It's no accident, our man in the Apple reports, that New Yorkers are so celebrity-crazed. All that glitz and gossip keeps their minds off the city's spectacular disintegration

AFTER one last stroll through the pink marble expanse of Trump Tower, past Cartier and Charles Jourdan, past the tourists munching $15 pasta with arugula near the indoor waterfall, past the newsstand brimming with copies of The Art of the Deal, I took a deep breath. There was no turning back. I was -- great God almighty -- free at last.

Goodbye, Donald! Take it easy, Ivana! Arrivederci, Leona and Bess and Gayfryd and Sukhreet and Reverend Al! I'm outta here!

After three years of journalistic feasting on the celebrity-crazed culture of New York City, I had been recalled by the home office. No longer would I chronicle every twist and turn of Donald Trump's love life. No longer would I push my way onto packed subway cars to hear people whispering the latest about Bess Myerson and Andy Capasso, her sewer-contractor boyfriend. No longer would I scan Liz Smith and Cindy Adams for news of the terribly famous, the petty feuds, the newest obsession of those who worship at the golden altar of Trump Tower.

I had grown weary of The Donald hyping himself into the epitome of '80s excess, with his casinos and his yacht and his board game and his Marla and, finally, his near-bankruptcy. I was totally Trumped Out. I had run out of descriptions for Miss Maples -- bosomy, sultry and ripe Georgia peach would no longer do. I was now headed for a place -- Washington -- where the only property bearing the Big T insignia was a few planes at National Airport.

New York, of course, is different. Even the most trivial gossip about Darryl Strawberry or Ed Koch or Jackie O or John Gotti reverberates here in a way that could never be matched in Cleveland or Detroit or San Diego. But that was history for me. All those screaming headlines ("BEST SEX I EVER HAD"), all those slurpy celebrity interviews on "Live at Five," all those endless Park Avenue parties and Sag Harbor softball games, all that would soon be a dim memory in the land of budget reconciliation and reauthorization.

And yet . . . and yet . . . I hereby publicly confess that I will miss New York terribly. The city is simultaneously fascinating and revolting, like a train wreck viewed in slow motion. It can be a place of unexpected pleasures, like a warm day at Coney Island, or unexpected horror, like seeing syringes and condoms wash up on the shore. Everything is bigger and bolder in New York, including the city's spectactular disintegration.

Most New Yorkers live under conditions that would cause riots elsewhere in the country. They take in stride the urine-soaked train stations, the godawful schools, the crumbling bridges, the matchbox apartments, the numbing corruption, the frightening homicides, the simmering racial tensions, the overburdened emergency rooms, the streets teeming with homeless beggars, the ever-widening gap between fabulous wealth and grinding poverty.

It is this contrast between the ceaseless celebration of money and the depressing daily reality that provides fertile soil for a thriving gossip industry. This is a city, after all, whose monuments are named after RCA and Pan Am and Rockefeller; where the glitterati buy $3,000 Italian-made suits at Louis, Boston; where Drexel Burnham Lambert led a Wall Street feeding frenzy until the music stopped and much of the junk paper was suddenly worthless. With vast hordes of straphangers heading home to Flatbush and Flushing and Far Rockaway each night holding their tightly folded copies of the New York Post, there is an eager audience for lifestyles of the nauseatingly famous.

"Everybody's fascinated by rich people's troubles," says Daily News gossip columnist Liz Smith. "That's what the masses live for. Why not?"

This contrast was brought home to me one night on a sweaty E train ride home to Queens when an obviously deranged woman began shouting at the top of her lungs: "DONALD TRUMP AND EYE-VANA CAN KISS MY ASS! AND MARLA MAPLES TOO, THAT WHORE!" This was faintly amusing for about 15 seconds, less so after 15 ear-splitting minutes. The point was underscored again one morning when I wandered into a McDonald's and a middle-aged woman saw me glancing at her Daily News, which had Trump jetting off to Palm Beach, Fla., to see his estranged wife. "They're getting back together. It's crazy," she whispered conspiratorially, no names necessary.

