Tour Guide Barry Levine

Barry Levine was a New York City doubledecker bus tour guide.  

I trained with Barry in 2006.  A group of tour guides-to-be practiced over the mic on a coach bus doing the Downtown Loop.  Barry intoned with a sheer Canarsie accent, “useda work in the gahment district, my ex-wife had a job at Bloomingdales for twenty yeahrs…"  Barry had a pushbroom mustache, wore a Gray Line ball cap, and spoke highly of the pastrami sandwiches at Adelman’s Deli on Kings Highway.

Barry did the Brooklyn Loop, and when Barry talked over the mic the passengers took a trip to Brooklyn whether they looked around or not.  As a doubledecker bus tour guide, Barry had the fortune to discover how to give back to his hometown.

The Brooklyn Loop crossed into a core part of Brooklyn off the Manhattan Bridge, downtown Jay Street to Schermerhorn at the Criminal Courts building and then a right back up Adams where at one side the Juroress atop Borough Hall is glimpsed and at the other the Marriott Hotel edifice; a left on Tillary at the Barry Levine-sized Post Office to a turn on Fulton past Cadman Plaza onward the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Passengers soon get a look at Fort Greene, along Vanderbilt Ave passing wood homes and Mayor Giuliani alma mater Bishop Loughlin High School plus the Gothic terracotta eikonography of Queen of All Saints Church, then a stop at the old Paramount Theater now the campus of Long Island University, where Barry informed passengers he once took classes. 

There was a time when the Brooklyn Loop was the best bid a Gray Line tour guide could get.  An hour and a half trip twice a day with a brisk tail-end loop back up the West Side Highway to Times Square, at least to point out the riverscape of New Jersey on the other side of the island.  A more inquisitive and roll-with-it crowd; the inspired daily street bustle of downtown without the skyscrapers or monuments of rabid tourist attraction; the fragrance of the Botanical Gardens along Washington Ave; the fragrance of quick-bite lunch joints across Willoughby Street.

From 2004 to just after the Bailout us tour guides had health benefits.  After the dismal 2011 union negotiations, I hope Barry was covered when he got sick.  Barry had a hard time getting up and down the stairs in the bus, a sinewy trap for anyone.  For some tour guides, the job was perfect if one enjoyed talking against but not to people.  Barry talked to with at over for and near but never against.  Like all tour guides off the bus he talked about himself, and once confided a provocative secret about himself to me in between afternoon Brooklyn Loops, Barry sitting and I standing downstairs in the idle doubledecker parked at South Street Seaport.  I divulged the secret to tour guide Norm, who in the heyday called himself Rockwell, but no one else... 

I never took Barry’s tour.  I knew that tourists sometimes complained to the company about getting stuck with Barry as their tour guide.  What creeps.  Most tourists loved him.  And tour guide headquarters at 777 Eighth Ave loved him.  Barry hung around 777 when he could get there, and sat down at the table in front of the dispatch desk, while tour guides ate lunch and bitched about Brazilian tippers, and Barry continued his tour.  He took the L train back home to Canarsie, and was once captured in a New York Times photo:

The passing of Barry Levine last July damaged the ancient voice which speaks the future of New York City.  Brooklyn doubledecker bus tourists suffer.  So do us that knew the guy.

Hay Hay

ROISTER played the Harvest Festival this past weekend, at Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan, where the elevation above sea level is equal to the Statue of Liberty's torch, and the change in air gave the kids a buzz... The Cloisters medieval museum is just north in the park, which Rockefeller, Jr. had shipped from the old world and reconstructed with views of the New Jersey Palisades... The Uptown Brother Of Monk's Rooster Choir was unavailable to back up the banjo-player, too busy manning the make-your-own-cupcake stand...



Jaunt in New Orleans

Our window seat on the Delta flight last August 2013 descending into Satchmo Airport provided a rich view of Big Monk Lake Pontchartrain, where so much of New Orleans dumps so that New Orleans lives. 

We cabbed east along highway 61 towards the city.  The ride was nondescript and one glimpsed the feel of the familiar U.S. common denominator of auto dealers, “Cash is Free” billboards and chain shopping outlets, a make believe of character.  Exit ramps lead to mysterious sidestreets that disappear into the outer wards.

We passed the Superdome, a fat Art Brut nexoid cigarette machine of sports competition and disaster relief.

We landed in the French Quarter.  The driver was a wide-bellied man with a pocked bullet-shaped head and crew cut.  He spoke clipped Spanish over the dispatch radio.  There was something European about his dialect, his easeful tones.  A five-fingered amulet jangled from his rear view mirror. 

