A Note from Over Ground

Most New Yorkers never look up. Want proof? Note how, in their groping efforts to create something resembling a news story, reporters overlook an entire class of people, whose lives are ruled by the weather.

The CitySights bus travels through Times Square.  Photo by Hal Wiener, from A View From the Bus, A Tour Guide Takes Manhattan,  by Carla Stockton, Felicia Brings and Hal Wiener.

Next time a double-decker tour bus wends its way into your line of vision, look up at the sightseeing guide, the uniformed person holding a microphone, commenting on what the seated tourists are seeing. Try to envision what it’s like to be doing what she is doing – standing or sitting in the wind, talking over the noise of the city, being tussled about by the movement of the bus. In the summer, there is no relief from the heat, the sun, the exhaust, nothing to protect the skin from burning, the lungs from choking; in the winter, there are no coats warm enough, no gloves thick enough, no boots repellent enough to prevent frostbite or worse.

carla tourguideOnce upon a time not so very long ago, I was a guide on a big blue bus, and my winter initiation happened during my first week, on a late afternoon in early March.

Somewhere between Madison Square and 14th Street, the temperatures had dipped dramatically, but because the day had begun quite temperately, no one – myself included – had dressed for cold. As the air turned frigid, passengers on the bus huddled together, nuzzling for warmth; the young blonde in the very back of the bus took an oversized poncho out of her bag and drew it over her head. Her dark-skinned companion burrowed under the poncho and brought her head up thru the top, so that the two heads bobbed with the motion of the bus, giving the women the look of a souvenir from some cheap carnival side show act.

The bus swayed in the blustering wind, my voice cracked with the cold, and I could see my passengers were far more interested in breathing warmth on one another, on rubbing their hands together for warmth, stomping their feet. I kept talking, of course, it was my job, but my voice was strained, and the stories I customarily told froze uncomfortably on my tongue. Now a light, wintry rain was beginning to fall.

We got to Battery Park, and I sighed my relief. A coach was parked in front of us, and my passengers now had the option to disembark from the open-top bus and cocoon themselves in the closed vehicle’s dry warmth.  Gratefully, all but the conjoined twins clomped down the stairs and hurried to the waiting vehicle. I approached the young women and encouraged them to join their co-travelers.

The looked at each other for a moment, then they looked up at me, standing over them.

“Please,” the blonde one stammered.   “Not to get off.”

“But it’s cold up here, the rain is coming and. . . “

The young woman flustered for a moment, clearly assembling a few words in this foreign language she had fought so hard to learn in time to make this trip.

“I begging pardon. Ehh. I wish be riding. Ehh. No. WE wish to look New York. Is storm city.”

The bus pulled away from the stop, and I wrapped myself in my jackets, drew a plastic raincoat over my head recommencing my talk about the tenaciousness of the immigrants who built this city.

It was my job.


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