Sunset cruise

One of the happiest outcomes of Bennett Miller’s extraordinary and deserved success with last year’s Capote is that his debut film, the 1998 documentary The Cruise, has finally been released on DVD. Long a cult favorite among NYC-o-philes, Miller’s first film followed the mundane — but poetic — antics of Timothy “Speed” Levitch, a New York Grey Line double-decker bus tour guide. The film’s title refers to Levitch’s philosophy of interacting with the city: he gets his “cruise” on and hits the city full force, but slowly enough to note details too easily overlooked, from the seductive variety of the potted plants lining the city’s sidewalks to the orgasmic properties of its terra cotta architectural ornaments.

On the bus, Levitch channels Woody Allen (the film opens with him singing one of Manhattan‘s key tunes: “They’re singing songs of love, but not for me…”) as well as E.B. White. Riding through the Village, for example, he reprises for his bus of blank-faced tourists the famous catalog of cultural landmarks that opens White’s Here Is New York: “I am twenty-two blocks from where Rudolph Valentino lay in state, eight blocks from where Nathan Hale was executed, five blocks from the publisher’s office where Ernest Hemingway hit Max Eastman on the nose, four miles from where Walt Whitman sat sweating out editorials for the Brooklyn Eagle…” etc., White famously wrote. Speed’s version has a little more aggressive edge to it than White’s did. He is focusing exclusively on the Village after all, “one of those rare districts that occurs once in a while in human history [where] fear, a basic theme in all our lives … is under threat of assassination and the assassins are our dreams triumphant.”

  

Levitch is extraordinarily self-conscious of his position in a New York City literary trajectory that includes people like Allen and White, but also one that runs forward from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg. You’ll find transcendentalist and Beat strains in almost everything he utters. He’s also self-conscious about the literary significance of the tour guide figure itself. In one of my favorite moments in the film he considers whether Virgil — that prototype of all literary tour guides — would have worked for Grey Line or Big Apple tours. In The Cruise, Levitch reminds me of the style of tour guide you find in Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches classic Ragged Dick (1868). Like that eponymous homeless street urchin, who spends a good chunk of the novel proving his virtue by showing an upper-class out-of-town chum how to see the city’s sights safely, Levitch spends most of his time on film out of doors, explicating exteriors. (He’s been arrested in the past, we learn, for illegal entry in order to gain rooftop access for a particular skyline view he craved, an act he recreates movingly at the film’s end.) If New York is a city where access is all, a city of lavish interiors not open to the public, it’s also a city whose face is open to the urban physiognomist. Buildings and bridges are his friends, his favorite texts. He stands beneath the protective towers of Brooklyn Bridge at one point in order to call out childhood bullies, false friends, and even his mother, who’d rather have him home in Westchester, checking the air in her tires. The city is his lover — even if she’s vindictive and occasionally threatens divorce.

  cruising canyons

Since 2003, I’ve used scenes from The Cruise to structure the syllabus of “Writing New York,” a large lecture course I team-teach at NYU with my colleague Cyrus Patell. Our course runs from the 1780s to the present, focuses on the development of urban traditions in multiple genres, and considers the city itself as a constantly revised literary text of sorts. Levitch’s take on New York — that at its best it offers the possibility of a cosmopolitan ideal — comports with one of our major theses, and so he’s served us well at several junctures as a tour guide through the kind of city we hope students will discern between the lines of our selected texts.

Imagine our delight, then, when we discovered early this semester that one of our teaching assistants had a connection to Levitch (who now lives in San Francisco) and that we stood a good chance of booking him for a private tour. Which is exactly what we did a couple weekends ago: along with a dozen or so of Speed’s friends, 25 of our students enjoyed what he called a “sunset tour” of Central Park — a tour of the sunset with Central Park as the backdrop.

holding forth

We began on the east side at the 72nd Street entrance. Speed arrived wearing a purple velvet blazer, black nail polish, striped black slacks tucked into loose black high-top sneakers, the fat kind. He wore his hair in a bun — Yeshiva boy meets Navajo reservation. We provided him with a “pig nose” amp-and-mic set with a leopard print strap, a memento of my team-teacher’s rock and roll days, and with mic in hand, Speed plowed into the Park, the whole gaggle of us in tow. At his first stop he began by chanting a couple Beat poems — originals, I think — to the dismay of a woman lounging under the tree we stopped at. She jumped up and, after some trouble collapsing the kickstand on her bike, pedaled away shaking her head: a harbinger, I thought, of good things to come.

