Summer Fun: Walking the Talk

Guided walking tours of New York are highly educational. After sampling several of them over the past few weeks, we learned that fanny packs are still in vogue. That septuagenarian retirees have more stamina than thirtysomething magazine writers. That tour leaders favor curious headgear. And that there’s always, always a reason to retell the sordid tale of nineteenth-century architect Stanford White: how he was murdered by his mistress’s insanely jealous husband.

Many more revelations await the curious New Yorker in search of chaperoned summer jaunts. And there are plenty to choose from. Manhattan now has more walking tours than crumbling façades, with dozens of companies willing to lead you around nearly every nook and history-packed cranny of the island. We couldn’t test-walk every one – we’re not an elderly Iowa couple, after all – but here’s an extremely anecdotal tour of the tours.

The Jewish Lower East Side

Timothy “Speed” Levitch, Private Tour Guide, $20; 636-9324.

How’s this for an opening line you don’t hear on your average walking tour: “If human history exists at all, and I’m not sure it does … “

Bold pronouncements like these have made Speed Levitch something of a tourist attraction himself. The 27-year-old homeless Horace Mann grad (he crashes on the couches of friends and friendly strippers) is the star of The Cruise, a new documentary about his eccentric double-decker tours – a surprise hit at June’s New York Independent Documentary Festival. Having terminated his relationship with Gray Line (don’t ask), the pedestrian Speed has slowed down his mph but not his rapid-fire polysyllabic rants. Think of this nasal-toned savant as a cross between Nietzsche and Horshack.

Some choice Speedisms: “I don’t think of tourists as tourists, I think of them as lovers… . I’m a representative of infinity, an emissary of possibility… . We are avaricious in our pursuit of joy… . If civilization is doomed, which I happen to believe it is … “

Speed, who was wearing a green-feathered Mardi Gras mask on his forehead (“for when we talk about identity”), hits all the traditional spots: the old Jewish Daily Forward offices, the Anshe Chesed synagogue (birthplace of the Jewish reform movement), Katz’s deli (site of the historic When Harry Met Sally … orgasm). But we also spent a good amount of time literally staring at cracks in the sidewalk. “Lifelines of past cruisers,” he explained, sort of.

When we swung by Schapiro’s, the last working winery in Manhattan, owner Norman Schapiro made the mistake of asking Speed to describe his tour. “It’s an effervescent homage to the present tense,” he was told. “A series of adventures that lead back to ourselves.” Schapiro’s response: “What does that mean?”

A valid question. But in the end, irrelevant to the totally entertaining Speed Levitch experience. His encyclopedic referencing skills and infectious giggle make three hours of cruising seem like two and a half.

Memorable guide quote: “I wrote a literary construction about that called ‘The Ongoing Wow.’ ” Obligatory Stanford White reference: “I like him because he’s lusty. He invented the girl coming out of the cake at parties.”

The Genius and Elegance of Gramercy Park

Joyce Gold History Tours of New York, $12; 242-5762.

We wanted to go on a fun tour, but it was raining, and they were all canceled. That left this one. Yes, Gramercy Park – a neighborhood about as titillating as stucco. Huddled in front of the drab entrance to the Gramercy Park Hotel, a dozen hardy troupers waited as Joyce affixed her geek-chic headset microphone and asked for a volunteer to hold its shoulder-straining “Mini-Vox” speaker. No takers, except for an alarmingly frail-looking senior citizen. (Hey, we had to hold our notepads.)

Joyce, whose defining accessory is a faded WNET tote bag, has been guiding tours for twenty years and knows her stuff. She could probably tell you Peter Stuyvesant’s clog size. Unfortunately, she showered us with so many context-free dates and names, we became dizzy with post-tour stress disorder.

We do remember passing the home of nineteenth-century mayor James Harper, who banned pigs from city streets, and the pad of twentieth-century D.J. Jellybean Benitez, who plucked Madonna from the city streets. Joyce pointed out where John Garfield died mysteriously in his bed in 1952. Pressed for details, she would only raise her eyebrows and suggestively invoke the name of Nelson Rockefeller.

But after two soaked-to-the-bone hours, Joyce remained chirpy, undaunted, and seemingly oblivious to the cruelest irony of the Gramercy Park tour: that the private, padlocked Gramercy Park itself is off-limits to us heathens.

Memorable guide quote: “This is the home of sportscaster Ted Husing. Anybody heard of him? I’d never heard of him, either.” (If we had, we’ve have known he was a twenties radio announcer.) Obligatory Stanford White reference: He lived on the site of the Gramercy Park Hotel and was shot six blocks away.

A Taste of the Upper West Side

Arthur Marks Unlimited Tours, $10 (private tours, starting at $150); 673-0477.

Arthur Marks’s brochure promises a “tour guide, raconteur, and overall fun person.” Who could resist?

Arthur, a man of a certain age, certainly looks fun in his khaki fedora and brightly checked blazer, festively adorned with a red pocket square. And he sounds fun – Arthur is New York’s only singing guide.

In his three-hour tour of the Upper West Side, this wandering minstrel serenaded us with a half-dozen obscure show tunes, most with quasi-relevance to the topic at hand. Approaching Broadway, he broke into Cole Porter’s “Put bathrooms in the zoo / But please don’t monkey with Broadway.” The song protested the proposal to rename the avenue Le Grand Boulevard – some municipal planner’s idea of how to thank the French for the Statue of Liberty. A mention of the roaring twenties brought on a snippet of “You’re in the Money.” You get the idea.

