"That’s Brooklyn Heights over there," said the 47-year-old driver of a Brooklyn-bound double-decker Gray Line tour bus, pointing across the East River. "Wherever there’s water, there’s money, and I don’t mean a puddle on the street."
I had just boarded the at the South Street Seaport, paid my $41 fare, and taken my seat at the front of the top level, prepared to spend two hours Monday viewing my borough through the eyes of a stranger. The driver was warming up the crowd with a rendition of the Drifters’ "Under the Boardwalk" while we waited for our actual guide, an older Southern man named Robert, who has lived in New York since 1971. Robert boarded the bus and we were on our way.
We began our tour of Brooklyn going over the Manhattan Bridge, and Robert pulled out his very best stereotypes to break the ice amongst the almost silent, yet packed, bus.
"What’s the difference between a Brooklyn girl and the trash?" he said, pausing for effect. "One of them gets taken out once in a while."
I was miffed.
"The standard costume for Brooklyn girls," he continued, "is skin tight blue jeans."
I couldn’t really argue with that, though the punch line – something about how we have a party when we finally burst out of them – wasn’t so funny.
We did a loop around Downtown Brooklyn, pausing at the first Catholic Church in the borough, on Jay Street, which was founded in 1825. A full 200 years after the Dutch settled there!
As we proceeded through the narrow streets, Robert pointed out the Fulton Mall’s wide sidewalks to a very generically American-looking crowd (only a few hands didn’t go up when the driver asked how many passengers spoke English). Unlike the mall (where people walk to stores because they take the subway!) the crowded and cramped sidewalks of the city are rife with pickpockets, he warned.
As we looped around and turned left onto Joralemon Street, I learned that the base of Borough Hall, where Law & Order is often filmed at night, is Greek Classical, but the dome, which had to be rebuilt due to a fire, is Beaux Art style. There would be many more factoids to come.
As a kid growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, I would often see these very same buses puttering through the city. I was angst-ridden and disdainful of its passengers, and my friends and I would even flip them the bird on occasion, if the mood struck us. Now I realize that it’s all part of the show. All those years ago, I was giving in to the same stereotypes perpetuated over the loudspeakers of these crummy old diesel fuel-gobbling buses: bad people running the streets, up to no good. To the tourist, that’s what New York is all about. Show us your crime and crumbling infrastructure, your hedonism and your history.
"Brooklyn doesn’t care a thing about rubber-tired vehicles," continued Robert, likely for the benefit of the Americans from gas-guzzling hinterlands. "It’s just a different place."
It certainly is!
As we turned onto Furman Street at Old Fulton, Robert launched into descriptions of the tallest and most historic buildings facing us boldly from the tip of Manhattan. We paused to see where, at one time, the World Trade Center stood twice as tall as any building around it.
As we headed up Atlantic Avenue, we were instructed to look down Clinton Street, which apparently "encompasses what Brooklyn looks like," and passed "19th century middle-class tenement buildings" that are, said Robert, still filled with middle-class people. "They’re not bad places to live!"
As the passengers eyed the Middle-Eastern shops and mosques that line part of Atlantic Avenue, Robert got serious.
"I do not like to pass this mosque and I’ll tell you why," he said, as we approached Fourth Avenue. "It was an Al Qaeda cell in the ’90s. Mohammed Atta was there for a year. You could certainly not call him a coward, but he was evil."
So, far we knew that Law & Order is sometimes filmed in Borough Hall; Brooklyn girls like skinny jeans; and Mohammed Atta was here for a little while. At Grand Army Plaza, we pulled over to a newsstand for a break. I started chatting with a 20-something couple from London, Jerone and Brad, who had already spent five weeks taking in the city. This was their first loop around Brooklyn, as they had spent most of the time shopping – Jerone was excited about a $500 pair of Gucci shoes he procured – and so I asked what they knew about the borough.
"I used to listen to loads of hip-hop," said Jerone, with a slight question mark at the end of his statement. I don’t mean to disparage their inexperience in the slightest. They were actually curious about Brooklyn, and asked where the good nightlife could be found. I pointed them to Williamsburg and learned that they hadn’t yet gotten on a subway: "Taxis are only $5 to the shops and KFC from where we’re staying."
"MOST PEOPLE DON’T HAVE any conceptions about Brooklyn," Robert told me on our next break outside of the shuttered Botanic Garden. "Americans know about the Dodgers and Coney Island, that kind of stuff."
We pulled over a third time for a lecture about tipping on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Park. (Texans and Britons were excused, and are, apparently, good tippers.) I watched the oncoming traffic, paused at the light, gazing at the bus filled with chubby white faces dripping with sweat. I was, for the first time, on the other side of those disdainful looks.
"People sometimes yell at us," said Robert a short while later as we hit the Brooklyn Public Library and Grand Army Plaza again. "When people see a tour bus they go into show time mode. One lady even flashed us, we’re still looking for her."
As we made our way down Vanderbilt Avenue, in my very own neighborhood, I learned that at some point Crown Heights was called Crow Hill. But, according to Robert, the name was changed because, "Crow was considered to be derogatory to black residents." That would be the only mention of racial tension in Brooklyn. Even the borough’s ancestral Dutch slave owners were glossed over.
We continued through Fort Greene, down some of Brooklyn’s most beautiful and historic blocks, passed Brooklyn Technical High School – where Harry Chapin went! – and pulled up to the last Brooklyn stop at Dekalb and Flatbush.
Robert turned to me and asked my name again before I got off the bus. I told him.
"This is Nicole, she is a real New Yorker," he told the crowd over the microphone to a series of oohs and ahhs. "She left her skintight jeans at home today."
I was the first and only passenger to get off at any of the Brooklyn stops; the rest would return to the seaport. I made my way down to the subway, hopped on the Q, started reading Page Six over the shoulder of my fellow passenger and sighed a breath of relief.