Guide to Greenwich Village with Cult Gray Line Guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch
by hayley downs
On Halloween Saturday, at 10 minutes to two, nineteen New Yorkers — mostly 40-something film buffs — met under the Washington Square Arch and a cerulean sky. We maneuvered around the miniature “Elsas,” “Minions” and assorted ghouls, waiting in anticipation for our walking tour of Greenwich Village with Timothy “Speed” Levitch, the former Gray Line guide who achieved cult status after appearing in the documentary, The Cruise.
In The Cruise, which premiered in 1998, the double decker bus is Levitch’s moving stage as he holds forth like a beat poet, delivering a series of dizzying soliloquies on the Grid Plan, Central Park and the Empire State Building. Stephen Holden called it “a whirlwind tour both of New York and of Levitch’s feverish mind.”
The director, Bennett Miller, has since directed acclaimed films Capote, Moneyball and Foxcatcher. Speed continued to guide for six years, taking time to star in Richard Linklater’s 2003 animated film, Waking Life, and authoringSpeedology: Speed on New York on Speed, before moving to Kansas City. Now he’s back in New York for an extended fall visit. Through November 29th, you too can tour with Speed. Below here’s our preview of the adventure Speed took us on:
1. Washington Square Park
We spotted him off to the side, in a rumpled blue blazer, scribbling on a note pad. Hasty introductions made, Speed launched, evoking for us the “bohemians, radicals, philosophers, musicologists and martial artists of appreciating the beauty of the unexpected” who had traversed the pavement under our feet. “It’s as if Greenwich Village is a kind of sensitive vortex of the earth’s surface,” he said, “when a want becomes a need, when a fear is recognized as joy paralyzed.”
He was interrupted briefly by a tiny purple witch seeking directions to Judson Church and the chance arrival (scout’s honor) of director Bennett Miller, passing through the park. He joined us for a while, before heading off again, toting a gym bag.
Already dazzled, we left the arch and stopped at the SE corner of the park to ponder the metaphysical implications of intersections, which Speed called evidence of “human interconnectedness going on unaware of itself” and “a dance of cooperation, of gigantic, human, mute agreements: green means go and red means stop.”
2. The Brown Building
On Washington Place, we gazed up at the top floors of the Brown Building, site of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, where 146 young people died in the largest industrial disaster in New York City history. A 16-year-old Frances Perkins happened to be in Washington Square Park that day; witnessing the fire catalyzed her lifelong advocacy for worker’s rights and her lauded career as the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet and Secretary of Labor (1933-1945.)
Speed pointed at the fire hydrant in front of the building, noting that it had been there on the day of the fire. “Is there anything more tragic than a fire hydrant whose water is useless as the fire blazes? The Triangle fire hydrant is on the sidewalk as a reminder to us that some of the greatest tragic heroes we will ever know are right here on the sidewalks of New York.”
3. 12 Gay Street
In deference to the spooky holiday, we stopped by 12 Gay Street, the former home of Prohibition era Mayor, Jimmy Walker, who kept it well stocked with booze. “Leave it to the complicated comedian, New York City, to have a Dionysian Mayor during prohibition.” Paranormal specialists claim you can sometimes hear the sound of the soiree, still raging and guests asking, “Have you seen the Mayor?”
“I think of ghost stories like mythologies. And this new myth, what it’s trying to say, is if the party is good enough, it will remain in the ventilation. So let’s go for it.”
That signaled the end of the tour; Speed was off the clock. But he joined us for the after party in a downtown loft and regaled us all evening with more tales of cruising. It was a great party; it remains in the ventilation.
You can cruise with Speed too on his Midtown Rush Hour Tour, a comedic monologue that is an elixir designed to help heal people’s hatred of rush hour. (To tell you the truth, this experience should probably be mandatory for all commuters.) The monologue is a magical-history tour of the great living-landmark that is rush hour.