My friend Charlie works as a tour guide on one of those open-air buses we see all the time. He’s the best guy I know. I will be honest: I have found those tour buses annoying, just because. But one evening I took Charlie’s tour. As the bus lurched away from 8th Avenue and Forty-something Street, Charlie said, “Okay, here we go, don’t stand up,” into his microphone, and I felt excitement. And as we sailed across town, he told stories, not just about the big stuff, but everything. “See those two green globes right down there with all the people going in and out? That’s the subway,” Charlie said. “Those are people going home from work.” There they all were, the regular people, going in and coming out. New York had become a big, glittering magic theater. And I was one of those people on the bus watching, just like the ones I’ve found annoying. In a weedy Brooklyn no-man’s land we parked at the river’s edge in the gold glow of sundown and looked at the stately, quiet figure of the Statue of Liberty. Charlie recited that famous poem by Emma Lazarus, not just the very famous lines, but the entire poem. It was beautiful.
A piece of legislation was just passed that I could say a lot about, but this letter that Charlie wrote to Pete Hamill says it best:
Dear Mr. Hamill,
Soon I will be out of a job. It will be hard to find another. I have been working as a NYC tour guide for the last seven years. Standing up on top of those red buses with the wind in my face and doing my best to do justice to the story of New York. You have been a great inspiration to me and an influence on my tours. Reading your book Downtown twice and watching the Ric Burns documentary countless times. Reading and studying the great New York historians. I thought: “The tours should feel something like this. History alive and flowing, positive, warm, poetic, dignified, humorous, and yet not whitewashed, and most importantly, told in a New York voice.”
I started getting deeper and deeper into Walt Whitman, memorizing passages from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and reciting them with my 'living crowd' as we crossed the river together on the Manhattan Bridge; one of a' living crowd'. Quite often people would have me write down the name of the piece so they could look it up. Reciting that poem every day it became like a mantra to me and riding the F Train home, the adrenaline still flowing after giving back to back tours, Walt would be with me and I could see the humanity in every living soul and know that we swam together in this wild mystery story.
Well, I could go on and on about my love for the story of this city; I mention you and your story of the Castro impersonator at the Hotel Theresa on the uptown tours and it always gets a big laugh.
The city council has passed a law, the tour guides will be replaced by headphones. Some Greenwich Village residents had been complaining about the noise. A problem I think that could have been rectified, a very small portion of the tours go through relatively quiet residential areas. There was some talk of a provision in the headphone law that would protect our jobs that somehow fell by the wayside. Smug quotes from residents about "these idiot tour guides giving boring information". I know what its like to have your neighborhood invaded after bar after bar went up on my Lower East Side street; my only source of light becomes a brick wall 12 inches from my window when the adjoining recording studio builds a sun roof. But it is not worth the cost of our jobs and the killing of the human element in a living story.
The ability of the tour guides is widely varied. They are like New York itself, a group of misfits from twenty years of age to seventy, from the highest degrees of formal education to very little; neat-as-a-pin to hairy guts and shirt-tails flapping in the breeze, and they are a goodhearted crew.
My life is devoted to my wife and child and my vocation the arts; painting and theatre. I've never figured out how to make a living at those passions, and a series of jobs kept me afloat. I was never really at good at most of them; this tour guide thing is the first that I can honestly say that I am. Soon it will be gone if the mayor does not veto the bill and ask for it to provide some job protection for us. Perhaps it will send me deeper into my work, the old blessing in disguise, but I know that for many it will be a long rough road and no machine--no piece of plastic in the ear-- is going to talk of Emma Lazarus, read the entire poem; Jackie Robinson, J.P. Morgan, Boss Tweed, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Martin Scorsese, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or recite the intro to the Grand Central Station Radio Show. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church, Frank McCourt at Symphony Space, the flea circus, the gangster, the immigrant, the dock worker, the steel worker, the great democratic island city... What automated voice will patiently answer questions, help with those wheelchairs, tell them how to get to Carnegie Hall, and be grateful for a chance to serve? Well, don't get me started, I've got to catch a bus.
My windows face 7th Avenue so I always hear the subway, sirens, jackhammers, and the din of weekend revelers. New York has all kinds of noises, and that’s just the way it is. From Charlie I learned that the people who take bus tours aren’t the ones ruining things. They’re curious. They look and feel awe and delight, sometimes at the smallest things.
Romy Ashby, May 3, 2010
There is still time to get the bill vetoed.
Please send letters to the mayor and tell him he should really think this one over.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg
New York NY 10007
*Photo of Charlie crossing the Manhattan Bridge, Summer 2008.