"The first night," said Bob Pantaks, the bell captain of Gotham's famed Plaza Hotel, "New Yorkers really outdid themselves. They burned themselves out, and then they spent most of the second night recovering. But I'm sure they'll rally again before the end of the week."

Outside the gilded doors of the Waldorf Astoria, amidst the unopened newspaper bundles, the iron sidewalk grates lay quiet. The standard street chorus of New York -- the rattling, screaming vibrations of the downtown line -- was missing. And the hot billowing blasts of subway exhaust -- the vital breath of great Manhattan -- had died.

But amid the revelry at Sir Harry's Bar, New York had never looked better.

"i got up this morning and looked out on Second Avenue and here comes a guy to work on a pogo stick," said Eddie Egan, the real-life "french Connection" cop who has spread his fame through Lite beer commercials. "i said, 'Uh oh, this is too much, back to Sir Harry's."

Egan, along with 34 of his costars from the famed Lite beer commercials -- among them Mickey Spillane, Boog Powell, Ben Davidson, Dick Butkus, Whitey Ford, and Happy Hairston -- were trapped at their hotel by the transit strike. But they were far better off than most New Yorkers, who have found new short-term homes in Manhattan's hotels. Their drinks, as long as it was their sponsor's beer, were on the house.

"all these businessman in here, I feel sorry for them," said Spillane, the stocky mystery writer. "They've been scrambling for a seat all night. Expense accounts to fill out, you know. Too bad."

Disasters in some parts of the country may stymie a population for a spell; in New York it is merely a raw challenge to fight back, to declare an open-ended revel staving off misery -- in short, to party, to drink and not to yield.

New York is Baghdad-on-the-subway, wrote O. Henry, the prose laureate of "the Four Million." But this week it's bacchanalia-off-the-subway that is enticing the 8 million stranded city dwellers.

"this ain't any worse than the Depression, or Prohibition, or the blackout, or the first transit strike," said Egan. "During the Depression we went to the bars and during the blackout we went to the bars. Some of us then went upstairs, but we were at the bars first."

Life in the Big Apple has been anything but ordinary since some 38,000 transit strikers walked out. But if anyone can face a disaster it's a New Yorker. ("We've had practice," said security analyst David Connors.) The Waldorf Astoria, according to a desk spokesman, is 95 percent New Yorkers, as is the Lexington Hotel, the Hilton, the Plaza, and the Sheraton. New York corporations as well as the hotels themselves, have had to house employes, from top-level management such as chairmen and presidents, down to office secretaries and inhouse maids.

"it has great possibilities for mischief," said Connors. A bellboy at the Roosevelt confirmed that room service requests were inordinately high.

General Motors and Avon have a great deal of the Plaza while Salomon Brothers investment and banking, Metropolitan Life, RCA, and Chemical Bank have checked into the Waldorf. At The Hotel Roosevelt, where planned renovation of 150 rooms was halted because of the additional load, American Express, Paine Webber, the Bank of New York, Mobil Oil and Arthur Young and Co. hav reservations for "an extensive stay" according to David McGuire, the front office manager. The Algonquin confesses the strike has had no great effect on their clientele, save for the post-theater, tea-sipping crowd and a private suite for the New Yorker magazine staff.

"this is not a typical hotel, you understand," said the desk clerk, Charles Carter.

But at the other, typical, hotels New Yorkers were rallying after their short walks "home." At the Hilton Hotel, a group of six bank secretaries sponsored an open-floor party complete with cable television disco and room-service cocktails. At the Sheraton Kon-Tiki disco, a heavier-than-usual crowd packed the dance floor, with some couples drifting to the 17th floor for yet another party, sponsored by an out-of-town businessman. At the fashionable Pierre Hotel, things were a bit staid, save for one company chairman who ordered champagne for all of his vice presidents' rooms.

Said Tom Farrell of Scallop Petroleum, "The only way to combat this thing is through the throat."

Inside Chances Bar and Grill on East 58th, some 30 to 40 New Yorkers were wedged between the bar and the jukebox, dancing and circling in New Year's Eve fashion. The men were still in their three-piece suits and the women in their dresses, but it was no office atmosphere.

"we've been going most of the night," said 26-year-old Ed Canaway, manager of the consumer products division of a New York company. "it's really been fun and I imagine from here we'll spill on over to the Essex House. Want to come?"

"any kind of emergency and New Yorkers love it," said Tom Whittaker, a 37-year-old bartender at Chances. "if this strike happened in California, everyone would say screw it and go to the beach. But here, they'll make it, and have fun at the same time."

