NEW YORK — New York. -- Twenty years ago, ringing the bell at a friend's apartment in a brownstone on West 78th Street in Manhattan, I saw a guy urinating against the wall of a house across the street. I was shocked and, upstairs, I said: ''This is incredible. This is the way the world ends.''
''No,'' said another reporter from the New York Times, Steve Weisman. ''This is the way the world began.''
Those were the good old days. New Yorkers don't notice such things anymore, unless somebody wants to do it on your leg -- which is quite possible if you don't move quickly.
''For families on middling incomes, living in New York is like living in modern Calcutta or medieval London. The subway stations are stifling and reek of urine . . . '' reported the British magazine The Economist a couple of weeks ago. ''Nobody has thought to build public lavatories for the homeless and the panhandlers to use.''
The British are right about the stench, wrong about the lavatories. New York, New York had them, but locked them up years ago because they had become offices for drug-dealers, muggers, prostitutes and rapists of all sexes and kinds. They are closing down almost everything public in the richest and greatest city in the world.
''Privatization'' was a feature of New York in the booming 1980s: housing, security, schooling, medical care, transportation and entertainment were all put up for auction. If you wanted an apartment or a doctor or a seat at a restaurant, you had to bid against some guy making $2 million a year at Drexel, Burnham. Can't afford private cops or private car services or private brain surgeons? Tough, take the subway. Go to Jersey.
Now a lot of people, middle-class people, would love to cross the Hudson -- if they could find someone to buy their apartment in the city.
For a long time, New Yorkers assumed that this was all just a
rerun of the 1974-75 fiscal crisis -- ''Ford to City: Drop Dead'' -- and that once again the Big Apple would be whole and sweet. But, as The Economist noted, that was only a financial crisis, a problem in bringing the city's expenditures and revenues into a balanced line. The state of New York and the committed citizens and bankers of the city came to the rescue, making a hero of an investment banker named Felix Rohaytn.
This time the city's money numbers are actually better, and Mr. Rohaytn is still around. But day to day, each one a struggle, things seem much worse than 15 years ago. The criminal drug of choice used to be heroin, a sedative; now it is crack cocaine, a violent stimulant. New immigrants from all over the world bring new energy to the city, but there are frightening new undercurrents of tension and violence between the new working poor and the old still-poor, which surfaced last year when Koreans and blacks faced off in Brooklyn -- as Hispanics and blacks have faced off in Miami and Washington.
The rich buy protection from the poor in ignorant imitation of Marxist cartoons. The middle class is left with physical fear -- murder is the only crime sure to be dealt with by the authorities -- and the filth and stench are spreading like oil slicks. There are still pleasant and vibrant middle-class neighborhoods all over the city, some of them new ones reclaimed from slums, but the question is whether there is enough human energy to fight for them -- and that often means fighting without much help from government in these privatized times.
So the crisis now is one of the spirit. People are tired, many of them beaten. The city's slogan and most common decal is no longer a celebration, ''I * New York!'' It is a sign of surrender: ''No Radio.'' There is nothing left to steal; please don't break the window; please don't hurt me.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.