NEW YORK -- When you pull out of the Lincoln Tunnel and turn onto 42nd Street, the first thing you see is this towering billboard of the Mets' Dwight Gooden unleashing an unhittable fastball.
He should be so lucky. New Yorkers should dwell on such delight as Gooden in the heart of a baseball diamond, and not on his past days of substance abuse, and not on his current days of suspicion in an alleged gang rape.
This city's a little short of innocence these days. They held a contest recently for a new municipal slogan and the entries from adoring citizens included these:
''New York: City of the All-Night Car Alarm.''
''The Only City That Makes Its Own Gravy When It Rains.''
''The Only Thing We Want to Steal Is Your Heart.''
You hop into a taxi near Central Park and hear the driver, named Rahmin, talking to a dispatcher on his two-way radio.
''I did not see you last night,'' says Rahmin, a bearded fellow who says later he is from Brooklyn by way of Palestine. ''What were you doing, selling crack?''
Later, you delicately ask him about the remark. He calls it a joke. He says there were three women in the back seat of his cab a few weeks ago and they had many vials of crack cocaine that they pulled from beneath their dresses.
''They told me, 'Do not look,' '' Rahmin says now. But he looked, and the women got out of the car and Rahmin says he called the cops. The cops grabbed the women at the airport later in the day. Twelve-hundred vials of crack, the cops told Rahmin when they thanked him for his help.
''And the police gave me $500,'' he says.
''Pretty good reward money,'' you tell him.
''This city,'' he says, shaking his woolly head. ''It gives to you and then it takes it right back from you.''
He gestures to a sign on a garage. It says 30 minutes of parking will cost you $5.07; an hour costs $10.57. Where do they come up with these prices, and who in the world has the money to pay them?
The city gives and then it takes away. It's a delight punctuated by outrages. It offers Judd Hirsch in a poignant new Herb Gardner play, ''Conversations with My Father,'' but then you walk out of the theater and see a man huddled under a blanket and begging under the neon light of a jewelry store window.
You can see Harry Connick at the Paramount, or go to the 92nd Street Y for a lecture on Jerome Kern, or see the latest photojournalism out of the former Soviet Union at the International Center of Photography.
Eventually, though, you have to come back outside. New York's like every other American city, only more so: all those people living on the street who weren't living there 10 years ago, buildings and bridges rotting that weren't rotting 10 years ago, and gunplay the likes of which no one on the planet has ever seen.
A year ago, New York's cops seized 19,381 guns. Everybody knows it was a drop in the bucket. So yesterday the cops were to begin a no-questions-asked gun buy-back program, offering from $25 to $75 depending on the weapon.
Nobody's naive enough to think serious criminals will be turning in their guns, but that's not the idea. Just getting them out of homes and schools would be a nice start.
In Baltimore, we used to shudder at such business. New York, we would say, it's another country, another world. Who could live like those people?
In point of fact: We do. New York has homeless people? So does Baltimore. Buildings and bridges falling apart, with no money to fix them? We got 'em. Kids carrying guns into schools? Got 'em, don't need 'em.
In ''Conversations With My Father,'' Judd Hirsch's wife listens to President Franklin Roosevelt on the radio and shrugs her shoulders.
''The president says we have nothing to fear but fear itself,'' she says. ''What, that's not enough?''
Over the weekend, Democrats Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown arrived here. A few weeks from now is the New York presidential primary, and if Clinton and Brown talk about fear or homeless people or guns or rotting buildings, it wouldn't be enough -- but it would be far more than anyone in Washington has said for a decade.
Ronald Reagan? He showed up in the South Bronx once, the first time he ran for president, and then kissed off the cities for eight years. George Bush on cities? If he had a single idea in his head, it would die of loneliness.
For them, the word ''cities'' is uttered in code. It stands for people of color, for those on welfare, for those who do not vote Republican. There is simply no profit for them in helping the cities, not when all the Republican votes are in the suburbs and those living in the suburbs are discovering problems of their own.
And so we come to the current plight of the places like Baltimore and New York. Once, we in Baltimore held the people of New York at arm's length. We thought New York couldn't happen to us.
Once, the people in suburbia held the people in cities like Baltimore at the same distance. They thought Baltimore couldn't happen to them, thought the crime and the crumbling economy and the drug trafficking could be held inside city limits.
Is anybody still so naive?
On 42nd Street, the huge Dwight Gooden billboard fills you with awe. It's a vision of youth and vitality and innocence. Once, when we were all younger, we thought those lovely traits could be isolated from the rest of the grim world.
It doesn't work that way -- any more than it works to isolate the cities like New York and Baltimore. You can turn your back for a while. But you do it at risk of getting hit over the head while you're looking the other way.