Don Greene, a purchasing agent for Revlon, who normally commutes from New Jersey, was one of the customers still going at Chance's. New York is a high pressure town," said Greene. "what the hell difference is a strike going to make? It's just another pressure."

"but wait till next Monday, after Easter," said Charmaine Broad, a 25-year-old secretary, "when the fun wears off. This town is going to turn nasty."

"this is no bigger a disaster than my marriage," said Allen Casals, a government bond dealer, who is divorced and normally a commuter from Long Island. "it gives me a chance to see some of the people in the office on a social basis. Usually that's a lot of trouble."

At the Reflections disco on East 58th Street, David Check, an operations analyst at Standard Brands, Inc., stopped dancing long enough to observe gleefully: "i love it! With the strike, everyone wants to get together at night because no one is worried about getting home."

"it's been a pain in the a-- for me," said Don Tillis, a vice president of Solomon Brothers. "a friend of mine and I were staying in Brooklyn Heights in a woman's apartment and everything was fine and comfortable. Then his wife found out it was a woman's apartment and we had to get up and move down here to this stuffy hotel. I tell you, I much prefer Brooklyn Heights."

Local liquor stores and supermarkets report a rise in sales "especially around early evening," said Charlie Savio, night manager of Beekman's Liquors. "they usually throw it right in their briefcases."

"this whole thing is anything but unexciting," said Cynthia Cartwright, who was staying at the Hilton Hotel. "to be honest, there is a cute man in our office who I've been wanting to meet anyway, and now he's right next door to me on the 18th floor."

"new York is a city of 38,000 cab drivers, 10,000 bus drivers, but of only one chauffeur who has a chauffeur. The wealthy chauffeur is Roosevelt Zanders," wrote Gay Talese several years ago.

Since then Roosevelt Zanders' lone Rolls Royce, in whose back seat Zanders would relax at the end of a day's work while his driver took the wheel, has given way to a fleet of Rolls and Caddies with a clientele of coporate executives and political and show business figures.

Even in the midst of a transit strike, one of New York's classiest limousine services manages to keep above it all.

The strike 14 years ago "was a different sort of thing. It was a surprise," Zanders said. "this stike is more organized. We're booked in advance." Zander said his customers, who pay $25 an hour, $350 per day, reserved cars as early as January in anticipation of the strike.

Zanders' practice is to turn down prospective riders who hail his cars on the street, preferring to do business by reservation and thus avoid arguments over fees as well as exert quality control over his customers. He permits no partying -- and as a rule, no smoking -- in his cars, although one of his drivers was surprised to find the party that arranged for a limousine at a Passaic, N.J., theater last night was a rock group, Zanders said with mild consternation.

One of the favorite pastimes which is developing quickly is the sport of finding a bar in the early evening so as to be able to watch the traffic of bicyclists, roller skaters, at least one horseman, joggers, skateboarders, and the packed Yellow cabs (the city of New York ordered cabbies to carry as many passengers as possible).

"look at those fools, ain't that the human rat race," said Brian Weingart, who was sipping a scotch and water in the Oak bar of the Plaza. "it's a testimony to the human will that given the chance not to drive yourself crazy, New Yorkers will find a way to drive themselves crazy."

Weingart himself was not staying at the Plaza. A broker friend of his had rented a 150-foot fishing vessel, outfitted it with some card tables, a liquor cabinet, and an eight-track stereo which played Frank Sinatra's "my Way" continuously.

"it's a nice break from the train, actually, away from all those lawyers," said Weingart, a broker with a Wall Street firm. "we usually sail in about 9, after a few games of cards and a Bloody Mary. Really shakes you up for the day."

Phil Mohan, a senior vice president for G.X. Clarke Co., also comes to work from Port Washington now by a 135-foot fishing boat down the East River. He spends his time, however, reading the morning business news, and watching how the rest of Manhattan copes.

"i've seen everything from sea planes to yachts to rowboats," said Mohan, who has worked in the Wall Street area for over three decades. "this morning we saw a man on the Brooklyn Bridge, standing there all alone for a long time. But it turned out he was just taking pictures.We thought we had some real excitement ahead."

Certainly one of those who appeared to be hardest hit by the transit strike was 32-year-old Michael Benjamin, a part-time manager of the New York Chess and Bridge Club. Benjamin had rolled up his pants and shirtsleeves and was wading for coins in the fountain next to the Steuben Glass building at midnight last night.

"the transit strike has kept half my bridge partners out of town and I have trouble making ends meets," said Benjamin, who noted that when wading in water, "anything over 45 degrees is tolerable. I've got about $2 worth of nickles and dimes."

Asked what he was going to do with his new wet wealth, Benjamin replied, "i'm going to get a six-pack and find a party."