Aboard the Big Red Bus
The numbers, like a lot of New York City statistics, are staggering: 48.7 million tourists visited our dear city last year, coughing up some $31 billion to sightsee, eat bad pizza, and take home truckloads of I ♥ NY swag. They’ve Disneyfied Times Square. They’ve paralyzed traffic on certain streets. Their environmental impact must be enormous. Yet NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism bureau, will tout that visitors also finance over 300,000 jobs and pad our annual tax revenue by $7 to $8 billion, which means that every household in the city enjoys over $1,000 in tax savings thanks to tourism. Regardless, the out-of-towners could hand each of us a grand a year in cash and we’d still get irritated when they walk too slow on the sidewalk, or swipe their Metrocards the wrong way and continue to swipe, swipe, swipe the wrong way, or crowd into those double-decker tour buses that to anyone who’s not riding them are basically mobile Lion King ads—exhaust-spewing, bike-lane-blocking Lion King ads—that make traffic miserable at intersections and bridge turnoffs. We grumble, but we could be nicer.
A few weeks ago, I looked up at one of those double-deckers and got curious. There had to be something appealing about them: The upper decks were always packed on sunny days and even when it rained you saw dozens of determined faces up there hooded in disposable ponchos. What were they getting for their money? I tried to remember what it was like to be a tourist in the city, a time when like many who moved here to live, not just visit, I was embarrassed to be a tourist in the city. Getting on a sightseeing bus was unthinkable. Navigating the MTA labyrinths, not getting jerked around by cabbies, walking in 100-degree heat—these were the transport activities of the noble New Yorker. But now, years after I’d learned the grid by heart (then got sick of the grid and moved to Brooklyn), I was somehow tempted to take one. I asked around first. No one I knew had been on one. No one they knew had been on one. “Why would you do that to yourself?” they asked. Riding one of those ridiculous buses would be like giving yourself a giant wedgie and waddling around town, telling everyone you knew to laugh at you. It was best to ignore them, they said. They became invisible after a while.
I bought a ticket for a Gray Line tour (you’ve seen their red double-deckers) and convinced my friend Ramona to come along. I wondered about the tours themselves—what the stops were, what the guides had to say—but deep down I wanted to re-experience the feeling of being a newcomer, to suspend what I’d learned as a resident and see New York like I had my first time, when everything had the sheen and sparkle of novelty. Travel writers like to quote Proust—“the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”—and make analogies about stimuli-soaking sponges. Here was my time for revelatory truth and absorption; I wanted to take this seriously. Ramona wanted to get drunk.
We met in Times Square at 10 a.m. on the morning of our tour and thought very seriously about buying a fifth of something for the ride. I decided I’d be sober for at least the first half of the day. It’s worth noting here that the standard Gray Line buses are not party rides in any way. One would think that drinking liberally, if illegally, on the upper deck of an open-roofed vehicle that zips around most of Manhattan would sound pretty appealing to a lot of people, tourists or not. But nobody does this. In fact, the atmosphere on these buses is weirdly muted, save the running commentary of the tour guide and the rumble-hic-rumble of the engine. Your neighbors do not say hello or ask questions about hometowns or offer you hip flasks full of recreational beverages. Look up at one of these buses sometime. No one but the guide talks.
The lack of daytime-reveler types may have to do with high prices. The most popular package is the All Loops Tour, which costs $54 and includes four service loops: Downtown Manhattan, Uptown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the very popular Night Loop. Your ticket is good for 48 hours but $54 seems an awful lot to pay for excruciatingly slow bus service, especially since two of the loops—Brooklyn and the night tour—don’t even have stops where you can get off the bus and explore. Also, when you learn that an unlimited 7-day Metrocard good for all MTA buses and trains costs just $29, Gray Line starts to sound a lot like a scam—that is, until you consider some key variables: a) the convenience of not having to figure out the subway, which, admittedly, can be confusing, b) being taken through a finite sequence of attractions, as opposed to having to pick them out and get to them yourself, and c) receiving factoids and commentary that licensed tour guides provide on every loop. These are the advantages you’re really paying for, and from a vacationer’s perspective they might be worth the extra cash.
