"This rural America thing. It's a joke."

That's us he's talking about, folks: you and me and all of the other river-bottom rubes who live below the Hudson.But who gives a Big D what Mr. Ed Koch, the former mayor, thinks of us? You really can't insult a man who loves New York as much as I do - and with a pure, unsullied devotion that only an interloper can feel for this wonderful, ongoing catastrophe of a city.

There oughta be a law: Everybody has to live in New York City for a year while he's young and doesn't know better.

Me, I'm too old and contented to even think of such a thing. But for at least seven days a year, the most exciting city in the world couldn't hope for a better transient guest.

That's the thing about us Tourists First Class: We honestly get around town with more energy, verve and hope than the natives themselves. We see the city.

The other day I watched the New York Philharmonic perform in open rehearsal at Lincoln Center for 10 bucks. Is that a bargain or what? You just show up at 10 a.m. on the day of the performance after you've claimed a ticket at the Avery Fisher Hall box office.

OK, maybe some of the pomp and majesty of the experience is missing, but the relaxed, jeans-and-sweater atmosphere is a terrific way to hear one of the world's great orchestras.

People wandered in and out of the hall on this particular morning as if it were a Greyhound terminal. A group of adorable little schoolgirls marched in straight from between the covers of the famous Madeline children's books by Ludwig Bemelmans.

Leonard Slatkin, the guest conductor, was tinkering with an experimental work while its composer, Aaron Jay Kernis, stood, beaming, in an aisle in front of us. The conductor kept turning with a hand to his ear to ask if Kernis could hear what was being played.

How could he miss it? Police sirens intertwined with salsa music and snippets of rap rhythms as if poured forth from passing cars. Wow - what a way to wake up to the city - the soundtrack from just below my hotel window.

Twice now I've taken the free tour of the New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. They mostly talk about the library's treasures rather than show them.

So, I broke ranks with the tour and dawdled over the splendid e.e. cummings exhibition on the library's third floor. I don't know when I've seen mementos that so clearly delineated a poet's life - his correspondence, whimsical doodlings, artful self-portraits, awards.

This is the big library with the stone lions at its portals ("Patience" and "Fortitude"). You must visit the third-floor reading rooms - as big as football fields - and see where Bill Murray got slimed in "Ghostbusters."

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Four-thirty in the afternoon is the best time to see the Statue of Liberty as you sail past on the Staten Island ferry. After all these years, I still carry a torch for the Big Lady.

Take the subway south to the South Ferry stop, Manhattan's last. Then enter the big, round ferry building the subway exit feeds into. You'll catch the sunset spilling across Miss Liberty's shoulder, then see her bathed in white footlights on the return journey 20 minutes later. The round trip costs 50 cents (in quarters) and takes about an hour. Don't fool around after you've disembarked at Staten, or they'll shove off for The Apple without you.

Brave the cold and stand on the prow of the ferry at twilight for a magnificent view of the harbor. Around you will be excited murmurs of exotic international dialects - tourists from other countries happily snapping pictures.

It doesn't take much imagination to envision yourself as an immigrant - one of the original tourists - sailing hopefully toward Ellis Island just beyond the Big Green Lady en route to this rural America thing.

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