Sunday, August 1, 2010

A twilit tour of the park

Before diving in, I want to send you a link to a tourguide of NYC named Jane Marx.  She speaks her mind and I applaud her for that.

August 1, 2010
Rene Hernandez has spent all week thanking me for the $95 ride last Monday.  Rides are hard to come by, lately.  He and I hung out last night at 7:30 on the hill on E. 42nd between the Grand Hyatt and Grand Central.  We were hoping to get customers to pay $25 for a fun ride from the hotel to their respective Broadway theaters, but there are few such customers these days.  So we talked and joked with one another.
A sign attached to the front of my pedicab read,
Once in a half hour, someone will walk up and ask for directions. 
Sitting there, bike to bike with Rene, I replaced this sign with one reading, ASK ABOUT LICENSED TOURS OF CENTRAL PARK.  Ten seconds later, a family of five stopped, turned in our direction and asked about a licensed tour of Central Park.  Ten seconds! 

The father was concerned about funding this tour when I mentioned that each pedicab would be $75.
"But there are discounts."
"What kinds of discounts?"  He was intrigued.
"These,' I answered, pointing out the discount questions in fine print at the bottom of the sign, 'you get $5 off for each correct answer."
They were from New Jersey.  They didn't know "To which two colonial powers did this island once belong?" nor "What is the population, to the nearest million, of NYC?"  But they were pretty close on "How many acres are in Central Park?"  Likewise, "How many commonwealths are there in the USA?"  Kind of a trick question.  There are five, but one is Puerto Rico, and few remember that.  He got four; I gave it to him. 
So we were down to $65 per bike.  I didn't even mention that we usually charge $20-$25 just to get to 6th & 59th from Lex & 42nd.  And why did I not mention that?  Because neither Rene nor I had had a ride yet.  This was to be our first catch of the day. 
The family was two girl kids who, together, couldn't have weighed more than about 17 pounds.  They got into Rene's bike, while I, 55 years old, had to carry the parents and the toddler.  I didn't complain; they were our first ride and we were not going to lose them. 

Normally we would have taken Sixth Avenue, which has no hill.  Last night Sixth had a street fair, so we chose Madison. Up Madison Avenue, up the hill leading to Saint Patrick's Cathedral, then down the other side.  Stopping on Mad at 50th I pointed out the mansion to the left, saying, "In this beautiful mansion lives a well-dressed single older man who only makes $18,000 a year.  He is the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York."  Pointing at the cathedral behind, "And that's where he works.  Short commute."

We coasted for several downhill blocks, the reward for toiling up.  Biking is like that.  Turning on 57th, we made our way to 6th Avenue.  As it turned out, the parents had lived all their lives in or near Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and had never been to Central Park.  They were excited, though apprehensive.  The park has a certain reputation outside of New York City.  A dangerous one. 

Sixth Avenue was renamed Avenue of the Americas when the UN opened in the early 1950s.  It was decorated--still is--with 38 plaques hanging from the streetlights, in honor of the 38 Western Hemisphere nations.  Rene pointed out El Salvador, his home.  We entered the park, and the temperature went from 85 to 75, just like that.  Buildings and streets store solar heat.  Trees prevent heat from touching the ground.  Central Park has 26,000 trees. 

The topography is like that of northern NJ: lots of rocks, smoothed over thousands of years ago by glaciers.  These were southern NJ people.  I don't think glaciers ever got to Cherry Hill.  They have forests, farms and suburbia.  They were fascinated.  Crystalline Manhattan glitters at sunset. 

The mother was concerned about safety, having remembered the notorious case of the woman jogger.  Rene and I reassured the parents that things were very different now from that case, which happened in 1989 and is a permanent mark of shame for New York and Central Park.  The nation was gripped by high crime in the crack cocaine era.  A jogger, alone, was viciously beaten, raped, and left for dead. 
Central Park has its own police precinct.  We showed them the "CPP" emblazoned on every cop car passing us in the park; CPP standing for Central Park Precinct.  The precinct says Central Park is the safest place in the city. 
Indeed, before the tour was done, at about 8:30 PM, we were paralleled by a Central Park Conservancy SUV, which was met by a patrol car.  As we and the family passed, two cops came out of the car in the twilight, confronted a man dressed in black hat, black top and black long pants, and conversed with him.  The father, looking back seconds later, muttered to his wife and me, "They're taking him down." 
An object lesson: the park is safe. 

Okay, it's one thing to reassure nervous people about safety.  It's quite another to see it demonstrated effortlessly.  Every Saturday evening in the summer, hosts tango, surrounding Shakespeare's statue on The Mall.  My guests were amazed.  Unsafe parks do not have 200 people in them dancing by candlelight.  This is so New York. 

The mood of our passengers changed at that moment.  They really were in a wonderful place, after all.  Though the baby fussed, the parents snuggled. 

Best wishes,
Stan O'Connor
Google "TourguideStan" or look up my videos on Youtube, and advice to NYC visitors on's NYC forum. 

I give oil-free green tours here: on foot, on bikes and on pedicabs.