The last of them, though, is extremely variable. Tour guide service ranged from mildly useful (I now know where Gisele Bündchen lives) to absolutely piss-poor (“On your right is Dunkin’ Donuts—they got all kinds of, ah, doughnuts and things there”). I can confidently say from my experience that there is no standardized script, uniform, public persona, or speaking volume mandated by Gray Line authorities to the folks with the microphones. Our first guide on the Uptown Loop wouldn’t stop singing. Dude belted out everything from Verdi to West Side Story and felt his fraction of Jewish heritage justified taking on a bad Yiddish accent whenever it seemed appropriate (most of the Upper West Side). Other guides stuck to the painfully obvious, masking their lack of knowledge with continuous narration of minor events happening in plain sight around us. Still others used their platform to share their political views, and I quickly learned that if there’s anything that unifies the personalities and worldviews of New York City tour guides, besides a fondness for bad puns, it is bitter class consciousness. Think about it: They spend the majority of their day driving through some of the richest neighborhoods in the world, pointing out where A-list celebrities live and how much they paid to live there, trying to explain away the glaring disparity between the haves and have-nots in the city (“those are what some people call projects”), and then clear their throats at the end of every tour to ask a bunch of tight-fisted foreign tourists for tips, which make up almost all of their earnings. It can be a bleak gig.
One of our better guides, Marcos, staged his own form of subaltern protest throughout his tour, passing up the otherwise standard celebrity gossip to tell us about Malcolm X, El Barrio, and the “powerful expression of democracy and social reform” that is Central Park. On Fifth Avenue, elite social societies like the Knickerbocker and Metropolitan clubs were denounced as “boring rooms with lamps and rugs” that are “representative of the vast inequalities between mainstream America and the Upper East Side powerbase.” Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, and even the French cultural attaché (for some reason) took fire from comandante Marcos, and I have to admit it got a little preachy after a while. But he did have an admirable take on what should’ve been an easy run down Museum Mile: here was his very public fuck-you to the old-money establishment, and what better platform was there than a 40-foot tour bus wrapped in an Absolut Vodka ad, roaring down a straightaway in the wealthiest zip code in America?
The irony of native New Yorkers turning up their noses at the modern tour bus is that its historical predecessors were long associated with wealth and ostentatious spending. Average hardworking citizens were for many generations suspicious of leisure travel, which they believed was for effete rich people turning up their noses and advertising their privilege to the masses. In his landmark book on consumerism, The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, Thorstein Veblen cited tourism as a primary example of conspicuous leisure, or leisure for the sake of displaying social status, which he called “a chief mark of gentility.” People traveled, in other words, to show off that they could travel. A year after Veblen’s book came out, John Mack, of Mack truck fame, sold a motorized buggy that could seat 20 passengers to the sightseeing company Harris and McGuire. It was America’s first gas-powered tour bus and it operated right here in Brooklyn, taking genteel travelers through Prospect Park. It logged over a million miles and I imagine turned quite a few heads before it was taken out of service in 1908. The automobile was still brand new; a giant 20-seater doing laps around the Long Meadow must have seemed magical.
Veblen would have disapproved of the tour bus, but there are few critics harsher than Michel de Montaigne on the pompous shows of rich travelers. The 16th-century French writer penned an essay called “Of Coaches,” which, in his signature meandering style, is sort of about transportation but is really a study of colonial power and the excesses of conquerors. Coaches (horse-drawn carriages or chariots in his day) were key instruments throughout history for demonstrating a ruler’s dominance over the land, Montaigne argues, and as such they were often made to stand out. The more exotic the power source, the better. As for examples—Western history’s shameless displays of hegemony usually start with Roman emperors. Marc Antony was known to cruise around town in a coach drawn by lions. Firmus preferred ostriches on his ride. The reckless young Heliogabalus, a Roman Charlie Sheen, alternated his haulers depending on which god he believed he was at the time—some days called for tigers; others, dogs; and on particularly stylish days, four naked women.
The brazenness of these rulers, in the way they carried themselves around their empires, was classic compensatory posturing, according to Montaigne. “It is a kind of pusillanimity in monarchs,” he writes, “and a testimony that they do not sufficiently understand themselves what they are.” Their shows of greed and unchecked power were ultimately self-destructive, the author continues, the downfall of their empires.
