Saturday, November 26, 2011

Grand Central Terminal tour

Was fun and interesting, though could have been better in my opinion. The tour was sponsored by the Grand Central Development Corp (or group, our whatever they're called). They are the group who puts out the information kiosks, the garbage cans, etc etc... apparently taxes in NYC only go so far, and are not enough to cover things like Central Park, or Zuccotti Park, or to keep districts up to par... so the better connected groups can organize and make their own areas better with their "Development Corps" (or whatever they're called).

We started in the lobby (privately owned public space) of a building across the street. For almost an hour it was a lecture by the guide, with some pictures on a clipboard (just a few, like 4 or 5).

The guide was a dandy of a fellow, in a nice suite and bow tie, with a brass white rabbit on the lapel of his suite coat. I'm going out on a limb here, and guess that he's an old gay jew in his late 60s. While he was a fountain of information, he also was putting on a show. I guess that's what we tour guides do. But he can't sing, or dance... and his jokes are pretty bad. He often uses volunteers from the audience for visual aids, except that he's expressing simple concepts that don't really need a visual aide, so they end up sort of cheap ways to get audience participation for no real reason (imo). For example, hes demonstrating that the building we were in did not own the land it was resting on... they really just own the air rights, i.e. the rights to build above the land below them. So he brings up a woman, asks her to remove her glove, hold her hand out in front of her, and has several people touch her hand and asks how it feels. Not really sure what that was about, people awkwardly said "warm" and "soft"... really just a way to get a few people involved in the demo I guess... then asked what she was holding in her hand. Eventually we came to the conclusion (ok, he just said it) that she was holding hundreds of millions of dollars of air... then he started blowing air towards her hand saying "millions and millions of dollars". OK, kind of cute, got a vague smile from some people. But we didn't come here for the silly demonstrations, or to be entertained... we came here for INFORMATION. (well, I did) Honestly, there are funnier people to make you laugh, better entertainers on every street corner of Times Square... let's just stick to the stories.

But I get it, and he IS THE professional. But it reminded me of a magician... minus the magic. His big reveal was not some mind-bending illusion, but a simple fact.

That said, he did have some really interesting and enlightening facts and stories about NYC, Park Avenue, architecture in general, socio-politics, religion, business, finances, literature, etc. I just didn't need the silly visuals... they were distracting to me, and dragged the process out rather than making it more interesting. Most entertaining is the old gay dude trying to visually demonstrate how a man would make romantic gestures towards a woman. Round hole, square peg.

To a large extent it was his version of New York History, starting with a diatribe about how NYC and America at large was not a Christian nation. Now I was told, as tour guides, we should avoid religion and politics... which of course is impossible if you are talking about history and site, which are inevitably tied to religion and politics... but there are boundaries. He seemed to be proselytizing, or perhaps challenging some potential tourists from the Bible Belt (don't know if any were present)... trying to inject his New York Liberal Gay Jew paradigm. I also note, this forum was not a debate... while there were some questions and comments from the audience, it was mostly his monologue. So nobody could really challenge his assertions.

Mind you, he did have a convincing argument... and I agree with him on most of his points. I'm just not sure why this was the forum for this subject... and not sure we got the whole story.

But this was not for no reason at all, it lead into the construction of St. Patrick's Cathedral... built by those NON-Christians known as the Irish Catholics... his point being that the only official Christians in NYC were the ones who acknowledged the British Monarch as the head of the Church. Irish were NOT allowed to be buried inside the City Limits, so they built their own Cathedral out in the sprawling grassy hinterlands.

He made clear that the event includes a tour of Grand Central Terminal, but was sponsored by the consortium to bring awareness to the whole neighborhood... thus the history lesson was appropriate. The tour of GCT was cool, but by now I knew pretty much all the facts that he relayed to us. For me, it was more of a learning experience as to how a professional tour guide works. This guy literally wrote the tour guide test.

Just like my instructor (and his buddy) Lee Gelber, he's a bit out of date. For example, telling the crowd how The Hotel Pennsylvania has the most famous phone number... and goes into a little routine where he hums the tune and dances a bit, and expects the crowd to all chime in and sing Pennsylvania 6 5000. One guy (besides me) knew the lyric. Uh, everybody knows the most popular phone number is 867-5309 !!!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Best Tour Ever

At about 5:45pm my dispatcher tells me he's got a charter for me. That could mean anything, but he gives me the detail sheet. Jump in a van on 8th ave in Midtown, meet the driver, head over to the Essex House on Central Park South, and pick up six passengers for a four hour tour (actually took 3 hours).

Well the six passengers were a couple in their 70's, their two kids and a spouse (in their 40's), and a couple of grand-kids (maybe 5 and 8). This is all wide open... I got the van, a driver, and my clients... so I ask, "So what do you folks have in mind?"

"Well, we just want to drive around New York, head downtown, maybe see the Statue of Liberty. I don't know, you tell us."

"OK, we can do that. So where are you from?"

After a bit of conversation, and the ice breaks, I hear from the older folks "If possible, could we maybe take a detour into Brooklyn? You see, my wife an I were both stationed here in New York City 51 years ago... over in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. I was in the Marines, she was in the Navy. We lived here in New York for two years, and we got married here... 51 years ago. We'd like to go past the place and see what's still there."

Kept my composure, and just smiled and said "Yes sir, I think we can do that for you."

Gave them the grand tour down 5th Avenue, the New York Public Library, Lord and Taylor w/ the window displays up, Cartier wrapped up like a Christmas Package... THANK YOU CHRISTMAS for coming so early !!! Pull out all my best stories, answer questions, then over the Manhattan Bridge, see the Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty, etc.

Then off to find the Navy Yards... not hard, it's just off Navy Street. (go figure)

"Look honey, remember... that was my post, right there. Look, that's where I stayed... where was your place. Oh yeah, right down the street, over there...WOW. OMG, such memories!!!"

Next he starts schooling me on the receiving station, the different functions going on in the different buildings... "carpentry over there, welding over there..."

He's telling me about how he and his seven buddies would go into Chinatown in Manhattan and order enough food for 20 people. How they never had to pay for a drink when they were in uniform... and how they took advantage of that fact. How they knew the bar which didn't exactly "close" but would just lock their door for an hour or so at 4am. (I said "come up to Inwood some time.")

Back through Brooklyn Heights... "Hey, that's where I had to go to get my marriage license."

Finally back to Manhattan and daughter asks for Nolita... well luckily I had done my walking tours and taken all those photos... I took them by the old Police Station (that AMAZING one), and then down some streets where we could peek into the windows and catch a glimpse the LOFT apartments done up with chandeliers and bookcases.

OK, I knew we had to go past The Intrepid (lots of oohs and ahhs), and as I'm about to take them back home, I get "My daughter wants to see the New Years Ball."

Sooo down 7th Avenue... they were amazed with the flashing lights... how it was like daylight in Times Square. The old guy tells me that he was IN Times Square on New Years Eve in the early 60's... how he (standing at 6'2") was held up by the crowds, his feet not touching the floor... just one hand on his wallet the whole time.

End of the trip, "Thanks Kevin, that was PERFECT. Thanks for bringing back some great memories."

"The pleasure was all mine. I'm glad I could be part of this experience."

Oh, and the commemorative picture of Benjamin Franklin they gave me was a nice touch. :)