A Miami waitress watched an elderly woman enter her restaurant yesterday afternoon, tears streaming unabashedly down the old customer's face.

"She said she was in one of those prison camps in Germany and she remembered how she felt when she was freed," said the waitress, Rebecca Roldan. "She didn't say anything after that. She just held her head and cried."

Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala), who spent years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-or-war camp, said the hostages might come back more patient and appreciative human beings. Richard Starr, an American held hostage three years in a South American jungle, said the psychotrauma was over-played. "I don't even dream about it," Starr said. "I even did."

Across the country Americans were attempting to identify with the 52 hostages as the end of their ordeal -- and the nation's ordeal -- was strung out excruciatingly through another long, mystifying day of waiting yesterday.

A retired Kansas City civil servant, C.Y. Lefkowitz, 72, said he had suffered through the entire 443 agonizing days with the hostages parents. He waited for years for news of a missing-in-action son in Vietnam, but the suffering was almost worse yesterday. "I know what it is like to wait and not know from day to day, hour to hour, and never know for sure," Lefkowitz said.

Relatives of the eight men lost in an aborted hostage rescue attempt last April were putting aside their own grief and participating in the hopes and the vigil of the 52 waiting families.

"Fantastic," said Dianne Johnson of Dublin, Ga., whose husband, Dewey, died in the raid. "If we come out with the hostages and only eight lives lost, that's not as bad a price to pay as if we had to go over there and have a war with them."

But as the second day of suspenseful waiting continued, with the hostages still not airborne out of Tehran, Americans were showing a strange mix of subdued elation and suspicion.

In small towns in the South and the Metropolis of New York, celebrations were on hold, the now-symbolic yellow ribbons were burned in joy in some places but kept flying tentatively in others. Politicians were praising Jimmy Carter but urging Ronald Reagan to establish a policy that would prevent the agony from occurring again and in the small mining town of Globe, Ariz., the local radio station took to interviewing the mob of media outsiders because the local hostage family was just plain tuckered out.

An Iranian student at Arizona State University, Kazem Noghandarian, called the financial arrangement a "happy ending," adding that his country was not asking for a "ransom but for the rights that were taken from us." Some Americans weren't buying that, even if no U.S. funds were involved directly.

In Seattle, 79-year-old J. D. Kolesar said the affair "looks like blackmail" and he took a dim view of it all. "At my age, I've seen all the promises made and broken, all the politicians come and go. It's just another example of the status of the U.S. of A. governing downhill."

"I don't think we should have stood for extortion," echoed Ed Rienks, a Seattle cabdriver. "We should have made another attempt to get them out. There'll be other hostages taken, you wait and see. Next time it will be in South America."

Americans were finding the new waiting an ordeal, too. Throughout Sunday bulletins had hinted at imminent release. In Washington, television stations kept some bleary-eyed viewers up all night with old movies and reruns. sChannel 9 finally interrupted a long-forgotten Ed Asner film appropriately named "Hey, I'm Alive!" for the President's 4:58 a.m. anouncement that details had been worked out finally and signed.

American newspapers reacted to the long succession of conflicting reports with caution and then usually certainty. Red ink and three-inch type was hauled out for the event. The Nashville Tennessean handled the uncertainty most symbolically, bannering its early Monday edition with a headline: "It's Over?" A simple compositor's flick of the finger changed the headline to "It's over!" in later editions.

But it wasn't Jimmy Carter abandoned hopes of a triumphant visit to Wiesbaden, West Germany, to greet the liberated captives in the final hours of his presidency.

Average Americans waited, too.

In Providence, R.I., Andrew (Hank) Florio was waiting for final clearance on a Christmas party he has delayed at Florio's diner for 13 months. Dust has gathered on the decorations and Christmas stars have faded, but Florio didn't feel like celebrating a month after the hostages were taken and he wasn't celebrating yesterday.

"Just as soon as the they're on the plane and they're ready to land," Florio said, "we'll have our party."

Alburquerque, N.M., postponed a scheduled bell-ringing and sirenblaring ceremony yesterday noon. "We've been listening to the news all day and right now it doesn't sound too good," said Rose Ellen Calkins, who works in the mayor's office.

In Florence, Ariz., Joe Vazquez and Jacob Aguilar waited, too. They have spent the past 443 days ringing the noon church bells of Assumption Catholic Church in remembrance of the hostages. They wanted to do just one more ringing -- this one for "about four or five hours straight so we can see the record." The bells got just a rountine toll on Day 443.

Still, Americans were poised -- small-town America was ready to respond with bows to God and country, metropolitan America was itching for more ostentatious displays.

New York promised a ticker-tape parade and asked President-elect Ronald Reagan to designate the city as the official host city for the hostages' return.

"It would make a Lindbergh spectacular," said a City Council spokesman, although he stressed that tickertape parades were a little harder to put together these days. With air conditioning, windows have to be pried open and Wall Street long ago gave up on ticker tape, modernizing its operations with computers. New York said it was ready to order tons of confetti and distribute it along the parade route.

In Washington, where a party of another tape was in full swing, electricians worked on the national Christmas tree lights which glowed only for 417 seconds (one for each day of the hostages' captivity) last Christmas. They were tested and then turned off but will be turned on again, even though the holiday has faded, when the hostages are released.

Meanwhile, politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, were generally praising Carter for what they hoped was a successful eleventh-hour stroke. But their attitudes were distinctly mixed as to whether America had distinguished itself with its patience throughout the long crisis.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the Senate's minority leader, said the country had "responded in a mature and responsible manner throughout this long ordeal and we can take pride in this."

Sen. Paul Laxalt (r-Nev.), a confidant of Reagan, congratulated Carter but said "we cannot tolerate this kind of difficulty again." Democratic Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York agreed, saying the United States should "take an appropriate military response" after an "immediate ultimatum" the next time.

Casper W. Weinberger, Reagan's incoming secretary of defense, said the new administration should establish a policy that would make it clear there would be "very severe ultimate reprisals by the United States should any thing of this kind happen [again]."

In Atlanta, Andrew Young, the controversial former United Nations ambassador, praised Carter for his "wisdom and intelligence" and applauded the Iranians for the ability to "pull themselves together in an amazing, Islamic democratic way" and bring the crisis to the end. He also thanked the Algerians for their role as intermediaries and added thanks to the Russians for not invading Iran.

But in midtown Manhattan perhaps no American, other than the families of the hostages and Jimmy Carter, was waiting through the past two frustrating days with greater hope than Hank Mazzuca.

"I feel like a cork half out of a bottle of champagne, just waiting to pop," said Mazzuca who runs an eatery called the Tehran Restaurant. He has refused to change the 29-year-old name of his restaurant and business has suffered badly through it all.

"I had friends who brought people in," Mazzuca said of his own long wait. "But I rarely got a stranger."