New York is a town where anyone can become a celebrity simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, where even a Master of the Universe can plunge into tragedy with one wrong turn off the Triborough Bridge, as in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. It is a city where an ailing pregnant woman is suddenly transformed into "COMA MOM." Where a mild-mannered electrical engineer named Bernie Goetz whips out his pistol and becomes "SUBWAY VIGILANTE." Where a young model named Marla Hanson is attacked by razor-wielding thugs and becomes "SLASH VICTIM." Where asbestos-laden steam pipes and underground water mains blow up with tiresome regularity, sometimes killing people in the process. Where even the geographical locations -- Bensonhurst, Central Park, Howard Beach -- have become journalistic shorthand for horrible crimes.

To convey this pervasive sense that death is always lurking around the corner, let's flash back to a typical period from last winter:

Saturday, March 10. A group of South Bronx kids playing soccer on the street discovers that the "ball" is actually a severed head wrapped in cloth.

Sunday, March 11. Two Rikers Island inmates are shot by someone with a .25-caliber gun as they walk out of Sunday chapel services.

Monday, March 12. A young dancer from Brazil stops at a croissant shop in a landmark West Side hotel and is killed when the 86-year-old ceiling collapses.

Tuesday, March 13. A 28-year-old woman sitting on a Central Park bench near Fifth Avenue is wounded in the chest by a random bullet fired from the West Side, half a mile away.

Wednesday, March 14. A 24-year-old Brooklyn woman is killed by a stray bullet when she goes out for a slice of pizza.

Thursday, March 15. A 31-year-old shoe salesman from Hong Kong is fatally stabbed on a Brooklyn train after a man sitting across from him yells, "Hey, what are you looking at?" Eye contact is dangerous in New York.

The rest of the month brings more of the same. A 22-year-old construction worker is killed in the collapse of a Bensonhurst catering hall under renovation. Two others die when a Bay Ridge warehouse wall collapses. Eighty-seven people die in a fire set with a dollar's worth of gasoline at an illegal Bronx social club.

Little wonder, then, that the New York Post breaks the tension by using its banner headlines to play up celebrity woes. March 21 -- "POP QUEEN BREAKS BACK" (Gloria Estefan's bus accident). March 22 -- "DONALD DUMPS MARLA." March 23 -- "RICHARD PRYOR STRICKEN."

Trump understood better than anyone that show business sells, which may explain why he kept feeding sound bites to the press during his soap-opera divorce, even while decrying the lurid coverage. Remember, this is the guy who wrote a letter to Leona Helmsley calling her "a disgrace to humanity," made sure the missive found its way into the tabloids and then granted interviews on the subject (including one in which he told me, "The funny thing is, she always kisses my ass when she sees me"). No wonder he had the chutzpah to invite Marla to the opening of the Taj Mahal, his billion-dollar Atlantic City casino, though he later thought better of it. After all, each shot of her cleavage probably would be worth another million in free publicity.

When his highly leveraged empire began to crumble -- and with it his carefully cultivated mystique -- Trump was stunned to discover that he, who once doled out tidbits to favored reporters, was now a national joke, reduced to mere grist for the insatiable gossip mill. It was poetic justice, perhaps, that the man whose gaudy rise was built on self-promotion proved an even more delicious story on the way down.

Helmsley too sold herself as the personification of her overpriced hotels. She was the centerpiece of an ad campaign depicting her as the exacting taskmaster who made sure there were sufficient guest towels in every bathroom (then fired the ad agency that created the campaign). But the hotel queen trampled so many peons on the way to her throne that she was transmogrified into the woman New Yorkers love to hate. As Helmsley was tried and convicted of fraud and tax evasion, people absolutely delighted in each new horror story -- how she had fired a vice president at Christmastime while being fitted by her personal dressmaker, how she had charged her business for everything from a $45,000 silver clock to a $12.99 Bloomingdale's girdle. If "only the little people pay taxes," as Helmsley's immortal crack would have it, then they're certainly entitled to front-row seats when the mighty fall.

