To tour or not to tour? Or, better yet, to cruise.
Tours are almost not debatable. Independent travelers are supposed to be “too cool” for them. “Tour” is the very root (not just linguistically) of that dirty word, “tourist.” One of my favorite “knower of things” Mike Barish recently wrote a post on why it’s ok to take tours, referencing another article that also advocated for tours. Both articles received a fair amount of comments, in which readers debated the pros and cons of group tours.
While die-hard backpackers and shunners of all thing commercial loathe any type of tour, there’s one thing I’d venture to argue all independent travelers are averse to: the double-decker tour bus. Amplified, elevated symbols of all things cringably touristic, the most vile and offensive of guided tours, full of fanny packs and clicking shutters, whisking you here and there so you don’t have to actually interact with the place, and its full, living, breathing placeness. They’re bland, overpriced and utterly nerdy.
Unless you ended up in Manhattan in the 90s, with Timothy “Speed” Levitch as your guide—spouting facts and philosophies, possessed with passion, quoting everyone from Ira Gershwin to Thomas Paine to Henry Miller, monologuing, ad libing and waxing poetic about the city that stole his heart on a regular basis. Then it’s about as uncommercial as you can get.
Last night I watched the 1998 documentary, “The Cruise,” a profile of Manhattan double-decker tour bus guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch. To say he’s eccentric doesn’t begin to get at it; a reviewer on the DVD jacket calls him, “the guy Woody Allen can only dream of being.” The 76-minute movie is a peak into the mind of a madman/genius that turned tour guiding into an art. Now that’s an accomplishment.
[I couldn’t get the embedded url to work, but please follow this link to view “The Cruise” trailer.]
In a fevered frenzy of poetic genius, Levitch uses Willy Wonka and Virgil as his muses for tour guiding (um, bad-ass). For him, tour guiding—an extension of his life philosophy of “cruising”—is his chance to divulge riders of the glorious aliveness of New York City, and of life, in a loop of “lascivious voyeurism.” Clips from his tours are more like performance art, aching with a sensitivity and a passion that makes you want to cry—and laugh out loud at the absurd beauty of it.
Levitch is a tragic, intense, complex figure—in short, an artist. He goes off on the alienating confinement of grid-pattern urban planning, has a near orgasmic experience with architecture, relates to the stones of the Brooklyn Bridge like a living thing. It reminded me of the song “Under the Bridge,” in which Anthony Kiedis related to LA like a person, a comrade, a true friend. Levitch relates to New York City as a “living organism,” and has one of the most intense relationships with place that I’ve ever seen documented.
Of course, a person can’t be that insanely sensitive without being a little, well, off. This isn’t a kind world for people with such profound passion, who haven’t learned to filter things out, grow desensitized and most-of-the-time immune to the “frantic chaos of this limitless universe.” Levitch’s life philosophy of “cruising” (exploring/adventuring/seizing the moment and being completely free) versus “anti-cruising” (being confined and held back by societal norms and mediocracies) offers a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of someone that has sought to “transcend… air conditioning, comfortable couches… the magnitude of static that surrounds us.”
After the documentary came out in 98, Levitch enjoyed semi-celebrity, the object of a modest cult following. He relocated to the Bay Area for a time, where he led San Francisco tours and lived in—where else?—Oakland. Promos for his SF tours feel less inspired—by no means generic, but lacking the spark of genius. His band played in various Bay Area nightclubs from time to time, Levitch appearing grayed and reclusive. It seemed as though the light, the fire, had dimmed.
The documentary isn’t strictly a travel piece, becoming more of a tender glimpse into the heart and soul of a true eccentric, but I couldn’t help but wonder what must have been going through the minds of the people on those double-deckers. Unsuspecting, herding onto the bus, thinking they’d learn a little history and snap a few good photos—and then delivered a fantastic, fanatic monologue that captured not just a love for a city, but for life. That included little gems like: “Down the street, commuters, running towards their destinations—and from themselves.”
If a double-decker tour can be turned into a work of art, well, traveler scene cred be damned. Sign me up.