Sam Albaum, resident manager of a Miami Beach apartment building, is a man caught in the middle.

Now in his late 70s, he once operated an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. In 1961 after a major heart attack, he retired to Florida, and, as his daughter Arlene Hall puts it, "He promptly opened up two restaurants, coffee-shop type places. My father's a pistol."

"If I don't work, I die," says Albaum, who continued as resident manager after Harvey Goodman sold the Plaza West apartments to the Daon Corp., which is planning to convert the building to condominium ownership. The building is largely occupied by eldely people, many of whom say they don't want to buy but don't know where they can move.

Jack Studnicky, the man in charge of selling off the apartments, recently raised Albaum's salary by $100 a week, saying Sam was the "best PR man I have."

Albaum is valuable to all sides in the condo conversion drama at Plaza West. The elderly tenants are well aware that the apartment vacancy rate in their area is at a housing emergency level of 1/2 percent. The average age of the population of Miami Beach is 65.

Sam speaks everybody's language. He knows Yiddish, Polish and Spanish. A former businessman, he can speak the language of capitalism.

He speaks the language of the elderly, the dialect of patience. Every day, the tenants come to him with their stories. He waits while they use magnifying glasses to pore over the fine print in their leases. He listens to their complaints:

"The new people are like a modern Jesse James. They want my life savings."

And, "I have no place to go, except the ocean and the Bay."

And, "I worked hard all my life. I feel like I earned the right to spend my remaining days in peace."

And, "I wish I'd never heard of Florida."

When Jack Studnicky first devised the idea of the hardship fund, there was some talk of Albaum running it. Harvey Goodman, who was astounded that Daon came up with the money and joked about how maybe he should have charged them more for the building tried to talk Sam into it.

But Albaum said he didn't want the responsibility.

"I won't play God," he told the owner.

"I tried to resign my job in December," Albaum said. "The new people know how I feel. . . . I'm not going to sell my soul for a buck. The only reason I'm staying is to help the people.

"Once it gets really rough with the people, I won't stay. I'll probably resign my job in June. But at least Daon is doing something. The people in this building are not revolutionary people. They are too old and too feeble to oppose the new management. They are afraid to say, 'We're not moving.' They are afraid to not obey the law.

"At least now, they'll get a little help with moving expenses. But for some, the fund is not as important as the timing. Some have children who will pay any amount of money to keep them away. Some of these people aren't going to live two years, even another year. They need a place to stay now. There are a lot of very, very sad cases here."

Sam stood in the lobby of Plaza West one day recently. Workmen, representing the new owners, were tape measuring everything: Plans are underway to "theme" the building for the "young dynamic guy working in the city."

Where once there were chairs and white-haired women in white sweaters, there will be bamboo carpeting and fountains and elaborate planters. The bingo room will be a club. Even the roof may get a facelift, with tennis courts, a solarium, barbeque equipment.

Albaum nodded at the men and women who shuffled by in the lobby, their slow steps speaking for them. Some of the couples walked with arms locked, leaning against each other, and it was impossible to tell who was leading whom.

"Listen," Albaum said. "We are all nice people. Really. There's only one trouble with us. We had to get old."

For three months the tenants of Plaza West had puzzled about their future. Although the building was sold in early November, there was no official announcement until February.

There were many rumors, including one that the new people had gone bankrupt, that the new owners sold the building to other new owners, that Harvey Goodman was buying the building back, but none of them were true, and Mary Landford spent much of her time "putting out the fires."

In the winter months the veranda is used less often, but every now and then the women would gather and they would talk about the idea of buying their units.

"I get to be my own landlord for $700 a month," one woman points out. "What kind of fool would spend $50,000 on a room?"

A lucky fool. The units at Plaza West will sell for a minimum of $80,000 each, probably much more. Daon's figures show that their total investment is about $23 million: $15 million for the building, $5 million for improvements and conversion costs, and $3 million for the "costs of money," the interest that will be paid and estimated operating deficits over a two-year period. That boils down to an investment on the part of Daon of $66,300 per unit.

Presuming a profit of 20 percent, the price of each apartment will be $80,000.

In 1967, it cost Lionel Bosem $3 million to build the building. He more than doubled his money when he sold it in 1971 to Harvey Goodman. Goodman sold it to Doan last November for $14.6 million.

Jack Studnicky was not looking forward to the session with the tenants. He had dealt with angry residents before. Once, a Jewish man with an accent called him worse than Hitler.

This, he thought, would be the roughest moment in all of his work for Daon. And there will be a lot of work: the Canadian firm has purchased five buildings in the area: the Diplomat and Hallmark in Hollywood, Plaza West and Belle Plaza on the Beach, and the Ocean Towers in Palm Beach. Daon is also hoping to buy the Carriage House on the beach. Studnicky will market most of these buildings, earning a 3 1/2 percent commission on the sales.

Studnicky looked out at the sea of faces at Plaza West and said he could see his own mother and father. He began, "How many of you think I am a good guy? Think about it for a minute. Raise your hands."

A scattering of people did so. "If I tell you nice people who are assembled here tonight that many of you are not going to be able to afford to live in the place you call home, am I still a nice guy?"

There were murmurs, in Yiddish: "A-vu zollen mir gehn?" "Where shall we go?"

"I would prefer to be anywhere else in the world," Studnicky told them. "I feel about as popular as a salesman in a home for unwed mothers selling greeting cards for Father's Day."

He said he had a sincere compassion for the tenants: "I happen to have a mother, and she's 73, currently living on the third floor of a third floor walk-up, waiting until August to move into a retirement shelter."

Studnicky said: "I am dealing with you with as much compassion as is humanly possible with the restraints of a company in America, today, running a business. I can't talk about the dream you had 10 or 15 years ago. I can only talk about the reality today. Miami Beach will not be considered a retirement community a few years from now -- only a community for the very wealthy."

A voice from the crowd: "Yeah, the South Americans."

"Are we going to honor your leases? Our legal position is that the state has a law that we give you six months notice," the marketing man said.

He told the tenants they were not alone. The same thing was happening in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He didn't say that every one of those places has severe restrictions or outright moratoriums on condo conversion.

He also said it was "pure folly, shameful thinking" to hope the situation here would improve.

"You cannot frankly afford to live on Miami Beach, "he told them. "You should be thinking of getting out now."

Finally, one tenant, Lillian Dorison, seized the floor. Dorison said she was angry that Studnicky wouldn't reveal the prices of the units, saying that all he can see is "up and up and up."

She said she didn't care to hear from people who were "so sorry for you because they have mothers and fathers too." She said she was sick of listening to the "bleeding heart of private enterprise."

She was the only tenant to get up and speak. Even as she spoke, the meeting began to break up. It was an odd end to the long-waited meeting. No one adjourned the meeting, it simply disintegrated. Private enterprise killed Plaza West. But who was the villain?

The tenants were directed to the veranda for coffee and pastry supplied by the new management. They emptied out of the meeting room as if it were a drill for a real move.

Afterwards, Studnicky, who had winked throughout the meeting at members of his team who were there in force, said, "It really was a most distasteful thing. I really do see my parents out there. Do you believe me?"

One member of the team congratulated Lillian Dorison on having the spunk to speak up.

Mitzi Garfield, a friend of Lillian's, said to her: "Refugees are given housing, given care. The Cubans, the Haitians. Everybody who's in need of shelter should have it."

Her voice was soft, almost stunned, "We," she said, "are refugees."