Clearly, things aren't always as they seem among Manhattan's business elite. On Black Monday in October 1987, as the stock market was plunging 500 points, I sat alongside trader John Mulheren, who displayed his ice-water temperament by chatting and joking in his trademark polo shirt even as his firm was losing hundreds of millions of dollars. What a cool customer, I thought. Five months later, Mulheren was arrested carrying an Israeli-made rifle and army fatigues, babbling that he wanted to kill Ivan Boesky, who had implicated him in Wall Street chicanery. Mulheren was convicted of stock manipulation last month.

It's no coincidence that New York's mayor during the 1980s also doubled as borscht belt comic, acerbic author, television commentator and columnist for six newspapers. Ed Koch knew that even if he couldn't do much about crack, AIDS and homelessness, he could give the public one helluva show. Bridges falling down? Here was Koch popping off about his latest diet. Subway crime up? Here was Koch telling a group of Soviet schoolchildren that their government was "the pits." Painful budget cuts coming? Here was Koch's voice braying from mechanical street-sweepers, telling motorists to "PUH-LEAZE" move their cars.

Koch once told me he was "the quintessential New Yorker . . . a guy who speaks his mind, who's not afraid, who's acerbic, who has a certain sophisticated sense of humor, streetwise -- walks faster, thinks faster, talks faster." He knew the masses had to be entertained. Koch loves to tell stories of how he faced down hostile crowds -- "Four hundred lions and one gladiator," as he put it. No wonder he's found a second career as a media maven.

Still, the question lingers: Why do New Yorkers feel this intimate rapport with famous folks they've never met? Last December, I covered the funeral of five-time Yankee manager Billy Martin. To my utter amazement, thousands of people stood on line for hours outside St. Patrick's Cathedral. I mean, let's be frank: Whatever his baseball acumen, Martin was a self-destructive drunk who frequently got into barroom brawls, kept getting himself fired and died in a car accident with a drunken friend at the wheel. Yet there were legions of fans in blue Yankee warmup jackets, wiping away tears inside that magnificent church.

THE PAPARAZZI MAY FIXATE ON THE rich and famous, but the vast gulf between wealth and despair can be seen on almost any corner of New York. Each weekday morning, the streets are filled with legions of lawyers and bankers and executive vice presidents headed for power breakfasts in their power ties, all but oblivious to the bus drivers and beauticians and beggars around them.

The temples of money and power can be beautiful, of course, at least from the right vantage point. Flying over Manhattan en route to La Guardia, there is that breathtaking view of a thicket of skyscrapers gleaming in the sun, the fun of picking out the Chrysler Building or the Citicorp tower. Driving over the Brooklyn Bridge, the steel spires soar triumphantly above the shimmering waters of the East River.

At the bottom of the concrete canyon, though, there is a feeling of being hemmed in by too many cookie-cutter glass boxes that have sprouted like oversize mushrooms, blocking sun and sky. It is a miracle of human endurance that so many people squeeze into so little real estate each day. At 5 o'clock, hordes of pencil pushers and gum-cracking secretaries emerge from the elevators like an army of ants, pouring into subway stations so crowded they must line up at the turnstiles -- half of which are invariably broken or vandalized -- and again at the escalators.

Still, big-name builders demand more sites for ever-larger projects, and the city tries to accommodate them. Mort Zuckerman wants to erect twin towers at Columbus Circle that would cast shadows on Central Park. Donald Trump (there's that name again) is pushing the world's tallest building (150 stories), pricey condominiums and a huge shopping mall along the West Side waterfront. A state agency is subsidizing four monstrous office towers that would largely erase the funky vitality of Times Square. Zoning has become a forgotten concept as the smaller stores and mid-rise apartments of old are demolished to make room for megadevelopment. Yorkville in the East 80s and 90s, once a lovely human-scale neighborhood, is now pockmarked by ugly luxury towers topped by yuppie health clubs.

