GUIDING LIGHT

Speed Levitch, before he became a celebrity, was no ordinary New York tour guide. He took his bus passengers on an existential journey, expounding his philosophy as they viewed the sights. He talks life to Ruth Morris
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The Independent Culture
AT A CORNER table in the Big Cup cafe, Timothy "Speed" Levitch is attacking a slice of carrot cake the size and dimensions of the Flatiron Building. It is not just his appetite that has struck the adjacent table of Greenwich Village gays dumb. Imagine a hyperactive scarecrow with the voice of Vincent Price on amphetamines, and the hairstyle of a cavalier caught in a hurricane. What can you do but listen and learn?

In between mouthfuls, he is considering the great tour guides in history. "Moses. Moses was one of the reasons I wanted to become a tour guide. He shows us that the main landmark on any tour is overcoming self- doubt. Jesus Christ was a tour guide who showed me landmarks in transcendence. Buddha was a tour guide who became his own landmark. Which I think is secretly every tour guide's dream."

The founders of the great religions aside, there may never have been a tour guide quite like Speed Levitch. He has singlehandedly turned mass tourism into a philosophical adventure. Do not follow him if you seek enlightenment in cold statistics. "What do they want?" he asks of the polyester hordes toting video cameras in Times Square. "The primordial photograph of themselves and the Statue of Liberty? Somebody asked me the height of the Empire State Building. Why? Why are they asking me? Are they going to measure it? My numbers change according to my emotions."

For five years, Speed could be found on the upper deck of one of the open-top expatriate London buses that circuit the landmarks of New York City. During the last two and a half years, he was followed by a young filmmaker, Bennett Miller. The result is The Cruise, a grainy black-and- white documentary that became a cult in arthouse cinemas across America, and received acclaim and an award earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival.

For a flavour of the film, here is Speed captured as the bus swings into Madison Avenue: He is wearing tinted glasses, presumably as protection against the violently colliding patterns of his jacket. The sentences are hurled at the unsuspecting tourists like grenades:

"When you are sitting in the middle of mid-town Manhattan, you are sitting among the events of the 20th century. A city that grew up as an explosion, is an explosion. An experiment. A system of test tubes gurgling, boiling out of control, of radioactive atoms swirling. Civilisation has never looked like this before. This is ludicrousness and this cannot last." He pauses. "The new Anne Taylor store is on your right."

A journey with Speed Levitch is not to be undertaken lightly. Even tracking him down proves an adventure. Speed has quit the double-deckers for freelance walking tours, but the producers of The Cruise have a number. This turns out to be an answering service: Speed, it later emerges, is homeless. This situation does not greatly trouble him, at least not beyond "the issue of personal hygiene", as he describes it. "It's like my life is an ongoing slumber party. In one sense I've never actually lived in Manhattan. I suppose I've existed here, but never officially lived here and, in fact, you could never prove it."

Was there ever a man less troubled by anything? But this is the philosophy of the cruise, the eponymous journey through life captured in the film. When asked for a definition, this comes back: "The cruise is the effervescent homage to the present tense. A series of adventures that lead back to oneself. It's everything you've ever wanted to be calling down from the top of green rolling hillsides."

Anything else? "Um, the cruise is a party where your lust and your compassion bump into each other over the punchbowl, hesitantly flirt, quietly realise they have a lot in common, exchange phone numbers and, if your lust and compassion fall in love with each other, then the greatest intricacies of your life are born."

So to sum up? "Let's roll, let's ride."

Four times daily, a polyglot busload of bemused tourists would listen to something like this. "It was like an orgasm on wheels when you had an entire busload of international people and we were all headed together in direct intercourse with time and space."

Not surprisingly, reactions varied. Natives from the vast sterile interior of middle America, where sex is a number between five and seven, often took violently against it: "There was a man from somewhere like Oklahoma who was on the bus for about an hour and a half. As he was getting off, he said, `I don't know what the hell language you are speaking, buddy.' He sounded very bitter. On the other hand there was the French professor of philosophy. He stayed three hours on the bus and when he got off he kissed me. Once there was a British man with his two sons. He was one of the most introverted and intense men I have ever seen. I could tell he was listening, but he would never look at me. After two hours he got off and said simply: `You are the greatest tour guide I have ever known.'"