His introduction to the tour was meant to orient us, to sharpen our senses, to teach us how to experience the tour. To get our cruise on. “Mother Nature is cosmopolitan,” he explained while the breeze played over our faces, through our hair. It turns out, though, that “Mother Nature” was confined pretty much to the wind: as in the film, he reminded us of the artificial nature of the Park, its miles of underground irrigigation pipes, its carefully sculpted vistas, the tyrannical mindset behind much of its sculpture. (At one point he had us consider the difference between a stiff-backed Daniel Webster’s definition of “union” and the sort of union suggested by the surrounding trees.) Turns out, too, that the wind is perhaps the only cosmopolitan thing about the Park: pay attention, he advised, to the way people behave when we enter what they conceive of as “their space,” how they bristle if you walk too close or are too loud or take up too much of the sidewalk. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Park, and the first thing they do is stake out a little space as their own. Not quite what the transcendentalist designers had in mind, perhaps.

At a vista overlooking Bethesda Fountain, Speed described what he called the Park’s myriad “pockets” — and he wasn’t just referring to the leftover pot cloud we stumbled into at that turn. It was a moment of stillness, repose, and we found them again and again along the way — places where most of the Park’s noise was shut out and we could take in the views its architects had left there for us. It felt so nineteenth-century, our little picturesque walking tour. We headed up into the thickets of the Ramble, past a gazebo of older black men playing cards, and up a hill to a solitary bench that overlooked a trickling rivulet. A single person sat there listening to his headphones. The forty or so of us closed in around him like a cloud and took in Speed’s next lecturette, which included the detail that more explosives were used in Central Park’s construction than in the battle of Gettysburg. He had us quiet down again. This was his favorite bench in the whole park, he said. We paused. The brook danced and laughed. A robin hopped over its muddy shores. The wind pushed through still-leafless thickets, a few branches budding into blossoms. As we left, the solitary sitter put his headphones back on and returned to his reverie.

For most of the tour I walked in the front, either alongside or just behind Speed. Sometimes it seemed more appropriate to let him stay in his groove, mulling over his next scene (or so I imagined). Other times I ventured conversations. Why did he move to San Francisco? “It’s easier to be poor and a freak there,” he said. What was he working on? He was sort of a member of two bands, though sorting out his allegiances. He was shaking out on the side of a puppet rock band, he said. “I’m just one of the puppets. They treat me as an equal.” After The Cruise came out, he had a fairly successful run as a private tour guide. He had a phone menu that offered people three options: Wall Street Lunch Hour, Midtown Rush Hour, and Central Park Sunset. People would get directions from his answering machine then show up at a designated street corner. He charged $20 a head. These ran from 1998 to 2004, when he finally made the long-threatened break with the city. He still has regular clients when he returns to New York, though: he had spent most of that day, in fact, in a van with the head of a major life insurance company, his daughter, and her fiance, “bum-rushing the city.” He was hoping we would encourage a planned afterparty downtown at Cowgirl Hall of Fame: “The afterparty has always been part of the cruising dream,” he said, “part of what the cruise is all about.” 

lakeside, we wait for night to fall

The Sunset Tour is a game of sorts. If Levitch plays it right, he’ll be able to predict where the group will be at certain points in the sunset’s trajectory. Walking over the same cast iron bridge should look slightly different going and coming; if you’re at the edge of The Lake at just the right moment, he’ll have time to tell you that it, like all the other enclosed waters in the Park, is a giant bathtub, plug and all, able to be drained or to have its levels raised or lowered at a curator’s whim. He’ll have time to give the architectural histories of the buildings lining Central Park West. And then, just as the sun disappears behind them, he’ll gesture grandly, give the cue for lights to start popping on in the buildings you’re watching. We hit The Lake a little early and had to take him at his word, but with a wave of his hand he did manage to summon the gondolier into view on the water behind him.