It is a fascinating academic exercise, watching social systems sag or collapse under the weight of too many bodies. The court system is so paralyzed that some judges give numbers to waiting lawyers before granting them the two or three minutes needed to extract a plea bargain for their drug-addled clients. The jails are bulging with nearly 20,000 inmates, some of whom are housed in former British troopships, old Staten Island ferries, renovated homeless shelters and bubble-like aluminum-and-fabric structures on Rikers Island, the world's largest penal colony. Hospital patients spend days on stretchers in chaotic emergency rooms waiting for an empty bed. Some of the 500,000 addicts who want treatment must wait six months or more to get into drug programs. More than 175,000 families are on the waiting list for public housing. Social workers struggle with staggering caseloads of abused children. Public schools are places of broken windows and broken roofs, peeling paint and stopped-up toilets. The world's largest garbage dump, a 150-foot-high Staten Island mountain called Fresh Kills, is rapidly running out of space.

The city's incredible density takes its toll in other ways. You feel more vulnerable, pressed up against these masses of humanity. Like all New Yorkers, I learned long ago to tune out the constant waves of panhandlers, con artists, louts and crazies. But one morning on the R train, when a glassy-eyed woman was pacing back and forth near my seat, bellowing some kind of disjointed biblical sermon, I finally stepped in her path and suggested she lower her voice. Another man charged at me from his seat, demanding I leave her alone. A tabloid headline flashed before my eyes: "SCRIBE DIES IN BIBLE BEATING." The confrontation ended without further incident; next time, I knew, I might not be so lucky.

But behind every tragedy, it seems, lurks a new celebrity waiting for a turn on "Geraldo." New York's escalating racial friction has turned Al Sharpton, the rotund reverend from Brooklyn, into a household name. Whether shouting at crowds through his megaphone or locking arms with Tawana Brawley or leading black marchers through a watermelon-waving crowd in Bensonhurst, Sharpton knows how to deliver the inflammatory phrases that will make the front page and the nightly newscasts. Reverend Al's stardom is such that the papers once interviewed his hairdresser (Sharpton comes in for a perm every six weeks) and ran photos of him under the dryer.

To be sure, New York's ethnic diversity is one of its greatest strengths. My next-door neighbor was Chinese, my teenage babysitter was Italian, and half the mothers at the local playground spoke Hebrew. But the underside of that diversity is an insular kind of segregation that is deeply rooted in many northern cities. Professional couples in Upper East Side condos rarely venture north of 96th Street. Homeowners in middle-class Canarsie would no more dream of going for pizza in nearby East New York than denizens of Chevy Chase would think of whiling away an afternoon in Anacostia. New Yorkers who cross these invisible turf lines can end up on the police blotter. It is no accident that Michael Griffith in Howard Beach and Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst were killed by neighborhood mobs after each was caught after dark in tightly knit white enclaves.

When I did some street interviews after each murder, the depth of racial animosity was nothing short of chilling. White neighbors in both communities defended the killers as "good boys," questioned what the black visitors were doing in foreign territory and insisted that whites would suffer the same fate if caught in Harlem at midnight. Blacks saw the attacks as evidence of a lynch-mob mentality and were convinced that the perpetrators would be treated leniently by a white criminal justice system. These roles were dramatically reversed when a white jogger was raped and brutally beaten at the Harlem end of Central Park. Horrified whites saw the attack as evidence of black brutality. But blacks complained that the screaming headlines had unfairly branded the arrested minority youths as a "wolf pack," and that black women are routinely raped and brutalized with little or no news coverage. Some even suggested that the jogger had actually been raped by her white boyfriend.