In the world of existential tourism, facts pass by at the speed of the traffic on Broadway and are easily lost among the Manhattan multitudes. Still, there are some certainties. Speed is 28, single, without fixed abode and, since he claims on film that he became a tour guide to pick up women, presumably heterosexual. His nickname was acquired as a hyperactive teenager, growing up in the better parts of the Bronx. Both parents, and most of his relatives, are originally from Kansas City: "A place where people are really interested in conversations about the weather. It's their daily goal."

Aged 18, he came to Manhattan after enrolling as a drama student at New York University: "Writing plays and generally thinking in a dramatic fashion at all times." He began to head out on impromptu solo voyages of discovery in perhaps the greatest metropolis on earth: "I would come down the Hudson River on the train and it was like entering my own fantasy. The train ended up in Grand Central Station, which is a great place to enter anywhere. It really became an icon for a certain kind of freedom, a thrill of being alive. I didn't know my way around at all. I would walk out of Grand Central and get lost. Curiosity was my tour guide. Curiosity was bringing me into new fields of myself, discovering new aspects of myself in this new love affair with the city. I would find myself identifying with certain aspects of the city and then reading about them, sometimes just from the plaques on the buildings. Sometimes my reading would be voracious, but mostly it was a pretty loose, disorganised, self-propelled choreography."

Four years later, the real world crooked a menacing finger: "Toward the end of my college career it was explained to me that I really needed to have a niche in this society. But I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Being a theatrical personality and writing plays is not deemed constructive in this capitalistic universe. So I began to figure out a way to utilise the cruise message, the things that brought me bliss, that brought me joy."

He began giving guided tours on a streetcar run by the Central Park nature conservancy, but soon graduated to the double-deckers, first on the cherry- red decapitated Routemasters of Apple and then for the more conservative Grey Line, where the film is set. "Apple were true barbarians. It was $7 an hour, and the whole operation was run by immigrants. I left to join Grey Line because they were paying $9, but I do feel there was a sacrifice made in terms of virility. At Apple I had this romantic vision of a red cavalry. I really felt, you know, like a Jewish Cossack riding through the streets at 40mph and taking what we wanted. It was more like a carnival than a company. Grey Line was much more of an American operation. They were criminals, but they wore ties."

What becomes abundantly clear from watching the documentary is that his bosses did not have the faintest idea what he was up to. "That's true. And none of them cared either. On Apple Tours they just wanted someone to announce the stops and help everyone get on and off. They really just wanted someone to sell tickets."

Instead, they got Speed, selling ideas. "I had a busload of people, experiencing the city mostly for the first time, through the compassionate intercourse of my words and my vibrations and my choice of details. I think tour guiding is one of the great forms of self-expression."

For some passengers riding down Fifth Avenue looking for Versace and Prada and getting, instead, a lecture on the American condition, it was a little too much to be told that "Ecstasy is the true destination of any tour." So sometimes there were complaints: "People asking for refunds, complaining about my voice, things I said that offended them. But I also got so much love, so much credit. I'm in photo albums all over the world."

He resigned from the double-deckers two years ago, out of sheer boredom: "My conclusion was that while there is joy in repetition - what the eastern religions call the mantra - there is also insanity. And I was going insane."

The end came while conducting a tour of 45 teenagers on a school trip from the American heartland. "It was one of those tours which was imbued. I had a busload of 16-year-olds one step away from complete revolution. I would introduce Brooklyn with a Beastie Boys lyric and would get huge applause because they were so excited. Pure thrilling youth. At the end of tour I got a standing ovation. I left the bus with it ringing in my ears and I knew at that moment, that would be my last tour."

He prefers giving private walking tours: "Last week I went out with an astrophysicist who said he just wanted to take a couple of hours and cruise. He specialised in the end of the universe, so we were using Midtown to discuss things like, are we in a reciprocal universe, is it truly limitless and why are we so addicted to closure? Those were some of the issues that day."

The success of the film has brought him minor celebrity, enough to be recognised on the street. He has been on The David Letterman Show, clowning around with Robin Williams, and describes it all as: "Like meeting the 20th century for the first time." He has a guidebook coming out later this year and a one-man show, which he has taken on the road to several American cities.

After collecting his bags from his publishers, Speed hopes to sleep at a friend's apartment tonight, but seems unperturbed by the encroaching darkness: "I don't ever want to be contained by the outside world, by the need to pay rent or, for that matter, being able to answer at a party the question `What do you do?' The cruise is a pursuit of our own limitlessness. I don't really want to have easy answers to questions."

`The Cruise' won the International Forum Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. You can find out more about Speed Levitch on the film's website: www.cruise.com

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