Before we made our way to Strawberry Fields, our last stop, Speed held forth on the topic of imagination. Gardeners had tried to plant thousands of actual strawberry plants there after Lennon’s death, he told us, but rodents and soil foiled the plan, and so only the name remained. No matter: what really counted was that this space was devoted to an amazing word and idea — “imagine” — as much as it enshrined a particular songwriter or song. Earlier in the tour he had asked us to consider the word “public.” What would constitute an actual “public”? What would it look like? Was Central Park really public, or was it a crazy quilt of people staking out their little private spaces and experiences? He once took a group of Russian businessmen to Central Park, against their explicit wishes. They knew Americans loved parks, but they didn’t really need to see it firsthand. He begged to differ, and had them get off the bus at Strawberry Fields. When they arrived they found thousands of people playing guitars, singing together, communing. “It was as close as I’d come to seeing a public with my own eyes,” Speed said. Later he realized the event was a spontaneous memorial for Jerry Garcia, who’d died that day. (I experienced the same scene at Strawberry Fields when George Harrison died; I never thought about the possibility that the grounds would service dead ’60s icons other than the Beatles, but apparently it does.) The businessmen walked away, stunned, and Speed didn’t bother to tell them it wasn’t an everyday occurance there.

What we found at the Imagine circle was slightly different. A homeless guy was using a paper plate to scrape the day’s pennies to one side, which he scooped up and deposited with his girlfriend in batches. He wore a transistor radio around his neck, but I couldn’t hear what it was playing. Crowds of people stood around, speechless, hands in pockets. A schoolchild’s letter to John Lennon sat under rocks to one side. We lingered for four or five minutes while Speed contemplated the ritual at hand before leading us down the path to the Park’s westside exit at 72nd. “Let me say something in closing,” Speed intoned into the mic. He turned up the volume a little and paused. “If you’re inclined to freak out in public, which many people are.” He paused again. “If you happen to be so inclined, make sure you don’t let those around you get away without feeling some sort of emotion.” At least that’s what I think he said. It was a nice culmination to a cruise filled with observations on nature and human nature, on the appeal of cosmopolitanism and the difficulties faced putting it into practice, on the problems of “the public,” on the impulse toward society, toward intimacy. He announced the afterparty at Cowgirl. The sun had disappeared behind the row of apartment buildings that lined the Park. “Thanks for coming,” he said, as he clicked off the mic and walked out smiling into our applause.

Central Park Speed photos courtesy of Sabrina Parise and Danielle Jackson.

    6 responses to “Sunset cruise”

    1. PB says:

      Somewhere between the movie “Manhattan,” the movie “Sophie’s Choice,” and all things J.D. Salinger, I fell profoundly in love with the cinematic/ literary version of New York. I was Stingo when Nathan announces him to the city on the Brooklyn bridge, all lights and wide eyes. I would have loved to be on this tour with you. I love the smells, the weeds, the tiles, the edges of the rooftops, the rudeness–to hear this story narrated by a modern day bard-minstrel would be amazing. Interesting this juxtaposed alongside Dave’s post. America at her best and her worst–individually we can be quite wonderful, in mobs, not so much.

    2. G-Lock says:

      I waited on Speed (actually, in every sense of the phrase, come to think of it) at Yaffa Cafe back in the day. “The Cruise” had just gotten some attention, and he came in with a gaggle of people. Oh, do I have stories.

    3. any of those stories you’d care to share, g-lock? and how many senses does ‘waited’ have?

      p: did we watch the cruise together in our dim little basement in cambridge? i certainly remember watching manhattan together there. if you guys haven’t seen it in a while you should get it — a&w would love it.

    4. oh, duh. i get it. the phrase you were riffing on was “waited on speed.” got it. ah, yaffas. i wonder if you ever waited on us or karen there, back when she lived on jay st.

    5. G-Lock says:

      Actually, Bry, I worked at the 24/7 Yaffa Cafe on St. Mark’s, not the one in TriBeCa. And, yes, I waited on speed … and waited on Speed … Oh, lord, thank goodness for online nicknames!

    6. […] The Cruise”(1998) Timothy (Speed) Levitch became legend in the New York bus tour universe in the mid-1990s. Information on “Speed” Levitch http://www.greatwhatsit.com/archives/325 […]