IF you took a public opinion poll on autumn, the vote would be as clearly defined as a yellow-and-red maple tree against a blue October sky. It seems that half the people scuffing leaves in the gutter think autumn is absolutely the tip-top time of the year - a season of charming and varied moods, unrivaled in its color and fragrance.
And the other half? They are just as polarized, just as emphatic. They - OK, we - view autumn as the arch betrayer of summer, putting a nasty blight on the rose and slipping an icicle down your suntanned back. Call it the Aaron Burr of seasons.
On the subject of autumn there are few ``undecideds'' - only the season itself is ambivalent.
To its admirers, the sneak passes itself off as a benign extension of summer. What a little hero! - serving as a buffer state, the only thing standing between Labor Day and January, if you believe.
To its skeptical critics, autumn is simply the prologue to winter - a grim finger pointing forward, and turning numb and number.
In either case, you have to admit, autumn wears the look of a switch-and-bait salesman, pushing suntan lotion at you with one hand and ski poles with the other. Both, of course, at special off-season prices.
With autumn, it's always off season.
The cruelest aspect of autumn is its impersonation of summer - those Sunday afternoons when football fans take off their shirts and behave like baseball fans in July. You throw open all the doors and let the balmy air in. Thank heavens you didn't slide down the storm windows yet! The last of the marigolds knew what they were doing, sticking on. This is the year autumn is going to hang around like a Stallone movie: Indian summer I, Indian summer II, Indian summer III - until it's time for spring.
Autumn sets you up like a hot shower that always seems at its hottest just before your tank runs out of hot water - and then the cold water hits you.
What we're talking about, fellow autumn-critics, is snow. The first flake of the season dangles over the alleged mellowness of autumn like a hanging sword. All the happy babble about ``crisp'' - the favorite adjective of autumn-admirers - only conceals the militant sequence: crisp, crisper, crispest (otherwise known as frozen).
Autumn operates at the sadistic pace of Chinese water torture. Each day shortens itself, minute by minute, becoming a little more like night. Each day the temperatures drop - a degree here, two degrees there, until one day you are astonished to find a scarf around your neck while your hands conform for the duration to the shape of mittens and gloves.
The autumn sun is a mirage - only the illusion of warmth, like a smile that's all teeth and no feeling.
Winter is honest cold - straightforward bleakness. Summer is pure heat, and glorious, weedy fecundity. Autumn is neither and both - a double plagiarist of what comes before it and what comes after it. If we were, in fact, voting for a favorite season, autumn would have to drop out of the race because of flaws in character. To less forgiving critics, autumn is a dirty trick.
Critics of autumn want to be fair - really. We can sing a throbbing chorus or two of ``Bringing in the sheaves.'' We can ooh and ah convincingly over the foliage, applying the obligatory metaphor of gaudy artist and splashy brush.
Maybe it's just that we can't stand the suspense of transitions - especially when the transition is moving in the opposite direction to summer.
If autumn were a permanent condition, representing the full spectrum of the weather from early September up to - but not including - the first big snowstorm, we could take autumn all year around, thank you very much. As it is, we're keeping our eyes wide open. Autumn is like history - it keeps changing and pretending that nothing is happening. Our little triumph is to notice. This time we're going on record. Noses ever-so-gradually tweaked blue, fingers slowly turned stiff and red, we may be victimized again. But attention, autumn '87! We are not deceived.
A Wednesday and Friday column