I CARRY a big stick. The choice, the way I see it, is carrying a big stick, a pistol, a tear-gas gun, such as Mace, or $20 as I walk home from my subway stop. This is on account of the robberies.

We get a lot of robberies around my subway stop, three of them between Jan. 1 and Feb. 20 this year. That may not seem like a lot, but every time I hear about one, I notice that I get off the train and automatically start scouting the terrain for cover, ambushes and young males moving in pairs.

And I carry the stick.

It's made out of ash and it's got a big brass knob on the top of it. My wife gave it to me a couple of Christmases ago, not so I could look like a dandy, but because of the robberies. I would like to think she's too enlightened, though, to have the same fantasy I have: that maybe I could pound a little dent, about the size of a coffee cup, into the head of one of these kids who comes up behind people, threatens them with a weapon and collects the money they're supposed to carry, if they're any kind of law-abiding citizens.

That's right: You're supposed to carry money, not a stick.

New York magazine, in its recent contribution to the rage of magazine stories on crime and violence, says in the tones of a civics lesson that we should all carry $20 at all times, and should never resist robbers in any way. Time magazine agrees: "Do not resist. Immediately hand over your wallet, your watch, your jewelry and anything else the mugger wants."

If you don't give them everything (and in New York there seems to be a $20 minimum, like in a nighclub) the muggers get mad and cut you up or kick your ribs into your lungs or whatever they feel like doing to make sure you don't get it into your head that you can walk around the streets for free.

It's rare day I have $20, but that isn't the point. The point is that I don't like having to carry money in case I get robbed. It makes me feel like a punk.

As for Mace, all I can say is: If it's so good, why don't the muggers carry it?

So I carry a big stick. And I thought that took care of it.

The idea that what I needed was a pistol never occurred to me until word went around the neighborhood that a guy came out of the subway station and two kids behind him asked him what time it was. When he turned around, they showed him it was sawed-off shotgun time.

Later I heard he was wrong about the shotgun, but for a while there, it seemed like good idea to believe the worst, for safety's sake. A sawed-off shotgun blows a hole in you that you could throw a cat through, as the saying goes. A stick, a big one with a brass knob, is good against a knife, if you get it swinging in time, and hard enough.

But against a sawed-off shotgun, foreget it. So I began to understand at least one reason that 2 million Americans buy pistols every year. Somebody told me that Smith & Wesson makes a terrific double-action 9 mm. semiautomatic that you don't you have to cock or pull the slide back on. It would fit right in my briefcase. A couple of kids come up behind me asking what time it is, I turn around with my hand in the briefcase and it's Smith & Wesson time.

There I was, actually thinking about owning one of the 55 million pistols in this county. I've carried them before in the service, and there's nothing like a loaded pistol on your hip to add a little glide to your stride, a little stalk to your walk.

The problem was, it's a felony. Then again, so is holding people up with a sawed-off shotgun. And, as they say, better 12 men judging me than six men carrying me.I figured it was worth thinking about. It went around and around in my head. I got fascinated with the whole rationality behind carry a pistol. I'd never in my adult life wanted one. I own a couple of long guns, and go hunting every year, but when I think of handguns, I think of something crazy, unpredictable and dangerous, like big Norton motorcycles or pet poisonous snakes. Or, as it happens, muggers.

I went the whole liberal rationalty route, looking for arguments against buying a gun, the kind of arguments you hear from people who seem to get their view of the world from magazines and dinner parties. I.e., by keeping a gun, I'm just making it available to a burglar; and there's a 6 to 1 chance it'll hurt a friend or family member before it gets a robber; and it's low-class to own a pistol, a symbol of the last minority group which educated people feel not only comfortable but morally superior in slurring, which is to say the poor whites they call "rednecks."

None of these arguments made me any happier walking home in the dark from my subway station.

It all came down to tactics. Not morals, laws, community responsibility or respectability. Just tactics. Them against me. And the great problem, tactically, is that they have the advantage of surprise. They shoot first and ask questions later. If I tried doing it their way, I could see how it would break down: Some guy would ask me what time it was, and after I'd blown him away, it would turn out that the sawed-off shotgun I saw him reaching for was a timetable or a magazine. Besides the fact that if I kept the pistol in my briefcase, the muggers wouldn't know I was carrying it. Which meant that they wouldn't be scared of me. They'd come up behind me, and the first thing we all knew, it would be the gunfight at the OK Corral.

Well, okay, just take some precautions, I decided. Carry the pistol, but keep looking back for anybody gaining. Take blind corners wide. Cross the street if I see somebody who looks wrong. Cross back if they cross too. And if all the signs look wrong, run.

There I'd be Harry Handgun, Mr. Firepower, sprinting down the street with a loaded pistol in my briefcase. Ridiculous. So what was the point of the pistol? All carrying a pistol would prove was that I was a little crazy. But I knew that already, carrying my stick. I was already so crazy I didn't mind people seeing me with it and thinking I was some kind of dandy. I didn't get embarrassed when people offered me their seats because they thought I was crippled. I began to wonder if maybe I didn't look so crazy that some guy with a knife or a gun would figure that I just might go up against him with my stick, so he'd do better to rob somebody else.

I'm crazy enough not to carry the $20, crazy enough to think about packing a pistol, and crazy enough not to be ashamed of wanting to pound dents in some mugger's head with a walking stick.

It makes me feel good, being crazy like that.On the way out of the station I twirl that stick around. I bang the phone pole with the brass knob. I llook like a happy man. I know I'm carrying maximum firepower, I'm breaking all the rules. I figure it won't be long before a law gets passed against carrying sticks. I'd like to get a bumper sticker: Sticks don't kill people, PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE. I must be some kind of outlaw. I don't talk very softly, but I do carry a big stick.