His pleasingly improvisational tour began in Riverside Park near a statue of one of his heroines, Eleanor Roosevelt (who was not a lesbian, he insists). We then ambled over to the Royale Kosher Bakery, where the free chocolate babka and marble rye inspired a group-feeding-and-Seinfeld-quoting frenzy. Curiously, this was the only “taste” of anything we got on Arthur’s slightly mislabeled tour.

The highlight of this jaunt: the revelation that the monumental Ansonia apartment building once contained a gay bathhouse where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow first met. Historic! A close second: the who-cares-if-it’s-true tidbit that Manhattan has the highest density of single people in the U.S., “except for a leper colony off the coast of Maine.”

Despite his not-quite-Ragtime-ready vocal skills, you gotta love Arthur. He’s an unapologetic slice of New York ham, a tireless booster given to eruptions like “New York is the most wonderful place there is!”

Memorable guide quote: “Hi, Esther! That’s one of my sister’s best friends. She’s with CBS.” Obligatory Stanford White reference: Stannie, according to Arthur, liked “both little girls and little boys.”

Haunted Greenwich Village

Adventure on a Shoestring, $5; 265-2663.

Every tour outfit has one of these eerily popular paranormal excursions. There’s “Ghosts on Broadway,” “Pubs and Poltergeists,” “Ghoulish Greenwich Village.” Scary stuff! By the end of our own two-and-a-half-hour ectoplasmic outing, we were trembling in our boots. Of course, that was because of the unseasonably cool weather, not any spooky surprises. That’s the kind of rim shot you can expect from Howard Goldberg, who seems to have channeled the spirit of Henny Youngman for his tour-guide act. A 35-year veteran of the circuit, Howard will take you by the statue of Garibaldi in Washington Square Park, explain that the Italian hero unsheathes his sword whenever a virgin passes, then crack, “It hasn’t happened yet!”

In fact, there’s more Borscht Belt shtick than specters on Howard’s tour. Consider it a crash course in the Village, with a few cursory nods to spirituality: Alexander Hamilton’s haunt on Jane Street; Mayor Jimmy Walker’s on Gay Street; and the occasional bizarre personal anecdote. “In 1963,” said Howard, “I visited a medium who foretold JFK’s assassination … months before he was shot.”

A wiry man in a Russian fur hat, Howard does display one essential ghostbuster quality: fearlessness. He’s willing to engage even the most hostile New Yorkers in conversation. “Why did you choose this over Harvard?” he asked a student exiting NYU law school. “I didn’t get into Harvard,” the student snapped. “How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?” Howard inquired of a clearly overcaffeinated employee of a neighborhood coffee shop. “I don’t keep count,” the man shot back, giving off a chilly buy-something-or-get-out-of-my-store vibe. Don’t let ‘em get you down, Howard. We admire your spirit.

Memorable guide quote to the counter guy at Li-Lac Chocolates: “Can you tell me some famous customers? I know Abe Vigoda… .” Obligatory Stanford White reference: After recounting Stanny’s downfall – his flesh addiction – Howard said, “And the moral of that story is, when you get that urge, resist it. Go see a movie.”

Birds From Belvedere

City of New York Urban Park Rangers, no charge; 360-2774.

The early-morning hours of Central Park aren’t just the domain of runners, muggers, and the sexually audacious. There are also birders. Flocks of them. At 9 a.m. on a weekday, we joined one such ramble in the bramble led by eager urban park Ranger Bob DeCandido. As our gang of binocular-laden early risers came into formation at Belvedere Castle, hot birder gossip began to circulate. One spicy item: Fifth Avenue’s red-tailed hawk had recently hatched three chicks.

On the way to our first pit stop in the park’s thick woods, Urban Ranger Bob recommended crushing and smelling a sassafras leaf. This led to the tour’s first tense moment. One neophyte birder rebuffed an intense young man who offered him a whiff of his sassafras. The man turned surly and mysteriously dropped out of the tour, without even saying “Good-bye.”

His loss. Our bird walk was surprisingly addictive. You start out innocently enough scoping out cardinals and blue jays. And before you know it, you’re into the hard stuff – the white-throated sparrows and double-crested cormorants. You find yourself asking fellow junkies about their scores: “Any warblers out today?” You begin to understand how you could wind up like the nice, quietly obsessed lady on the tour with her field guide and Tweety Bird pen.

Urban Ranger Bob kept apologizing that the birding was subpar. “Ah, phooey!” he’d exclaim. “Oooh, frustrating!” But we were just happy to discover that Manhattan had more to offer than those disease-ridden gray things that foul our air conditioners. We liked Urban Ranger Bob. He could do cool bird calls, and he didn’t shy away from birding’s more sensational implications. “Pigeons, rats, and squirrels – it’s like a McDonald’s for hawks here!”

Memorable guide quote: “Too-hee! Too-hee! Sounds kind of like ‘Drink your tea! Drink your tea!’ ” Obligatory Stanford White reference: Nary a mention of our randy old friend, though there was some racy talk about “hybridizing.”

Summer Fun: Walking the Talk