But Montaigne’s real interest in this piece, published in 1580, lies in the figurations of power in foreign lands, where the conquerors of Europe wowed the leaders of the new world and stole the gold right out of their hands. Instead of earning the virtues of the indigenous peoples, the Europeans used the advantage of their show-stopping appearances to massacre or exploit the hell out of them—a wasted opportunity, Montaigne asserts. The key to their upper hand lay not in their bravery or military skill, but in their shiny armor and loud weaponry, their pomp and performance, all of which both impressed and terrorized the natives. “Take but away this disparity from the conquerors,” writes Montaigne, “and you take away all the occasion of so many victories.” The author is a bit reductive here and doesn’t factor in things like, oh, smallpox and firearms, but his point is a sharp send-up of the rigorous but essentially cowardly artifice of colonial power. A lot of it was show business. Montaigne imagines the natives’ perceptions of the foreigners who overtook them: bearded men mounted on strange beasts, “shelled in a hard and shining skin” and armed with flashing cutlasses, riding high above the ground. It would have been hard to look at anything else.
How strange, then, that these foreign travelers are so invisible to us now: fanny-packed men and women mounted on double-decker beasts, shelled in thick and shiny sunscreen and armed with flashing cameras, riding 15 feet above street level. Why don’t we look up in wonder at their giant chariots that thunder down our streets? We are literally at their feet, walking on the dirty streets or even a story or two below the surface, navigating the dark, hellishly hot tunnels of the underground. It’s some bizarre reversal of colonial power; they’ve come to enjoy our resources and we, convinced that we’re smarter and savvier, actively ignore them. They survey us from their tour buses and get a reasonable understanding of all the lives crisscrossing in front of them. We pretend they don’t exist. They can see us; we can’t see them. We think of tourists as oblivious, with their noses in their maps, heads in the sky. But really, if you switch positions for a couple of days, you’ll start to suspect something kind of sad: We are the oblivious ones.
Ramona has an M.B.A. from Fordham and had a busy few years working full-time while going to grad school. Passing Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, she said: “It’s funny. I came to this area three times a week for three years and never looked up.”
You really do see a different space from the upper deck of a roofless bus. Nesting birds. The silent window dramas of second- and third-floor apartments. Assorted junk on people’s roofs. The ornate cornices of buildings built before the 20th century, before modernism sheared off all the extras. The city’s architecture reveals its histories. You notice that the top of the Buddhist temple you’ve walked by a million times looks suspiciously like a Jewish synagogue’s. What you thought was another cast-iron building in SoHo has a modern tower built on top of it—an architectural Frankenstein’s monster. The Bowery Mission shows you a gorgeous Tiffany-glass window right at eye level. You see hanging flower baskets, lots of them, which you never knew existed. And there’s graffiti; tons more than usual, and better.
The slight elevation really opens the place up, as the real estate lingo goes, but it’s the fact that it’s your job to pay attention for a few hours that makes home seem so new. The tour guides can be informative sometimes but no matter how entertaining or smart they are, there’s no way you’ll remember most of what they teach you. They function more as your enablers, people who tell you to turn your head in various directions and nudge you (sometimes literally) to get off your mobile device and discover something already. It may be some twisted comment on modern life that you often have to pay someone to get you to look around.
We took a break between loops around 3 p.m. Both the Uptown and Downtown loops terminate at Times Square, and for all its flashing lights and noise, that five-block stretch of Broadway is a wasteland for decent bars. We ended up at the one exception, Jimmy’s Corner on 44th and 7th, where Ramona over the years has been twice yelled at and once ejected, though it’s still a place she approves of. Ramona is the kind of person who respects you a little more each time you call her an asshole. She’s a scrawny 5’1'' but she’ll break your arm. She bought us frosty beers and we drank them slowly, grateful for the cold. The Mets were on TV and a handful of bleary-eyed middle-aged tradesmen looked mildly interested. Jimmy’s has been owned and operated by retired boxing trainer Jimmy Glenn since 1972, though as a bar it predates Prohibition. It’s a place where the staff are rude to you and you like them for it. It’s also a museum of boxing history. Every fighter worth mentioning has a photo on the walls; there are posters advertising Foreman fights from the ’70s and large-format prints of Glenn with The Greatest, the latter’s arm cocked back in a mock punch. Sitting next to an old brass boxing bell, our elbows on the worn oak bar, we forgot we were tourists for the day and resumed real-world conversation: gripes about work, gripes about relationships, where to buy houseplants. It was a brief but much needed break.
