It was Saturday, and she was in one of those shopping malls where trees spend their entire lives in 36-inch wooden containers never knowing sun or rain.

She was not there out of her own free will, you understand. It was because of the Small Person in her life who had this nasty, constant and horribly expensive habit called Growing. No matter how many times she reprimanded the girl, she kept Growing. In fact, she kept growing her feet out in front of her like an advance warning about the size of the body that was to follow. It was rather like living with a St. Bernard puppy. Except that a St. Bernard puppy doesn't wear shoes.

For that reason, then, she had been planted in that mall like the trees for some time, seated on the floor of a shoe store, lacing a variety of sizes and shapes of sneakers. Those particular sneakers were, of course, called running shoes - the label used to convince American parents that they aren't in fact paying $15 for $4 children's sneakers but for Athletic Foot Equipment. Parents are suckers for equipment.

It took roughly 90 minutes, 15 pairs of shoelaces and two broken fingernails before she found the fitting sneakers for the St. Bernard princess and left the store.

At that moment a stream of light came through the glass ceiling of the mall illuminating the Truth: She had once again been a victim of the Self-Service System.

This was the Decade of the Me Economy. The only service industry in America was the self. She was a perfect dupe, and she had done it to herself.

During the past week she had served herself money by pushing a cashcard into a hole in the brick wall of her neighborhood bank, and served herself gas by pushing a hose into her car from her neighborhood pump. She and her small person had even served themselves lunch at one of those restaurants where you Have It Your Way by doing it your way.

The television table she had purchased had come in 12 pieces not counting the instructions . . . which were in French. Since no one in the store would put Le Humpty Dumpty together, she and her uncle had struggled mightily before they discovered that les bouts des boulons were bolt ends.

At least she was not alone. Most of life in America is a supermarket, a salad bar. We the people serve the economy, the economy doesn't serve the people.

The only reliable pickup and delivery system in the country belongs to the consumer. Indeed, we citizens of the most advanced country in the world race about from dry-cleaning machines to car washes, pausing only to throw money into automatic toll booths.

We so rarely encounter a person in the marketplace that we have taken to saying "thank you" to vending machines and parking meters.

Difficult as it is to purchase things, we live in terror of breaking anything. Repair people prefer office visits to house calls. They always want us to bring in broken items, like, for example, refrigerators. Only if we file an affidavit swearing that we didn't break it on purpose will they arrange for an appointment at a minimal service charge. Minimal service is the operative phrase. They consider "service" the act of walking in the door and at the hour that fits into their schedule, not ours.

Meanwhile, Ma Bell penalizes those who are unable or unwilling to direct dial. The only information they give out willingly to those of us asking for help these days is that the number may be in the white pages.

If that isn't sad enough, try asking for assistance in a department store. It's like asking for a Phillips screwdriver in Tiffany's.

The real service industry laborers of America today are the consumers. We also serve the economy who only stand and wait . . . on ourselves.