I am not quick to grab a check. Place a tab among a party I have just dined with, and I will let it turn to dust before I make a pass at it. Such economy of movement is, I think, a part of my essential nature; and yet I have just bought lunch for myself and a friend.

To be precise, we both had meat loaf smothered of carrot-and-raisin salad and cottage cheese nestled in a bed of lettuce and garnished with a prune. My friend, who wouldn't eat his prune, had green beans and two nice, doughy rolls. fI topped the meal off with a slice of apple-and-nut cake. We had as well the benefit of three printed prayers to choose from -- one in Catholic, another in Jewish, the third in Protestant; solid advice from the Christophers on the essence of leadership; and the genial company of two total strangers, one of whom wouldn't eat his prune either. For it all, I paid $3.97. Be generous in the smallest things, I have always thought, and the big tabs will take care of themselves.

We ate, of course, at Sholl's Cafeteria.

For me, Sholl's fraught with significance. There I ate my first meal in Washington after moving here more or less for good -- a liver-and-onions blue-plate special with a sidecar of boiled cabbage and the usual double helping of admonition to take God into my life, mean and clammy though it then was. There I went, too, for breakfast six years ago on my first day at a new job, to find among its poached eggs and cooling toast some small refuge from the garden-variety dread of the unknown, to find -- as thousands upon thousands before me had found -- a clean, well-lighted place.

Like the YWCA cafeteria, Sholl's harkens back to a more openly lonely Washington, a city where a gray ascetism of the spirit was more to be envied than pitied, a city where men and women were expected to hold to a kind of dietary sturdiness, which is the very stuff of the Right Cafeteria. That Washington is, for the most part, gone now, swept away by singles apartment buildings, by the whole movable feast of life that values any sort of ascetism roughly as much as it does creamed chipped beef on toast. Yet, though I am possessed of a modern temperament -- though I am as loath as the next person to stare down the barrel at a creamed chipped beef on toast -- I am constantly amazed at how often I surprise within myself the need to push my tray in front of those steaming troughs and settle down cheek to jowl among my cabbage-laden fellow men.

The reason, I've come to think, is that a proper cafeteria is, in itself, a kind of lesson in living. The substantial food, the gleaming chrome fo the tray rails, the shimmer of the congealed fruit salads echo the promise that not all is nouvelle cuisine and Perrier, that in food as in life there is space for the enduring truth, the adamantine standard. No somber sommelier clouds the issue at Sholl's; instead there is that single insistent cry "Move on, please, move on!" which is -- at heart -- life's very first message and the last one to be heard.

It is, I suspect the lessons of Sholl's has to teach more than the bargain prices, more than anything else, that explains those long lines stretching out from its front doors into the drizzly afternoons and evenings; and they are lessons of incalculable value. In the battle against the mad spin of time that threatens to consume us all, liver and onions with a sidecar of cabbage and a healthy dose of "Move on, please, move on!" is not a bad first line of defense.