their money is only the given.

Even Fitzgerald's statement is not quite right. The point is not that The Rich are not like anyone else. They cannot even be like themselves. For no one can really be like that. The Rich -- in their own eyes, one fears, as well as ours -- are toys. The longer one gazes on them, the less enviable they seem. They only go through motions of being themselves. They run down if they are not wound up during the day.

The illusion in which The Rich exist is tantalizing. But I must here make a distinction. Although The Rich are all rich people by definition, not all rich people can be counted as The Rich. Those who are merely rich want money to buy power over other people, including those who can provide goods and services to them, but The Rich think that money buys power over their own lives.

This is what stymies them again and again. They find it difficult to make lives out of their existence because they think that they can buy even them. They treat even themselves as property which can be conveyed.

A friend of mine works in Nieman Marcus. He says that the rich are the worst customers. They are always returning a dress after they have worn it once on the pretext that at home they found that it did not suit them. He had once to take back a dress on the very morning on which a picture appeared in The Washington Post of the customer wearing it. (The Rich can be very sleazy.) But this is only how they try to live. The Rich are always returning their lives to the great Nieman Marcus in the sky because they find that they do not suit them.

I was once at a dinner in Washington where one of the guests herself of The Rich, was also the celebrated wife of another of The Rich. She was sheathed from neck to ankles in a dress of metallic fabric, scale upon scale, which might have been a coat of mail made by a silversmith for Peter the Great. It was not only difficult for her to bend; it was difficult for her to reach her arms to the table.

As I walked home with a friend, who had not met her before, he asked me with a real curiosity: "What lies beneath that it needs such protection?" He was not being malicious; he really wanted to know. For all that there had been a person in the dress, she could have sent it along on a hanger. Her chauffeur could have delivered it, and then colleted it promptly at 11 o'clock.

Veblen has some of the choiciest passages on the clothes of The Rich. He says that these are grotesque because they are meant to emphasize that their wearers do not have to do manual labor. But this misses the point. It does not explain why The Rich so often look so tacky. It does not explain why The Rich in their finery seem so frequently to be dressed from an expensive thrift shop.

I remember three of The Rich arriving together at a grand party for which they had all flown specially from New York. They had obviously gone to great trouble; they nevertheless looked like three harpies. It was then that I realized that the clothes of The Rich never seem to fit them. This may be because they are always returning their clothes to Nieman Marcus. Their clothes are, in effect, rented.

But surely the deeper explanation is that their clothes are in fact costumes. As our clothing used to be called a habit, those who have lives wear them like habits. Their lives are worn until they fit. But The Rich do not have habits; they have only their costumes. An actress can look fabulously dressed on the stage; one should not meet her offstage in the costume. It is the same with The Rich. If one wishes to retain the illusion of the beautiful people, one should not get too close to The Rich in a sitting room.

All of this was known to my elders when I grew up. The Rich, they taught me, are dolls. It is sometimes hard to gaze on them without the same wonder as one did on those dolls which not only blinked their eyes, but as the years have passed have been able to move various other parts, and perhaps most marvellously of all will even pass water if touched in the right places.

In the environment in which I was raised I was taught that it was wrong to laugh at The Rich. Especially to their faces. One ought not to behave like them, by poking fun at the disadvantaged. Rather than my mirth, they needed my prayers. I was quite ready to believe this since I had listened since infancy to the text, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." This sentence to eternal damnation used then to make my hair curl.

I tried hard as a boy to pray for The Rich. But with my face in my hands, I could not keep it straight. I try even now. But it does not come easily to kneel by my bed at night and pray: . . . and please, God, bless Mr. Averell Harriman." Anyhow, why should I pray for them, when they seem to be so little worried by the sentence to eternal damnation, but go blithely to the everlasting fire?

As I contemplated this, waiting at the curb for a gap in the limousines to scurry across, my eyes misted in pity. Into Washington were pouring the damned. One of the troubles with The Rich is that they make one sorry for them.

So my sympathies might have continued until I crossed the road to my favorite bar at the Palm restaurant. My drinking friends were there: a dignitary from NASA, a lawyer dedicated to civil rights, a literary editor. But our stools were snatched from under us. The Rich had come to town. The Palm would make room for them. The regulars could stand.The Rich were to step over me, as if I, too, were invisible.

In a moment, my pity for The Rich had evaporated. I had become one of the forgotten. I decided to leave before they arrived with their guffaws. They might eventually be going to hell, but meanwhile they made it hell for me. I returned home determined to curtail my prayers that night.

But then I picked up a book, I came across a story of one Jacob Rogers, who inherited the locomotive works in Paterson, N.J., from his father. He was asked to donate a small strip of land for part of the site of a hospital. He refused with the explanation: "What do I want with your hospital. I have enough money to keep me out of it and my friends, too? I do not owe the hospital, nor Paterson either, anything at all." He later left his entire estate to the Metropolitan Museum of New York. He had visited it once in his life.

How miserable the man must have been. He had no real life anywhere: Paterson meant nothing to him. He at last knew nowhere to be himself except in an art museum. I was about to fall to my knees and plead for his soul. But I went back over the story. He had enough money "to keep me out of hospital and my friends, too." I had been hearing exactly that accent all over Washington during the week.

The Rich are back in town. There is a rough time ahead. The rest can go hang. remembered my friend, Gerard Fay, when he was London editor of the Manchester Guardian, who walked with a cane, because he was wounded in the war. A Rolls Royce once purred up in front of us, blocking our way across a street. He lifted his cane and smote the hood, not once but again and then again.

Those were the days when the radical spirit was high. Now we step back to let the limousines have their way. Inside are The Rich. They are unhappy because they have become nobody. That is why they will treat everyone else as nobody. They will pay the price in the next world. But we will pay it in this world in the next four years. The poor and women and children, first.