More than 2 million New Yorkers jammed lower Manhattan's "Canyon of Heroes" today to see 23 freed American hostages ride through a storm of cheers and confetti.

Most of the former captives of Iran rode bareheaded, waving and smiling in open limousines or antique cars exposed to bitter winds that whipped the thousands of strips of ticker tape and computer paper high overhead like dancing ghosts.

The granddaddy of all parades, the patented New York ticker tape tribute began at 11:50 a.m. at Manhattan's southern tip, under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty. The Staten Island Ferry gave a saluting toot and police fireboats in the harbor shot up streams of red, white and blue water as the procession moved up Lower Broadway toward City Hall.

"Barry, hey, Barry!" screamed a crowd of well-wishers here and there on the packed sidewalks, or from open windows, trying to attract the attention of Barry Rosen, the only returned hostage who calls New York home. But for many in the crowd, it was a parade of strangers whose faces they readily conceded they wouldn't recognize, even if they could see over the oceans of heads between them and the street. Still, like other parade-goers before them in other cities this week, the residents of these cynical boroughs seemed not to mind standing in a gridlock of bodies out in a windchill factor of 2 degrees.

"I think this a coming-home party that the country has missed for a long time," said Susan Ryan, a housewife from Chappaqua, N.Y., who brought two of her children to the event. "I think people are cheering for more than just the hostages. They're cheering for the bands, the Marines, for all the men in the Vietnam war . . . Everybody's cheering for everybody. fIt's a celebration of freedom."

The sounds of powerful young male voices shouting "U.S.A., U.S.A." mixed with a pitiful off-key chorus of adults singing "God Bless America" as a brass band a few feet away joined the cacaphony and then faded northward. A banker carrying his briefcase emerged from the subway and found himself locked tight in a unyielding block of bodies. "Well, how ya gonna get to Wall Street now?" he groaned.

Children playing hooky from school sported T-shirts or buttons on which Mickey Mouse shouted "Hey Iran," and made an obscene gesture. Signs said things like, "Free at Last," "Welcome Home" and "We Salute Your Courage."

Others said: "Even the Score -- 52 Heroes for Us, B-52s for Iran" and "Now That You Are Free, I Wish I Was a Dog and the Ayatollah a Tree." The aroma of marijuana mingled with the scent of gunpowder from the cannon that was fired periodically along the route and with the acrid smell of the coals that warned the pretzels and bagels on carts among the lunch-hour revelers. Above the street crowds, thousands of windows in the soaring skyscrapers framed thousands of faces, like a giant portrait wall.

The paper grew deeper in the streets until the children under the front barricades were sitting waist deep in it. The litter included every imaginable kind of paper from adding machine tape to torn up phone books to maritime shipping forms and toilet paper. It hung in globs and streamers from street lamps, church steeples, tree limbs and window washers' scaffolding, blowing like detached cobwebs. Because Wall Street firms have replaced their ticker machines with computers, a Connecticut paper maker donated hundreds of miles of the vital stuff to City Hall for the occasion.

Upper East Side matrons in furs and cashmeres mingled with street tough who wore dainty yellow ribbons on their black leather jackets. One long-haired youth had a yellow ribbon strung through his pierced right ear lobe.

William Powell, a tall man from Brooklyn, stood in a cluster of children at various elevations on a street lamp and for long stretches of time held a huge American flag upraised like the point-man in the Iwo Jima tableau.

"I'm here to show my respect for the 52 heroes," he said, "because they suffered in Iran, and went through hell just as the men in other wars have done." New York's Mayor Edward Koch called the parade "an extraordinary, near-religious experience -- almost a mystical experience that comes from the love we feel for the hostags and they feel for us."

Koch was among the dignitaries who rode with the former hostages in the parade. In a ceremony at City Hall after the parade's end, the mayor presented them with the keys to the city. The day before, the Brooklyn-born Rosen, who is Jewish, had been honored in a special high mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The 1,500 people attending broke the silence of worship to whistle and cheer at the end of the mass.

Later that night, the curtain of the hit show "Sugar Babies" was held up for an hour for the late bus-load of hostages. And when they arived, the crowd greeted them with a standing ovation and a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." At dinner above the 100th floor of the World Trade Center, they munched on chocolate truffles and enjoyed their own private fireworks show in the night sky over the Statue of Liberty.