On a routine weekday morning, it takes Gil Farrall an hour to drive from his Oxon Hill home to his office at the State Department. Yesterday's commute took Farrall just 40 minutes, but he struggled into work at 11:30, three hours late.

"It went like this," Farrall said. "First, I had to clean off the driveway and our two cars. By the time I did all that, I had to go back in and change clothes. When I came back outside, the snow had covered everything all over again. The good part was I had missed all the rush-hour traffic . . . . I had the highways all to myself."

The four to five inches of snow that blanketed the Washington area yesterday meant a holiday for some, including children set free by all area public schools and most private schools, and a workday of botched schedules and bent rules for others.

Because his day-care center was closed, for example, 19-month-old Sasha Holley ended up accompanying his mother, Leta, to her job at the Federal Elections Commission.

"He was a little confused about what was going on," Holley said. "First, he thought the snow was rain and we had a long conversation about that, and then we had to have another long conversation about him going to work with me."

In fact, the storm started as rain in the Carolinas early yesterday and turned into snow over Norfolk. After finishing with Washington, it moved up the East Coast for New York and Boston, both braced for as much as eight inches of snow. As the tail end of the storm passes over Washington today, the National Weather Service predicts occasional flurries, with temperatures in the mid-30s today and Saturday.

The snow forced D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to endure some good-natured ribbing from counterparts who arrived late for a session of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Midwinter Meeting at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, blaming their tardiness on the snow.

"This amount of snow in Chicago wouldn't stop anything," sniffed Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. "But in Washington, D.C., everything just seems to go . . . into the garage."

Although police reported no serious accidents, for many of those who ventured out of the garage yesterday, there were the typical spate of fender-benders and a morning rush hour slightly later and even more snarled than usual. As one exasperated Virginia State Police dispatcher assessed the driving situation, "If it's sunshine around here, the people can't drive, much less when it snows."

The Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation sent out a full team of 100 snowplows by 2:30 a.m., and at dawn summoned help from 67 private contract vehicles. But crews could not keep secondary commuter routes in Northern Virginia clear, leading the department to lift high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) restrictions on Rte. I-66.

The federal government instituted a "delayed arrival" policy, allowing supervisors to permit workers to arrive as late as two hours without being charged leave time. In Annapolis, the Maryland Senate delayed its normal 10 a.m. starting time for an hour.

Area airports stayed open, but airlines reported flight delays and the Eastern Airlines shuttle was canceled until late afternoon.

Telephone circuits were periodically jammed with callers canceling meetings or letting families know they had made it safely to work.

Regular Metro subway riders found themselves packed into trains with drive-to-work types who saw snowflakes and resorted to public transportation.

"I went through the Pentagon station at 8:30 and there were lots of people waiting in line" at Farecard machines, said Metro spokeswoman Marilyn Dicus, who immediately spotted them as rookie Metro riders. "The regular rider has a Farecard and doesn't buy Farecards in the morning." Dicus survived a two-hour bus and rail commute to work that included the bus twice sliding off the road.

The morning rush-hour schedule of extra trains was extended an hour to cope with the crowds, with "intermittent" delays on the newly extended Red Line and particularly large crowds at the Rosslyn and Pentagon stations, Dicus said. Buses were delayed by icy roads and hills, and one bus -- without passengers -- skidded into a telephone pole, she said.

The first flakes fell on Washington National Airport shortly after midnight yesterday, and snow was falling throughout the Washington area by 3 a.m., at times dumping an inch an hour.

The snow, double what the weather sages predicted, started tapering off about 8 a.m., with the final flurries ending by noon.

Its early morning arrival allowed local snow-removal crews to start salting and plowing before the morning rush hour. In Montgomery County, salt crews were called in about 2:30 a.m., and had 500 miles of major roads covered by 6 a.m., according to Robert Mangum, who directs the 214-person, 109-snowplow operation.

In the District, where salting operations were commanded from a central "snow room," a fleet of 88 sand and salt trucks was on the road by 3 a.m.

"By 8 [a.m.] we were going over the major roads a third and fourth time," said Tara Hamilton, the spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works who was summoned to work at 4 a.m. She said the District does not plow streets until more than four inches of snow have acccumulated, and that the salt did its job. Arlington County, which has a similar policy, also only salted its streets.

How bad the morning commute was depended on where people were coming from, and when they ventured outside. Cathy Johnson, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution on Massachusetts Avenue NW, said that her commute from Arlington about 9:30 a.m. yesterday "took half the time it usually takes because no one was on the road." Johnson said she stopped by the Ballston Metrorail station and "it was wall-to-wall people at the Farecard machines, so I decided to drive into work. The roads were a breeze."

But other commuters who drove into the city earlier that morning said that the roads were slick and unplowed.

"It was terrible. It took me almost an hour to get into work," said Tekie Seyoum, a parking attendant at a garage on 15th Street NW. Seyoum drove in from Arlington about 8 a.m., he said, and "in Virginia, the roads were clean and there were no problems. But when I got to the District, the snow was covering the streets."

For some people yesterday, the snow was more fun than frustration. Outside a convenience store in Adams-Morgan, four youths amused themselves by lobbing snowballs at passing buses and cabs.

"We didn't really hit you," explained 13-year-old Thomas Jackson to a cabdriver who had stopped at the intersection and questioned him about his deed. "That snow must have fallen off your roof."

The cab moved on and Jackson threw another snowball smack into the middle of the rear bumper. "Good snow for snowballs," he said.