From camoes come broad landscapes, so you might zoom in on Manuel Soto, sitting in his little California grocery, to get a feel for the way things are in U.S.A., 1979.

Soto is Everyman -- married, three kids, happy,college-trained, on his way up, working hard, making a decent living, believing in The Dream, but wondering now where it's all headed. Inflation, inflation.

His store is doing badly because his Hispanic customers aren't buying. His prices are up 22 percent, his business down 20 percent. But that's no the worst of it. The worst of it is the old people -- the father, the grandmother -- who sidle into La Quebradita to shoplift today's meal.

A cameo, but reality no less.

In New York, a priest takes pains to find black jackets on sale, but he keeps a car. In Houston, a refinery worker throws away his credit cards, but feeds gasoline into two family autos. In Idaho, a state policeman moonlights to skimp through, but he's taking the family to Disneyland next year no matter what. In Washington, a low-level federal worker has trouble making ends meet, but he drives to Baltimore to have his slacks tailor-made.

These fragments of reality, pieced together by Washington Post staff writers and correspondents in 10 states and the District of Columbia, begin to illustrate the contemporary American landscape. Yesterday, you met American extremes. Today, you meet emissaries from the great middle, whose incomes hover near the middle (U.S. median in 1977: $17,640) and whose aspirations are, at most, middling.

All are buffeted by inflation, and in some cases the pain is acute, which is really no revelation. There is complaining, but there also is resignation. There is belt-tightening, but even among the hardest-pressed there are enough extravagances to rule out sweeping generalities about them.

What you learn from these vignettes is that many Americans in the middle-income ranges are pulling back -- eating out less, doing their own hair, buying day-old bread. Most have to scrape and scrimp just a bit harder to keep pace. For some, the cutting of corners and the pulling back are the divices that allow them to keep hold of the little luxuries taken for granted when we try to define quality of life.

You hear from Americans that their lives are changing in small ways. You find hat when pressed, they are pretty good at cutting back. But perhaps more telling -- and more disturbing -- as a sign of the national psyche, you see that many of them are so busy keeping pace with today that there's not much thought about tomorrow, except a vague notion that it may get tougher unless political leaders straighten things out.

An element that seems to be missing from this mix is a sense of that boundless hope and optimism one generations has had for the next in this country -- wanting our kids to have it better than we did.

That, of course, is one of those inflationary effects on spirit that worry social observers. Some liken inflation to a parasite that saps strength and vitality, crushes confidence and hope, hastens profligacy.

Anthem: Live for today. It is a feeling expressed indirectly by someone like Dennis James, a 41-year-old Detroit lawyer who professes difficulty with family finances. But he and his wife have made some choices.

"We like to live well. We're not into beans. We like wine. We enjoy steak from time to time. I prefer pesto genovese to macaroni and cheese," James said. Then he grinned. "That's probably why it's taken so long to fix the garage roof, but, life is short. . ."

That's not for everyone, everywhere. Down the interstate, on Chicago's southwest side, John Ellis, a contemporary of Dennis James, is doing what a lot of other Americans are doing -- staying out of debt, watching how he spends, also enjoying some of the good things.

Admitteldy, his $34,000 yearly earnings are far above the median -- almost double, in fact -- and the Ellises are pretty well off. Their good things include two cars, house paid for, color TV and stereo, dishwasher, music lessons for four of the six kids, parochial school tuition, orthodontics, savings bonds for college expenses.

Of course, it's hard at times and the Ellises would like more. But there's little flagging of spirit here and, incidentally, not all that much money magic in the Ellis household.

Like the Jameses, the Ellises made some choices. Out there in that great middle-land of inflation, one man's color TV is another man's pesto.