We wanted to pay with a credit card but naturally the machine was broken.  With an ingratiating smile, the driver indicated that he preferred cash, which we paid him. 

Getting our luggage out of the trunk, firstly stretch-legged in the middle of the bright steambath of Royal Street, the gush of new surroundings abound the inner portals of both gut and mind.

It was too early yet to check-in our inn, on St. Peter and Burgundy (“Ber-GUN-dee”), so we ambled toward the Cabildo at Jackson Square.  The blocks yawned in the hot wet plaintive Monday sun. 

Named for General Andrew Jackson, who drove the Queen’s Army from the city in the War of 1812, the area was a touristological setting. 

The Cabildo, completed by the Spanish in 1799, was once city hall, the Supreme Court House, and a prison.  Apparently it was the site of the Louisiana Purchase real estate transfer in 1803.

The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France is claimed to be the “oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States.” 

One might be forgiven to mistake the saint as Louis Armstrong, whose trumpet made miracles. 

St. Louis Cathedral served visitors interested in historic sites and local worshippers against the godless war heroism of Jackson across his square.

Jackson Square is a tourist attraction that obscures the city in war, government and faith.   Here is the Roman Catholic Diocese of a city regarded for the multivalence of voodoo.  Here is the Jackson statue, his horse with two forelegs in the air, inscribed by the victory of preservation of the Union, while New Orleans was one of the most ardent Confederate states. 

On the other end, another church, the CafĂ© Du Monde, where the eucharist of beignets is washed down with coffee anointed with chicory.  

One can catch the Gray Line tour bus, or head up the steps to the river walk and take in the bend of the Mississippi.

The colonial and post-Jackson houses and apartments in the Vieux Carre seem empty of inhabitants, with the closed shutters and perverse charmed appearance of not having front doors.  The places turn away from the street, knowing they are exquisite specimens of archival real estate.

Later on we learned a bit more about the insides of these buildings, from Lee Miller, the archivist at Tulane University, a white mustachioed and pale gimlet-eyed man with a quiet, determined, sardonic and highly-listenable Louisiana accent.  Lee told us that friends of his had saved up to purchase a place in the Quarter for retirement, only to sell it soon after, disconsolate that the experience did not live up to expected fantasies.  Lee suggested it was the kind of thing that often happened, and told stories of other occupants who buy a place for $6 mil and stay three weeks a year but let visiting friends use the place, to impress.

One night around town, after a multiplasm of beers and interaction ritual with archivists at an archivist conference “tweet-up” at a bar in the Garden District…

... I encountered Nick, who said he was a butcher in the kitchen of Bourbon House, a noted meatery located in the daggered heart of the French Quarter.  Nick offered a Pabst tall boy from his six pack while we stood in the mild heat of the midnight hour of Royal Street, where it was quiet.  Brynn made friends with Nick’s girlfriend, the vocal Jess, a firecrackerette who bartends at Molly’s on Decatur St.  Nick said he shared an apartment off Bourbon Street with three roommates and that he paid… something… it was expensive …  I forget now, it was 2AM and we were waiting for sandwiches outside Verti Marte, a tucked away 24-hour deli that served the best meal of the trip. 

When you return from New Orleans, people like to ask, “What was the best thing you ate?”  My answer, is the gigantic catfish po’boy from Verti Mart.  Washed down with a budweiser on the gallery of our inn, where there was little streetlight, and beyond a low jigjag of recasted roofing the uninspired skyline of downtown was unmisktakable. 

New Orleans is not a skyscraper city, but it does fuss about perspectives from heights.  In New Orleans, there is the “gallery, ” which is a second floor deck supported by columns at the curb, and roofed.

And there is the “balcony,” a small platform belt without supporting beams or the shelter of architectural outsidery. 

Here is a picture of a balcony taken from a gallery.

Here the balcony is in the foreground, the gallery in back.

We learned about the social intimations of city premises the next day, at a 9AM presentation at the Notarial Archives, a city records collection of land deed transactions.  The archivist was Ms. Sally Reeves.  Sally pronounced it “New Or-le-ans.” 

The Notarial Archives are a city collection of real estate transaction documents, going way back to the old days.  Sally was the exemplum of personality, character and intellect, and spoke dense and delicate for about an hour.  We broke for refreshments, including praline-flavored pecans, and what I wanted, coffee.  Sally showed us some maps, pointing out the cartographic traces of meaning.  From where I stood at the table, the map was upside down, and when Sally realized this she paused, "Aan-dy, I am sorry I am discriminay-ting against you..."  She turned the map around so I could better inspect.  