Washington may have a higher per-capita murder rate, but New York is, hands down, the weird-crime capital of the universe. Just as the Trump story was fading, the tabloids latched onto the Zodiac killer, a crazed gunman who started shooting people based on astrological signs and boasted of his exploits in bizarre scribbled notes to the New York Post. Then the mysterious Dart Man began stinging well-dressed women in midtown with darts blown from a straw. Such incidents follow a long tradition: Woman hires hit man to knock off husband. Art dealer charged with sex torture of male model. Stranger pushes woman onto subway tracks. Preppy college dropout kills woman in "rough sex" encounter in Central Park. Six Bronx cabbies murdered by customers within weeks. Gangs of black girls armed with needles jab white victims along Broadway. Mobsters rubbed out in tony Italian restaurants. Body parts dug up in Staten Island dumps. All this is relentlessly amplified by tabloids and television, which never tire of those FEAR-STALKS-THE-STREETS stories.

A few media outlets take a more dignified approach to crime, as any good newsmaker knows. Last January, when actress Viveca Lindfors was slashed on the face by a razor-wielding youth in Greenwich Village, she turned in two command performances. To the New York Times, she was the soul of liberal understanding: "My ear is cut, but his life is going to be hell if he doesn't face something within himself . . . If I could get into schools and read poetry to these kids, couldn't they turn their passion and that turbulence into the strong life force, use this life force in a positive way?"

But to the Daily News, with its blue-collar readership, she declared: "This is where we live, me and my children and grandchildren, and we're not going to be kicked out by those bastards."

To me, my nightly subway ride home was the perfect metaphor for New York. If everything came off like clockwork, I could get on a crowded train and make it home on time. If things fell slightly behind schedule, the first two or three trains would be too jammed to squeeze onto, and I would be delayed half an hour or so. And if there were one minor problem, like a stuck door or broken track switch, the system would completely break down and leave tens of thousands of people stranded. That's how I think of the city, permanently perched on the edge of disaster.

Yet this underground chaos is no problem for those New Yorkers who rarely get out of their limos. When business executives were summoned to the World Trade Center to meet Nelson Mandela and police blocked off the streets, one executive's staff gave him a memo that, according to the New York Times, "bore instructions on how to use the subway and had a token taped to it."

FOR ALL THOSE PREPARING THEIR OUTraged letters to the editor, let's get one thing straight: I'm a native Brooklynite. I grew up elbowing my way through the asphalt jungle. But a decade's residence in Washington gave me a fresh perspective on my home town, including the radical notion that life doesn't have to be lived under such battlefield conditions. I said as much a few months after returning home in a 1988 piece in the New Republic called "Rotting Apple."

Well! Such criticism was apparently a trifle strong for the New York Times op-ed page, which ordered up a snooty rebuttal designed to put whiners like me in our place: "The imminent demise of New York has been predicted with monotonous regularity for about three centuries . . . It fairly takes the breath away . . . In New York, we've always been like this. Big deal."

Over time, though, even the editors of the good, gray Times began to see the city's decline as fit to print. There was this classic Timesian lead in the summer of 1988: "Some psychologists, social-service workers and city officials fear that the rise in begging is further hardening New Yorkers against their fellow citizens and eroding the quality of life." And last year the paper disclosed that "Many New Yorkers, long proud of being inured to almost anything, have been troubled over the past few months by the ever more brazen sale of drugs on the streets and the aggressiveness of panhandlers."

Welcome to the real world, dudes.

There is, to be sure, a brighter side to the Big Apple, simple pleasures that range from pretzel vendors to ice skating at Rockefeller Center, from Nathan's hot dogs to the Bronx Zoo to the fishmongers at Sheepshead Bay. But therein lies the fundamental contradiction of New York -- it has the best of everything, but there's always a catch. Central Park is a wonderful green oasis, but don't try jogging there after dark. The waterways are beautiful vistas, yet they are filled with PCBs or blackened by almost monthly oil spills. The theater district offers a superb smorgasbord, but Broadway tickets for two can easily top $100 (and that's before dinner, parking and baby-sitting). Some first-run movies require lining up two hours in advance. I've lost track of how many times I've driven into Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon, only to get stuck in inexplicable traffic jams before sticking the car in a $10-an-hour garage. Once I went to a Mets game at Shea Stadium and wound up parking in another Zip code.

