On Friday, the government performs another monthly ritual. The Labor Department will report the latest national unemployment figures. These tabulations, carefully broken down into various categories of joblessness among youth . . . and blacks . . . and adult males . . . and women, will be duly reported, discussed and then largely dropped as a public subject until the next month.

Even the manner of the announcement, and the reaction to it, fall into a predictable pattern: the government reports the nation's unemployment rate edged up, or dropped slightly; the White House expresses disappointment, or pleasure, about the figures, but adds the administration remains "concerned" that employment did not rise more rapidly. The statistics are cited - total emment rose only by 135,000 jobs, but another way of figuring it, by tabulating industry payrolls, shows job levels rising by only 120,000. A national strike cuts into the figure. The comparison with the previous month's data will be made, and longer-term past performances cited, down to tenths of percentage points: unemployment has hovered between 6.9 per cent and 7.1 per cent since April. We will be told that, for nearly three-quarters of a year, joblessness has remained essentially on a plateau. The situation, in other words, is stagnant.

But it all remains bloodless, faceless, impersonal. It is, in this mass of figures, almost meaningless. Almost.

It is 7:30 yesterday morning, and Arthur - waits for the doors to open at Sixth and Pennsylvania, across the street from the Federal Trade Commission and the National Gallery of Art. It's a chill, raw, rainy morning, and he has arrived early, along with a throng of others, to apply for unemployment compensation.

Once the doors swing open, the visitor is first tempted to describe the scene as a world apart, or some such commomplace, and empty, phrase. The question of who's apart from whom, of course, depends on a very personal perspective. To many of the people there, that scene is all too familiar. They have the patient, weary looks you can see in many other large offices in the big cities where people bring their problems directly to the government. I don't think anyone has ever adequately captured, in words, the sense of resigned despair that permeates these places. For that canvas, the camera is the most compelling vehicle.

As in all such offices, a plethora of signs greets the citizen. They are always peremptory in tone: DO NOT ENTER. STAY BEHIND RED LINE. CONTINUING CLAIMS ONLY. Off to the left, filling rows of chairs set up in the lobby, are about as dispirited a group as you're likely to encounter. They sit, slumped, mainly staring at the floor, waiting for their names to be called. Nearly all are black. They are not there for unemployment compensation forms: they are waiting for a chance at "one day jobs," as the small sign proclaims the purpose from a desk in the center of the floor. "Moving furniture, anything, many," someone waiting explains. "Money, man, money."

Arthur doesn't go to the left. He knows exactly where he's headed - though the doors to the right and into a cavernous room quickly filling up with applicants. Immediately, he takes his place on one of several lines, all leading to a long counter. INFORMATION, NEW AND ADDITIONAL CLAIMS, is where he's going. To his left, others are queuing up behind signs saying: INTERSTATE SECTION and INTERSTATE LINE.

He gets four forms, takes them to the rear of the room, and begins filling them out. Arthur's 26, white originally from South Carolina, a member of the carpenter's union. He's also, he says, certified as as welder and a rigger. But none of that's helping much now. In the last year, he's worked two months and two weeks: the most recent layoff came just a week ago. "In my line of work, and in every line of work in heavy construction, these are tough times," he says. "It puts a hell of a burden on you."

At first, he seemed plegmatic, basically unconcerned, filled with a tough kind of confidence. He'll qualify for unemployment benefits, he's sure, and he knows exactly how far that will take him. Three out of every four checks will go to meet mortgage payments on his house in Alexandria. What's leftover must cover everything else. He has no savings. While he's mobile, he wants to stay in the Washington area. From what he hears, there doesn't seem to be any other place in the country better off economically, and some much worse. "That's the drift, as I understand it."

But it's only in talking longer to him that something else comes through the conversation. Behind that assured exterior lies a very pessimistic young man. And pessimistic not just about himself and his work, but about problems worldwide that he believes are directly affecting him. Pollution, energy, shortages, international competition - all these are quite real and threatening to him.

"The way I've been brought up, I was extremely lucky," he begins, "because of my parents, I had wonderful parents. But I myself don't see getting married and having children for the simple reason that everything's running out now - running out in my generation.

"They say we use twice as much as all the rest of the countries - and think what's going to happen when the rest of them become industrialized. Twenty years down the pike we're going to be tapped out. I feel the future's lousy. I'm going nowhere, in my opinion."

A sister lives with her husband in Anchorage, Alaska, where he'll be getting out of the service soon. "I say, 'Brother, if you think that's a hassle, wait until you get out and try to get work," Arthur exclaims.

He goes on to talk about inflation, what he perceives as a new wave of immigration competing with his ability to work, the inability of his union to keep pace with price increases, and his disillusionment with Jimmy Carter. "If things don't straighten out," he says, "this country's definitely going to go into a depression like you wouldn't believe. We might end up having another civil war."

Those last words were spoken quietly and calmly. Arthur gives anything but the appearance of a hothead.

Standing off the side are Ronald - and his teenage son. They are black. The son, a high-school student, is helping his father fill out the same four forms.

Things haven't gone well of late for Ronald. He had worked for 19 years as a mechanic's helper in Washington's public schools, and then left to try and form his own business. It failed. Then he began working at a junk yard, operating one of those impacting machines that crush and flatten cars. He was working about 60 hours a week, often seven days a week, and taking in about $300.

The day after Thankgiving he reported for work as usual. He was handed a check and told he was terminated. Business was off, he had to go.

He was stunned. He pleaded. He had a wife and three children to support, he said, and Christmas was coming up. No avail. Finally, in fury and frustration, he lashed out at his boss. "I hit him." He speaks those words sorrowfully and apologetically; Ronald does not have the manner of a violent man. In fact, he's hopeful things might get better now. "I believe in God," he says. "If you do right, right will come to you."

These people will not be recorded in the government figures to be released Friday. Their statistics will be incorporated later.