It was a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine that summed it up. A group of people is in hell but the individuals are happy and smiling. One devil turns to another and says: 'They must be New Yorkers, they always think they have arrived in Heaven.'
Every New Yorker loves and hates this magnificent city in equal measure and the reason for the ambivalence is obvious: New York has the most of all those things city-dwellers adore and detest. New York must be the citiest city in the world. It is the city, the other cities want to be when they grow up. It has more concrete, the most and highest buildings, the least greenery, the rudest people, the most aggressive taxi-drivers. It also has the most life, the most sheer eccentricity. Other cities have buskers: New York has a whole rock 'n' roll band on the sidewalk.
New York is the immigrant's gateway to the United States and taxi-driving is the immigrant's first job. Now the main port of entry seems to be a taxi firm, where the immigrant is given a job without too many questions about his paperwork.
Within days of leaving life in the rural west of Ireland, or a village in a remote part of Ukraine, the immigrant will have graduated to the daily battle for survival that is life in New York. Do not expect anybody to stand aside and let you through here. They are a rude, aggressive people in New York. You have to be to survive.
But there is a camaraderie born of fellow-suffering. Step on to the bus without the right change and half-a-dozen people will empty their pockets to help you. Join a queue and you will find yourself talking to your neighbour without noticing it. When I tried my hand at roller-blading (a kind of modern roller-skating) most of Central Park was on hand to offer advice, encouragement or mockery. When I
I emerged from hospital on a crutch the next day as a result of my adventure, a stranger called over: 'You just out? Good luck!'
Living in New York is like returning to life as a student. Gone is the suburban sprawl of middle-age. In its place is the grottiness of the one-bedroom apartment, more than compensated for by the knowledge that never again will you have to spend Saturday night at home in front of the television.
And if Pavarotti is singing in Central Park, or the New York Philharmonic is playing patriotic tunes there on the fourth of July, you can guarantee most of New York will be there as well. There will be a stampede to the latest film or play if it has won a good review, just like those crazes that used to sweep school when I was young.
New York is so much larger than life. In fact it is a film set. The heart of this, the biggest city in the world, is crammed on to the tiny island of Manhattan; just 20 km long and barely 3km wide. And there is something surprisingly small about New York, just as London is incomprehensibly big. Once you have lived here a few months, you will meet as many friends at a concert at Carnegie Hall as you might at the local village in England.
Its size might also account for the frenetic pace of life in "New York. If New Yorkers are only doing two things at once they think they are idling. Do not imagine the assistant in the deli will put down the phone before he puts together your pastrami-on-rye sandwich; the instrument is wedged to his ear. Even in the 24-hour diners they seem to be permanently on the phone at three in the morning. As for getting a taxi-driver or messenger to listen closely while you are giving directions - forget it. Nobody here has learnt the meaning of the proverb about more haste less speed.
Is it violent? That is certainly what the rest of the world - and the rest of America - believes. And the figures back it up. Around 2,000 people were murdered in New York City last year, compared with 147 in London.
Violence in New York is concentrated in the sort of areas you avoid, in the outer boroughs and in the South Bronx and Harlem. But violence is also an impression. New York must be the most aggressive city in the world. Beggars do not plead, they demand. Drivers fight for space on the road. Somehow the pavement seems harder. Here is social Darwinism in action.
The old cliche about the proximity of rich and poor in big cities is never more true than here. There are a lot of people - including young people - with lots and lots of money. And beside the money is poverty. I have never seen as many homeless people in one city outside the developing world.
Yet the politics of this city are almost irredeemably liberal. Being politically correct is seen as a far greater virtue than being fiscally correct. The city spends huge amounts on the homeless and on education, all with stunningly little effect.
So this is a city of contradictions. The beggar and the billionaire living on the same block; the people cruelly competitive, yet often remarkably kind.
Perhaps another more famous New Yorker cartoon sums it up even better. There in the middle is Fifth Avenue with the Rockefeller Centre and the fashionable department stores, the Empire State Building standing proud. Then the perspective begins to slip, as if you are looking through a distorting lens. Twelfth Avenue on the edge of Manhattan is beginning to look small. Over the other side of the Hudson River the state of New Jersey is just visible, then the rest of America and the world merge into a distant mass - terra incognita.
The lesson is clear: New York is not just the centre of the world, it is its own world, totally self-sufficient. The people walk tall and self-assured, quietly and utterly confident that they live in the greatest city in the world.