Of course, most of these tribulations can be avoided through the neat device of having lots and lots of money. Take a look at some of the prominent folks who loudly sing New York's praises -- they live in fabulous rent-controlled apartments, rely on live-in help, take taxis or limos everywhere, dine in the finest restaurants, send their kids to private schools and hop on Trump helicopters to visit their East Hampton estates. You won't find them struggling with packages on the crosstown bus or dodging crack addicts at the local tenement.

By contrast, I know one couple who paid $225,000 for a two-bedroom Queens apartment whose windows rattle each time a Long Island Railroad train passes by outside. Several friends have had to buy two Manhattan apartments and break through the wall just to provide their children with bedrooms. Others face hellish commutes after fleeing deeper and deeper into the cul de sacs of New Jersey. Another friend had her car stolen the day before she was to abandon the city for an upstate hamlet.

For the masses, it is the daily annoyances that are most infuriating, like scurrying from block to block in search of a working pay phone. While busy execs whiz by making calls from their cars, phones on the street are smashed, bashed and severed 175,000 times a year by thieves earning up to $1,000 a week. Other young entrepreneurs descend on subway turnstiles for an unsanitary form of larceny called token-sucking. While such tycoons as Leona Helmsley, Ivan Boesky and Saul Steinberg live in obscene luxury, the most mundane city services -- from wiring neighborhoods for cable television to collecting quarters from parking meters to scraping asbestos off classroom ceilings -- are plagued by penny-ante corruption. The local papers stopped running notices of restaurants cited for dirty conditions after nearly half the city's health inspectors were found to be on the take. My sister once worked for a Brooklyn credit union that treated all its employees to an annual retreat in the Catskills, a generosity that seemed less impressive after its boss was found to be knee-deep in the biggest city corruption scandal in decades.

It would be comforting to believe that New York is somehow poised to turn the tide against this onslaught of urban problems. But David Dinkins, the courtly Harlem pol who made all those wonderful campaign promises about drug treatment on demand and a cop on every subway train, had to admit after taking office that the city was broke. Now he's raising taxes and slashing services and warning glumly that the worst is yet to come. The mayor can't get much help from Mario Cuomo because the governor has also been frantically hiking taxes and cutting spending since the state's credit rating went into the toilet. So all those unfinished crusades -- helping AIDS victims and the homeless and the rest -- will simply have to wait.

Such steady doses of bad news can get a trifle depressing. Little wonder, then, that on May 1, after a day on which an American hostage was freed in Lebanon, a Brooklyn bystander was killed in a gang shootout and three St. John's University students were charged in a gang rape, the banner headline on two of the New York tabloids was: "THE HUNK FLUNKS." This heralded the earth-shattering news that John F. Kennedy Jr. had failed his bar exam for the second time. Newsday (which went with "THE HUNK WHO FLUNKED") aced the competition by running a bare-chested photo of the aspiring attorney.

IT IS DAY OF TRUMP: THE DIVORCE. The city is going nuts. Gossip columnists are working themselves into a lather. The local action-news types have pushed Nelson Mandela's release back past the Knicks scores. I put in a request to talk to The Donald, who hasn't said much since the story broke. To my surprise, he returns the call.

I'd interviewed the guy half a dozen times before. Once I spent an hour in his 26th-floor Trump Tower office. He was promoting his new book. He told me he had "the hottest building in the world," "the greatest yacht in the world" and, on a political-style foray to New Hampshire, "the best crowd, the best of everything in terms of reception." Trump felt compelled to add that he had no plans to run for president.

For all his shameless glitz and hyperbole, it's hard not to like Trump, at least on a personal level. Cocky, brash and obnoxious, the 44-year-old developer still sounds like a tough-talking street kid. Even when the news is bad -- like his unsuccessful attempt to kick tenants out of their rent-controlled apartments on Central Park South so he could put up luxury condos -- he hails the outcome as superlative (because the building is now worth more). He's rarely photographed without a confident smirk.