Riding on the Downtown bus afterward was hazy and pleasant, shots of Irish whiskey jostling in our stomachs, the soggy heat of the afternoon all but gone. The tour guide, a retired construction worker, had two major interests that were polar opposites on the spectrum of New York culture—Homeric war stories about the mob and obssessive Sex and the City trivia. The sites we saw were captioned appropriately: “This is the gate where the police captain broke Michael’s jaw in The Godfather.” “This is the bar where Tony Soprano kicked in the teeth of that bastard who touched his daughter.” “This is where Miranda proposed to Steve in Season 6, Episode 88.” You’ll remember, after a few of these bus loops, that there’s another New York City, complete and carefully sustained by powerful people, that exists entirely in fiction and fantasy, a parallel universe that can feel as real as the real thing. You can look up at the Flatiron building and see instead the Daily Planet offices where Spiderman works his day job. Or walk by a little firehouse on North Moore Street and see the Ghostbusters’ headquarters. Brooklyn brownstones in the summer always call to mind Spike Lee. The city projects a public persona separate from its real history, an artificial one that as a visitor (or a resident posing as a visitor) you’re willing to accept, even love. Montaigne might’ve hated New York. A lot of it is show business.
The next day, Ramona had to work and I took the Brooklyn and Night Loops alone. I won’t waste too much time talking about the Brooklyn bus, which was surprisingly packed. I made the unfortunate decision of sitting on the roofless upper deck on a day of intense rain—pounding, violent, buy-flood-insurance rain that turned the aisle into a river rapid and made the experience incredibly unpleasant, free poncho or no. (I wore two.) The tour guide was rambly and uninformative and made it sound like what most Brooklynites did for fun was hang out at the Atlantic Center Mall and eat pizza at Target. Also, I got hit in the face. There’s a strict no-standing rule on the bus when it’s moving and this is because street signs and tree branches pass inches above your head. On Vanderbilt Avenue, the branches are very low.
The best and most popular tour is the Night Loop. I boarded the bus at 8:30 pm and by then the rain had stopped, though there were still puddles on the seats and piles of wet ponchos on the floor. Times Square is breathtaking at night, albeit in a soulless and unabashedly corporate way, and its panorama is best appreciated seated on a high perch, not fighting your way through the crowds. I ignored the water soaking the seat of my jeans and enjoyed myself. The tour guide was excellent and he spoke in that high-pitched, nasally announcer’s voice from pre-war newsreels, a stage voice for him, probably, but a good one.
“The canyons of Times Square, ladies and gentlmen!” he shouted. “The neon-splash canyons of Broadway! And you are there.”
He said this last phrase a lot, usually after pointing out something famous or photo-worthy: “And you are there.” It was vintage tour-guide cheese but after a while you started to feel it. I am here. I live in this town. The best part about pretending to be a tourist in your own city is realizing what a privilege it is to live in it. And I won’t get too feel-goody here but there is something satisfying (and I mean this in a non-elitist way) about watching first-time visitors drop their jaws at stuff you get to see everyday. It’s a nice reminder to like where you live. I saw a little boy get excited about one of the glass buildings we passed and after a second glance I thought, “Who cares if it’s an H&M? It is kind of a nice building.” The glowing tips of Midtown skyscrapers made everyone’s photo album that night. Teenagers on skateboards kept pace with us as we barrelled down Sixth Avenue, our cameras flashing. We crossed the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn Heights, where we idled on a side street with an unobstructed view of Lower Manhattan. Here was where the oohing and ahing really got loud, and yes, it was kind of dorky and cowlike and embarrassing to wow! in unison and take a dozen pictures of the same thing and lean way over your fellow passengers’ bodies to get a slightly different shot that wouldn’t come out anyway because the flash was on, but it also felt good to be surrounded by sincerity, unmitigated enthusiasm for something beautiful. No one was dismissive or indifferent. Whatever role this tour bus had played, whether a social marker or a platform for public humiliation, didn’t matter anymore because now you were finally paying attention. You were seeing the city that was hidden, as the cliché goes, in plain sight.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should take an evening off and head to a waterfront park to remind yourself what the skyline looks like right at nightfall—and really look at it. You may already do this regularly. Imagine it now. Being that this publication is called the Brooklyn Rail, you’ll excuse my assumption that you’re looking west across the East River and seeing the glow of Manhattan, with faint columns of steam rising from between buildings and car lights on the bridges blinking back and forth like a thousand little marquee bulbs. Remember, this is home. It all fills you with the strange sense of being tiny and larger than life at the same time. It’s lovely. A scene from a movie, only it’s real. And you are there.