EVERY NOW AND THEN it is worth turning to the serious things of life. There is a group of disabled citizens to whom we do not give enough attention. I wish to write of bartenders.

The legendary English barmaid is to be found in some English novels. But although the bartender is frequently a character in American movies, and usually a vivid one, he or she is far too much ignored by most American novelists. This is curious. Many of the most important occasions of life take place in bars, and the priests of these rituals are the retarded few who tend them. Bartenders are what we call a minority.

One cannot try to offer a composite picture of a bartender. Bartenders everywhere are ineradicably and even offensively individual. Can one imagine a Western, for example, without a saloonkeeper? To whom would Bogart have uttered some of his best lines if a bartender had not been there? These are men and women who stand out. It is hardly necessary to invent their characters.

Although they are mentally handicapped, their characters are deeply formed. Day after day they gaze into the sink of humanity, into the swamp of despond, into the abyss of folly, and their faces are twisted with the woes of the world. Put an innocent lad behind a bar, and in a week he will be gnarled. In the face of one's bartender is the reflection of oneself.

There are many people who provide services to cities. But the characters of cities are not reflected in their mayors or firemen or policemen. If you think of London, you think its pubs. If you think of Paris, you think of its bars. From the neighborhood bar to the swankiest place in town, cities are bars and so they are their bartenders.

Bartenders can even give character to trains. I once traveled with a companion from Dijon to Paris on the Mistral, the train which whispers at more than 100 mph from Marseilles to the capital. We spent all our time in the bar. In my schoolboy French I managed to conduct a conversation with the bartender with what I felt (and remain convinced) was some vivacity. I felt grateful to him.

As the train began to pull into Paris, he presented me with the bill. "L 'addition, s'il vous plait", I had managed to stumble. It was in the days before the French had restored their economy by selling arms to their friend's enemies. Everything seemed to be counted in units of 10,000 francs. I slapped down the exact amount of the bill.The bartender held out his hand just resting it on the bar. I pointed at the bill. "Service compris" [Service included], I read out. Surely I was in the right. Surely for once I had won.

But the bartender merely held out his hand, and said with a look of Gallic insincerity: "Mais pas le sourir" [But not the smile.] What smile? But the bartender had won again. I slapped down a $50,000 franc tip. French charm, my foot.

It it best to surrender gracefully to bartenders. All the advantages are on their side. Unless they are belting down shooters one the side -- watch is not unknown -- they have the benefit of remaining capable. They may be retarded, but they are not fools. However often and long you use a bar, they use it more and longer than you. They have learned every trick of life from their customers.

If you try to be a little mean, they are mean as hell. If you try to be duplicitous, they know every deceit. If you try to tell a funny story, they have heard it before, and anyhow they have a better one. If you are miserable, they will be jolly. If you are happy, they will make you miserable. If you are celebrating a success, they will pour your drink, and reduce you to the slob you are. If you bring in a woman, they will steal her.

Death is the great leveler, the poets say. They are wrong; Drink is the great leveler. It may well be trust that "Golden lads and girls all must/Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust." But in bars all hit the sawdust even more quickly and equally. Bars are the most democratic of our institutions. There the mighty fall, there the humble are raised. There all may expire. There the dead, on the next day, are resurrected.

My belief that each of us will one day be gathered to the great bartender in the sky is challenged by some theologians. (Probably Dutch.) It seems to me as convincing a hope of paradise and equality as any. The equality lies in the fact that bartenders always win. Since it is the only occupation in which to be retarded is not a disadvantage, one may put on airs, but they will prick the balloon and let the gas out with a hiss.

In the marvelous days when I was a poor young journalist, some of us scraped together the cash to got to a posh place in London -- the Kensington Gore, no less, plummy as its name. We tried to behave like lords, for so we felt, in the bar and then the restaurant. It was left to me to order the wine. With as casually commanding a voice as I could manage, I ordered the cheapest Beaujolais on the list.

When it was served, the wine waiter came to me last, since I had ordered. From the dregs of the bottle, a leaf fell into my glass. "You should summon him," one of my poor but lordly friends said to me, so I put on a summoning voice. I pointed to the leaf. The wine waiter peered. He could not deny it. "You will understand," he said loftily, "that in 28 years, I've not been asked to serve this wine before." He had won.

Five years ago, I wrote an article for this newspaper, after a long absence from this city, proclaiming: "Washington -- A Capital is its proliferation of bars. Washington is now as much a city of bars as London or Paris or New York or wherever. The only problem is those who still sip or booze at home.

Since it is a city of bars, it is also a city of bartenders. There is now a freemasonry of backward men and women here who are stamping the city with their mark. It used to be held that ocean liners were run for their officers. You have only to saunter round an area within a few blocks of 19th Street NW, and you will understand that bars here, as everywhere, are run for bartenders.

They have helped to introduce into Washington the unmistakable mark of a great city: that it is for all people, for all hours, for all moods, for all dreams, for all happinesses, for all dashed hopes. They have brought to this city a midtown life which it most urgently needed.

In this strange economy and society which we inhabit, you will cease to be surprised that many of them are PhDs. Here is one who is an art connoisseur. There is another who breeds borzois. (Except that she is having as much difficulty with one as the zoo is having with its panda.) You never know, these days, what else a bartender is until he sells you Rembrandt, or a pup. All one knows for certain is that they have the flashiest cars in town and are probably into real estate on the side.

There are even bartenders, who can speak English, with names like Rudowski. They have girl friends with names like Cream Cheese -- perhaps the most fitting name ever attached to anyone -- with whom they then fall out and rename Sour Cream. This city has become a young person's city, which is why it is exhilarating to live in, and the bartenders are at the core of its new life.

Let me end with a compliment, although they will turn it rancid withn curled lips: Bartenders can be most graceful people. When I think what they have to put up with, it is amazing how discriminating they stay. It is unsettling only when they are human. I have been refused a drink only once in a bar in 57 years on three continents, when a bartender refused to serve me a scotch a week after I had come out of a hospital. Who wants, I ask you, a caring bartender?

There is in cities, as distinct from the country or small towns or the suburbs, a rough equality. Bars exemplify that rough equality. Speaking only of my own profession, which used to be associated with dirty raincoats and bars, ham stories don't survive bar conversation. It is there where self-importance and pretentiousness are brought to the ground. Roughly and with no ceremony.

For the crucial point is: Bartenders always win. You are absurd enough to think that you have privileges as a regular customer. In a mild voice, to a bartender who was serving a lot of strangers, I once dared to bleat, "There are three regulars here waiting for a drink." The bartender did not even turn his face over his shoulder as he answered: "What do you think regulars are for? You can keep them waiting."

That's democracy.