In telephone interviews, Trump's modus operandi is always the same: Slam, bam, a few quick quotes and then I-gotta-go. I tried to talk fast. Why was Trump offering Ivana a mere $20 million slice of his supposed $2 billion fortune? "It's a very, very substantial amount of money," he said. Besides, their prenuptial agreement was "sealed in gold."

What about claims by Ivana's spin doctors that she had contributed to his tycoonery during 13 years of marriage? "You know me pretty well," Trump said, attributing greater intimacy to our relationship than I had dared hope. "Do you think anybody helped me build this fortune?" Trump loves rhetorical questions like that.

And then, seconds later, the sign-off: "I gotta go, baby. You take care. I'll read you tomorrow."

I once asked Donald Forst, the editor of New York Newsday, why readers were hooked on the Trump saga. "Because it revolves around lust, power, money, sex," he declared. "A man who was successful . . . and now he's got a little mud on his shoes. People just lap it up."

Forst was right. In the weeks that followed, the coverage reached dizzying heights of absurdity. Ivana wants $150 million and the Plaza. No, they're getting back together. Donald and Marla met in church. Marla and Ivana had a shouting match at Aspen. Donald was stashing Marla in a room at the St. Moritz Hotel. No, she was right under Ivana's nose in Trump Tower. No, a friend of Donald's was hiding her in the Hamptons. Ivana is seeing a shrink. Donald and Ivana have signed a 60-day dating pact. Oops, the agreement is off. I once watched, dumbfounded, as Channel 2 led its broadcast with "exclusive" footage of an exercise video in which the well-endowed Marla bounced up and down in a form-fitting leotard. No story, just up, down. Up, down. Ah, the power of television.

Still, for the first time in his life, Trump had lost control of a story about himself. While Ivana nursed her wounds with her three children, Donald was coming off like a greedy, oversexed cad. He began grumbling about the press, firing off angry faxes to offending reporters. The next time I interviewed him, for a piece about the Taj Mahal, I broached the early rumors that he was having cash-flow problems. Something snapped.

"I don't know why I even talk to you," Trump barked. "You've never written anything nice about me." Imagine, after all the ink I'd lavished on his exploits! He soon calmed down, but I sensed that our relationship, like the era of unbridled wealth he had come to symbolize, would never be the same.

Weeks later, I finally got to ask Marla Maples a question. It was at a frenetic press conference where the 26-year-old actress, having pocketed a cool $600,000 for endorsing No Excuses jeans, was pirouetting for the horde of photographers in a skintight pair. Was she, I inquired, simply exploiting her notoriety as the Alleged Other Woman? Au contraire, she said, this was part of her new campaign to save the environment. When pressed for specifics, Maples said breathlessly, "I love the ocean." What a letdown: After all that salacious speculation, here was just another brassy-looking blonde trying to escape the Bimbo Hall of Fame.

The lesson seemed almost too perfect. Once you peeled off the celebrity cellophane, the illusions quickly vanished. Soon Trump could no longer pay his bills, and as the whole house of cards began to totter, The Donald suddenly seemed reduced to a fast-talking braggart from Queens. Wipe away the glossy sheen that sometimes envelops New York City and you're left with the seamy underside that is all too real for millions of working-class stiffs.

But that was all behind me now as I left Trump Tower for the last time. Soon, I would be just another spectator in that great boring land mass beyond the Hudson, sneaking glances at the tabloids now and then to check out the latest obsession in the city where fame and misfortune seem to merge into one endless news cycle. Once again I would be a citizen of Washington, where rich and poor live happily side by side, where the fat cats must wait for a table like everyone else, where serious, uplifting debate echoes through the halls of Congress and where celebrity couples like Marion Barry and Rasheeda Moore are treated with the proper dignity and restraint.

Howard Kurtz has just completed a three-year tour as The Post's New York bureau chief.