As I indicated in the postcard I mailed Sally after the trip, I could have listened to the lady speak all day.  Sally tracked social narratives from the records, and to tell it was to apprehend it, and the strength for Sally was language.  She was exact in explaining the definitions of terms of architecture; she translated French; was a histrionic glossary of the juju of city documents, made sense of the word “noncuperative.”  A frenetic composure, short-cropped weathered mahogany hair, in a simple classy light blouse and skirt.  Here is an excerpt from Sally’s book, The Rise of the Walled French Quarter Courtyard, which prose should be studied in creative writing classes but isn’t:

… In the earlier Colonial period, the old French lots were wide and spacious. Houses sat in mid lot, with flat and spreading par terre gardens around them. The sunny potager or kitchen garden was a necessity. But after the two great fires, houses rose with new and closer alignments on deep but narrower properties. Adjacent buildings rested on common side walls (carefully computed as to costs, of course), and along the street the fronts were continuous. This pushed open spaces rearward, giving rise to walled spaces with vertical accents…

I was a supreme first-timer in New Orleans, having never been to the “City That Care Forgot,” nor to the annual conference of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  The schedule was split up into “sessions,” a bunch in the morning and a bunch after lunch.

“What session did you go to?”

“I went to the session on ‘Native Americans and Route 66: Hidden Stories of the Mother Road,’ where they opened with a video by The Clash doing ‘Route 66.’”

“Sounds cool.”

“What session you go to?”

“Value-added Processing the Satellite Facility Interface for Other-Subject Collections Management in the Age of MPLP.”


I went to a session on the Georgia State U. papers of Stetson Kennedy, a “folklorist and crusader” Bible Belt double-agent who infiltrated the KKK like Donnie Brasco the New York mafia.  

I heard speak the section chief of Records Management for CENTCOM, who led a team in Iraq to secure and transport back 46 terabytes of 50-60 million documents and one terabyte of photos generated by Operation Iraqi Freedom.  

I sat for two sessions on archival advocacy, where Texas-tanned and white-haired Brother David stood up from the audience to stump for the savvy shirtsleeve-and-skillet radical of U.S. information science, and asked, “Can  I get an Amen!”  He got it.

We ate at a Creole-Italian joint that was good.  The secret ingredient in Creole-Italian food is madame paprika.

I imagined that the A.J. stood for Aunt Jennie.

We saw The Treme Brass Band.

It was the spectator’s sublimation when the band banged out a ripping “Life is a Cabaret.”  A white guy showed up on backing horns, wearing a teeshirt with an image of the gabroni NJ actor Joe Pesci.  But I was losing steam cause I had to get going y’at dawn for a volunteer gig I signed up for in the Lower 9th Ward, so we left after the second set.

The volunteer program was for a post-Katrina group called Lower Nine.  They fixed damaged houses and rebuilt homes for residences of the 9th Ward displaced by the 2005 storm

An archivist at the University of New Hampshire, Bill Ross, had a long relationship with the group, and brought students down over the years to lay tile and install plumbing and clear weeds and use buzzsaws without goggles.  Bill Ross may have lived in New England, but spoke and walked his North Carolina birthrights, a white handlebar mustache and big hands and shoulders and a barrel gut voice who loved new places but never left home.

Besides me, three archivists signed up.  Joan was a lauded archivist at Northeastern U., a 1970s sandals-and-root vegetable activist who won the Diversity Award at the SAA conference for a career collecting and advocating the archives of social justice and Boston minority communities.  Joan didn’t watch The Wire, too much graphic violence.  Leah was the archivist for the city of Colorado Springs and asked what my dream job would be after graduating library school.  I answered that I’d already had and lost my dream job, which was Gray Line doubledecker bus tour guide.  Lisa was the archivist for the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, coordinating the processing of African-American collections in Chicago

We helped build a house on Tricou Street for Ms. Audrey.  Our foreman from LowerNine was Darren, who was born and raised in the neighborhood and claimed he never once in his life crossed the St. Claude Bridge over the Industrial Canal into “New Orleans.” 

Darren spoke with a velvet bark, inflected somehow both strident and lax, and when he told you what to do you wanted to do it.  Bill Ross said that some of his college students had problems interpreting what seemed like Darren’s anger as the sardonic affability that it truly is.  Darren insinuated nicknames for the lady workers he took to, like Fannie, a young French exchange student living and working with LowerNine for the summer.  “Fannie Wannie,” cried Darren, “I need dat drill now!”  Fannie had Darren’s card and we all cracked up when Darren accidentally left the water hose on in the yard, flooding the lawn while we ate lunch.  Darren stared at the muck with a slight culpable smirk.  “Darren you are stoopid, stoopid!” lashed Fannie.  At lunch Darren ate a shrimp po’boy.

