It was a hot late afternoon on the 14th June and excitement was in the air. Cop cars and TV news trucks were parked up and down Seventh Avenue South and people were flocking to side streets lined with metal barriers, waiting to catch a glimpse of the President and the First Lady, who were scheduled to arrive at six o’clock for a fundraiser on Charles Street. Standing on the corner of 11th Street was a lone tourist studying his laminated map, oblivious to the action around him.
“Looking for something?” I asked.
His accent was German. “I’m not sure. Is there anything of interest around here?”
“Well,” I said, trying not to sound droll, “if you walk down there to Charles Street . . . “
There was a time when I had a less helpful attitude toward tourists. There’s so many of them, especially in August, the height of the tourist season, gawking at us from double-decker buses as if we were some kind of freak show, groups blocking the sidewalk, slowing me down. However, my attitude has changed over the years because of my friend, Phil Stein, actor, comedian, Bank Street raconteur, and tour guide extraordinaire.
“Most people think tourists are a nuisance, but look at yourself when you travel. When my wife, Laura, and I went to Rome on our honeymoon we would stand around on a busy street with our guidebook, looking this way and that. It’s what tourists do. It’s not like screw you, I’m going to get in your way so you’ll be late to work. So when I see a bunch of people on the corner looking at a map, if I’m not in a rush I show them how to get to SoHo, the High Line, and I give them the scenic route. If this happens a few more times they’ll go back home and say, ‘Everywhere we went people were so friendly and treated us so well.’ Just that little courtesy and their whole image of New York can change, that we’re rude and all those TV police shows of people killing each other. A lot of them are afraid to take the subway. I kid them about it. I tell them, ‘You watch too much TV. Statistically you’re safer there than in a taxi. The great thing about New York is you can get killed anywhere – take a taxi, walk here, walk there, don’t worry. Just enjoy yourself.’ ”
The Real Deal
Most New York City tour guides are born somewhere else, but tourists recognize that Phil, born and raised in the Bronx, is the authentic item. “When they find out I’m from New York, my accent and all that, it’s an added bonus to them. They come here to see the things they’ve heard about, the iconic things, but when I take them around I give them the facts and also I keep it personal.” When he did the bus tours of the Village, he had the driver stop at Washington and Bank so he could show them the corner where his father’s gas station used to be, which became one of those mystery “no parking” lots. Next, a walking tour of Bank Street to show them where he lives, then off to the White Horse, built long before most of the tourists’ hometowns even existed, for some ancient history. On one trip, he took them over to West 4th above the Fedora Restaurant to meet his dentist. “Doctor Dorato came out into the waiting room and talked to them. He has a good sense of humor.” On another tour, the bus went by Tortilla Flats, where Phil once worked. “One of the owners came out. ‘Hey, Phil, bring them in here.’ It was mostly grownups on the bus. They went through the back door, single file, through the kitchen, and up to the bar where she had set up 30 shots of tequila. It only happened once.”
Although my attitude toward tourists in general has mellowed, I still get annoyed at the TV tourists, especially the Sex in the City crowd in Bleecker Park scarfing down cupcakes not made in the Magnolia Bakery. I mean, how many degrees of separation from reality is that? Phil takes a more philosophical approach, “That’s the comedy of the whole thing. They look across the street at the bakery like it’s the Sistine Chapel, eat the cupcakes from somewhere else, and talk about the episode. Yeah. I always tell them the same story, that when it opened I went there with Laura and my daughter Rachel for coffee and cupcakes. There were three tables and some teenagers behind the counter making cupcakes like you do with your grandmother, a little tray at a time, and all three of us decided then and there that in this high-rent neighborhood the place would never make it.
“The power of television; location scouts for that show could have picked a hundred other bakeries but they picked that one, and the rest is history. My attitude used to be, you come to New York, you should want to see iconic things you can’t see anywhere else, but ponder this. Every time I ask tourists what they would take me to see in their hometown the answer is usually dead silence. Not one thing. We get cranky, you know. The neighborhood has changed. No more laundromats and all. Yet we live in a place that’s so wonderful it attracts people from all over the world and that makes me appreciate it.”
So I’m pondering that. When I walk by the cupcake eaters in the recently upscaled Bleecker Park, I recall the first time I saw it, newly in love on a hot summer night in 1979, back when the über rich were afraid to live here. We strolled by and heard the murmur of people sitting under that lush canopy of Lindens that is no more, enjoying the coolness and the company, and I’m thinking, is there really much of a difference between me, imagining a time that no longer is, and the cupcake eaters enthralled over something that never was?
Maybe Phil is right. Live anywhere but the here-and-now and you just might miss out on something exciting and unexpected, something that’s not on any map, like a chance to meet the president.