In the barbershop, that font of American wisdom, the guy ogling Playboy, that exemplar of American taste, talks to the fellow in the chairs, who in turn addresses the room in general.

"I've got about 250 wheels of silver," the man getting his hair cut says. "I've had 'em for years. They're from the 1890s. I guess they'll be worth something."

"They're worth a lot right now," Playboy answers.

"I wouldn't sell 'em," the barber breaks in.

"No way it's going lower," another customer, waiting, says.

One of them keeps his silver hidden in a bag at home. Another buys all the gold coins he can acquire. He stores them in a tool chest in his basement.

There's no talk of the weather or politics. All of them follow the gold and silver market daily; all talk about prices; all speculate on how high they will go. "It's going to break a thousand," someone say, referring to gold. "It's the only sure buy anywhere in the world today," another responds.

On and on they talk, with a fervor unmatched, perhaps, since the speculative bubble of the great bull market on Wall Street more than half a century ago. Before the crash, that is.

A friend walked to one of Washington's more opulent watering holes on K Street the other day. As he passed a store where gold and silver is bought and sold, he noted the price quoted for gold in the window. It stood at $763 an ounce. The time was 12:40 p.m.

After lunch, one hour and 27 minutes later, a new figure was posted in the window. Gold had spurted upward again. It had shot beyond the $800 mark anddreached $811, $48 in less than an hour and a half. In a month, the price has increased in historic proportions. Day after day, week after week, it has set one dizzying record after another: beyond $500 for the first time just after Christmas . . . then $600 . . . $700 . . . $800.

In Washington, as in other cities, here and aboard, a frenzy seems to have taken hold. People are ordering gold frantically by phone. They're cashing in lifetime savings to buy now before the next rise.

Then there are the coins. You can buy the Krugerrand -- a coin about the size of a half dollar that contains "exactly one troy ounce of pure gold" and a sign tries to explain, ungrammatically but with no less an appeal to cupidity: "Why Americans are buying gold like they never bought it before."

Frantic as the buying has been, nothing inside that office conveys any sense of frenzy. What's most striking about those customers waiting so patiently so long in those lines is their silence. They appear deadly serious. "It's like this all day, hour after hour," says an armed guard standing off to the side.

To make the pitch all the more enticing, a color photograph of three gold bullion bars, printed on slick paper, gleams out at you.

If bullion certificates aren't enough to fire your dreams or generate your own basic greed, you can go for something more tangible -- bullion bracelets at $1,127, link chains, Baht chains, rope chains, Creditsuisse pendants and earrings.

Go down to Deak-Perera and you will see something extraordinary. Long lines of customers queue up behind silver and gold counters. Various pieces of literature spell out how the customer can invest easily in gold and silver.

For "as little as $2,500," you are informed, you can begin buying gold bullion through gold deposit certificates. Naturally, $2,500 is only the minimum. If you've got it to spend, the sky's the limit.

That certificate gives you an interest in bullion stored in bulk in a Swiss bank. A Swiss insurance group -- one of the most important there, of course -- covers the bullion against loss, damage or disappearance.

Through its network of offices, the company says, the investor now has the chance to give buy and sell orders for bullion domestically "at short specific dates rather than having to execute orders through time-consuming communications by the individual investor to the depository bank in Switzerland."

Our great new gold rush of the '80s is no adventure story. Neither is it only some economic aberration. It represents, in starkest terms, perhaps the prevailing political fact of this period and presidential year -- that people hunger for security and stability but find neither. They are returning to the ancient touchstone of true value -- gold -- at least as much out of fear for the future as over greed for the moment.