Darren was a hardened and steadfast worker, but dreaded the sanction of Ms. Audrey.  When a kitchen tile was a smidge misaligned, and I outlouded, “It’s OK, Miss Audrey won’t know,” Darren looked at the off geometry and countered, “O she know…”

On our way back to the FQ we stopped at the House of Dance & Feathers, operated by Big Chief Ron Lewis, who in the heyday led second line for the Social Aid & Pleasure Club and Skull & Bone Gangs.

We went to Meyer’s Hat Store, a harvest of hats off Poydras.  The clerk was a skinny teenager who surely had learned most truths about life working at Meyer’s Hat Store, which he demonstrated in his suggestions to me of hats.  He had bushy hair and wore a baseball cap.  His voice was a seasoned drawl that rolled from his steady-lidded eyes.  I said, “I have a big head.”  He sized up my head right off and passed me some choice hatworks that looked good on my big head.  I sampled a hat from the rack.  “That’s more of if you’re going for a Western look.”  He was right.  The clerk dealt with another customer while I went through a crises to buy a hat, which I did not, and did not want the clerk to see me leave without honoring his pitch with a purchase.

New Orleans is a city in the balance of dizzy good word.  I didn’t see any cops, about which I had read so much.

There was a statue of Winston Churchill outside the Hilton Hotel. 

Like New York, the city once battled an invasion of British troops, so there is strangely a subsequent nod to John Bull.

The statue of Winston stands in the least likely area to be seen, and there is no shade and the hotels block any breeze from the Mississippi River

It might have been deliberate to put the statue where it is the least comfortably looked at, so maybe it is never really seen.  Like in 1699 when Bienville tricked a rabid British scout ship sailing up the Mississippi to turn around, rather than find the burgeoning shamble ontogeny the French were crafting of the early city.

We heard the steamboat calliope; visited the state-of-the-art archives room at the New Orleans Historic Collection; spied the buff dude wearing a blonde lady’s wig and black tights in short sport shorts leaving the deli and crossing the street with a beer in his sweaty man hand.

Bourbon Street was neon punctuated…

A quarantine of the personologically debauched…

The folks made it dirty….

But next morning the City made it clean, like a hungry gator devouring a flock of drunk pelicans…

During a merciless routine rainstorm, we took the famous streetcar along the arabesque-trunked oak tree millinery of St. Charles Avenue.  We mounted the steps and I futzed with how to pay the fare.  “This is your first time in New Orleans,” said the driver with an urbo-Cajun deliverance of the stranger’s warmth.  “Step into my office.”

Introducing himself as Kevin, for the rest of the ride we stood beside and hung out with him while he drove, Kevin glancing at us more than the wet tracks ahead.  Kevin was the best friend we made the whole trip.  Swarthy, blue-eyes under small glasses, in his 40s and bald from nape to dome.  When it started raining, Kevin closed the windows, saying, “I don’t want to get my hair wet.”

We live in Brooklyn?  Kevin was once in the Navy and spent time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  From Kentucky?  For a stint, Kevin drove shipments of Ragu Tomato Sauce from the main plant in Owensboro, KY.  Kevin had a story and joke for every state in the U.S., plus most foreign lands on the map.  None of it was fake.  He had the true spirit of the tour guide, who may seem a good talker but is a better listener.  “I have the best job in the world,” Kevin said.  “I get to drive a giant electric train all day and talk to tourists.” 

Many an American outlaw story involves a trip to New Orleans.  A hotbed of JFK assassination conspiracy and the birth of jazz.  New Orleans was settled by prisoners, destitute females, pirates, dandies, and slaves.

The chief industries are tourism, seafood, oil. 

I read headline news stories over eggs and grits at Commerce diner in the Times-Picayune about the murder indictments of The Taliban, a gang from Riverbend, and the Cross-the-Canal Gang, the Melph Mafia, and the Cut-Throat-City-Snake gang.

We didn’t encounter any of these mugs, but crossing St. Claude avenue at Congo Square, a flatbed truck revved a turn wherefrom the shotgun seat a menacing glare encountered us… a galoot hitman with the simp look like he just ate five muffulettas for lunch... a shit-for-brains fist-swinger with the ape Irishman’s jaw…  genealogy likely traced to former district attorneys and dock buzzards... there was no time to take a picture.

We look forward to returning.