Nothing like that first bus ride home of the New Year to extinguish the cheer of the holidays.

After work the other night, the people on the bus were packed up the way butchers used to wrap meat in beige paper. Not a hint of whimsy on their faces. Not a word spoken. Scarcely a vital sign beyond the blink of a vacant eye.

Maybe they were thinking about gold, the gold that was too expensive to buy at $250 and another of those missed opportunities at $500-plus. All those accumulated missed chances and roads not taken converged into a silence so profound you could almost hear the teeth of the transmission gears screaming "average person" at all the quiet bodies.

All the "average" folks -- GS-pick-a-numbers on their way home from a day at the office -- sat there not talking. Just about all of them seemed between 30 and 45, the age when fortunes grow and ambition flowers. Not much of that on this bus. Instead, there was the sense of diplomas fading in the truth of the situation. Government service, the escalator up and out, had played a cruel trick. The rails on the outside moved up. The stairs did not. Burned hands. Planted feet.

In circumstances like that, you notice faces. You see gray hair, silver thatches for the properous dentists in private practice, crab grass for the bus people. Character lines? dJust crow'sfeet aboard the 16C bus. You try to imagine those faces tightened and brightened in their high school yearbooks. Was she a cheerleader? Did that guy play ball? Of course, you wouldn't ask. The question might come out sounding like, "What were you when you were at your best and how did you end up here?"

Close your eyes and the bus becomes a tunnel with wall switches at regular intervals. Every few steps into the future, the people hit a switch and a light turns off. Twenty years ago the lights shut off behind them. Now they turn off ahead, more of the little dreams, more unreachable.

In this world-class city, the bus people are just little insulators between the policy-makers and the policy outcomes. Packaged in their winter clothes, too bulky for the tepid weather, they are insulated against each other. It would be comforting to think the expressionless faces were the result of holidays so sublime they were only masks concealing inner smiles. The newspapers draped across those laps tell a different story: Iran. Afghanistan. Inflation. Oil. Twenty-cent documentation that the jobs they are doing don't seem to be stemming the flow. So here they sit on their bus, not satisfied, not confident, Bob and Barbara Cratchit, God bless them all, every one.

On those advertising panels above the bus windows they might as well print excerpts from "Wind, Sand and Stars." The 1939 book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery recounted his time as a mail plane pilot during the infancy of aviation. He wrote of his first mail flight and his ride -- on a bus -- to the airfield. He was the only pilot aboard the bus that morning; his fellow riders were the "petty bourgeois of Toulouse" who dealt with "dreary diurnal tasks and red tape." Broken souls, he though, "the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning."

The petty bourgeois of Arlington glide home in their bus, the holidays slammed shut behind them. At the first Virginia stop, a rider heads for the exit. Remembering his newspaper left behind, he stops and turns.

"The hell with it," he says and steps out the door to trade the diurnal for the nocturnal.