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A free bite at the Big Apple

He was right on time, meeting us in the grand lobby of our hotel, the Hotel Pennsylvania, in Midtown Manhattan. He was 77-years-young and more than willing to show my friend and I almost anywhere in New York City that our hearts desired. When he asked us if we were wearing our walking shoes, we already felt that keeping up with this energetic senior citizen would be a challenge.

Jerome “Jerry” Chamlin

Jerome “Jerry” Chamlin, a retired native New Yorker, is a Big Apple Greeter whose motto in life is, “Just keep going.” He showed my friend Theresa and I sites in his city that we wouldn’t have found by consulting our tour book. He started our informal walk by giving each of us a map and a MetroCard (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority provides Big Apple Greeter with MetroCards to give to visitors for use on New York City’s subways and buses). He led us across Seventh Avenue to the busy Penn Station and we boarded the subway for our short ride to Greenwich Village.

New York City has a grid system of streets, except in Greenwich Village where the streets thread through this charming neighborhood. It was here in this lush green area known for its artistic flavour, that Jerry led us almost blindfolded. He is familiar with the smallest house in New York City, # 75 ½ Bedford Street. This quaint home was formerly owned by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), famous for the line, “my candle burns at both ends.” When we cut across Bedford Street, Jerry pointed out the unmarked entrance at #86.  Chumley’s Bar was once a speakeasy where Ernest Hemmingway used to visit; and for which, Jerry explained to us, it is believed the phrase “eighty-six it” was coined.

A speakeasy was a gangster operated business that replaced the neighborhood saloons during prohibition. If the term “eighty-six it” was used in these days, it meant the proprietor was to hide the alcohol and get the customers out because the police were about to raid the place.

During our walk, we made various stops to get the feel of the area.  At times, Greenwich Village had such small town charm that it was difficult to believe we were in a major metropolis. We got a taste of how a New Yorker may live by sitting on a park bench with Jerry and watching children play. We took this time to have a refreshing drink of water and relax our tired feet while we listened intently to our greeter’s anecdotes. Jerry related some of the history of his city, and told us a little about himself and his family.

For about eight years, Jerry (now age 80) has been a Big Apple Greeter.  This distinguished looking, silver haired man lives near the mayor’s mansion on the Upper East Side overlooking the East River. He owned a business on Wall street for over 40 years. He loves New York and  has lived in this city almost all his life, with the exception of a few years when he moved to a suburb in New Jersey. Both Jerry and his wife share the love of volunteer work; both of them go to schools in Harlem to read to the children. He was so glad that Theresa and I opted for Big Apple Greeter as our free journey around this part of the city offered us a way to experience New York from the perspective of a New Yorker.

Upon leaving the park and the Village, our walk continued to SoHo, named such because it is South of Houston Street. SoHo was an industrial zone in the 19th century. The factories have since been turned into trendy lofts, where celebrities reside. This is one of the best shopping neighborhoods in the city. We were among many people lining the sidewalks outside of Prada peering into the windows of one of the world’s most expensive stores. As the walk continued, our volunteer asked us to step into a store in this shopping district  to glance at prices just for curiosity’s sake. Perhaps this is how he gleans some of his information for future walks with visitors.

We eventually entered Little Italy via Grand Street and strolled through this shrinking area comprised of reasonably priced Italian restaurants featuring authentic great tasting dishes. Jerry had us enter an Italian deli (a salumeria) filled with fine cheeses, sausages, prosciutto, breads, and homemade pesto sauce. Crossing the threshold of the store almost felt like we were stepping into a different country because of the red-white-and green flags, traditional Italian foods, and the language spoken by the patrons and proprietor. Many of the businesses in this quaint area seemed similar to the first salumeria and also offered fragrant aromas and Italian chatter.

Back on the sidewalk, the air that drifted in from Chinatown was filled with aromas of many types of food from Cantonese to Vietnamese. Chinatown is located just across Canal Street and as this area expands, Little Italy continues to shrink.

We were fortunate enough to eat lunch at a curbside table on Mulberry Street in Little Italy to enjoy fine cuisine with Jerry.  I had gnocci – Italian potato dumplings  – better than any I’ve had back home. During our delicious lunch served by seasoned professional waiters, Jerry made many recommendations of what else to see while we were in his beloved city. He gave us plenty of time to jot down notes as his list included many of his favourite sites. He seemed quite flattered that we were so interested in everything that he had to say.  However, it was Theresa and I who felt truly lucky to hear his recommendations.

He suggested lining up at the TKTS booth (on 47th and Broadway)  in Times Square by 3 p.m. to get discounted tickets to one of that evenings Broadway shows.  TKTS sells unsold tickets for 25-50 percent off the box office price plus a US$ 3 service charge per ticket. He indicated that one of his favourite productions is The Producers. 

His favourite sites included Central Park and Lincoln Center, New York’s premier institution for the performing arts. If we still had some time left, we should see the Metropolitan Opera and the Dakota Building, where John Lennon of The Beatles had resided and sadly, was murdered. Another of our greeter’s favoured spots was the Julliard School, a music education institution offering great bargains on concerts and drama performances. A preferred food market was Zabar’s, a large deli selling gourmet foods from around the world. Another site, the Guggenheim Museum, looks like a white band curled into a cylindrical stack – the building is a piece of art itself.  Jerry also encouraged us to visit  Madison Avenue to stroll and shop in the numerous boutiques.

At Battery Park, one can walk around looking at the war memorials, or sit on a park bench on the New Jersey side of the bay taking in the splendour of the Statue of Liberty located on Liberty Island. Another choice location for us to visit, famous for its four-faced clock, was Grand Central Station, built in 1913 and renovated in 1997 to the tune of US$ 175 million. Jerry recommended City Hall and the Woolworth Building, a gothic tower that was erected in 1913 and nicknamed the Cathedral of Commerce due to its churchlike qualities in appearance. Jerry’s final recommendation was to visit the South Street Seaport on Lower Manhattan’s historic waterfront, and known for its maritime museum, shopping, dining and entertainment. 

One place that Jerry would not show us was Ground Zero, the site where the World Trade Center once stood. Prior to retirement, Jerry had worked for 42 years in the Wall Street area Downtown, just one block away from the World Trade Center site. He lost many friends on that tragic day in September of 2001 when terrorists crashed two commercial airplanes into the twin towers. Jerry did, however, direct us as to how to get to Ground Zero since we wanted to pay our respects to the more than 2,700 people that lost their lives. The terrible event had touched our hearts too.

We finished our meal and made our way to a bus stop to use our MetroCard again. Jerry boarded the bus with us and continued to tell us about New York until it was time for our first stop on his list of places to see. Jerry told us about the Chrysler Building we were about to go see and how this art deco skyscraper held the title of the world’s tallest, until the Empire State Building was built a few months later.  It was with mixed feelings that we exited that bus for it was here that we would sadly said our good-byes to this charming ambassador to the city. We were both very excited to be on our way to see some of Jerry’s recommendations for ourselves but we enjoyed his walk so much that we felt a little empty without him there with us. Taking this neighbourhood walk with Jerry made us long to return to his magnificent city and neither one of us will ever forget this incredible man – our Big Apple Greeter.

If You Go
Big Apple Greeter
1 Centre Street, Suite 2035
New York, NY 1007
Phone 212-669-8198
Fax 212-669-3685
Big Apple Greeter is a non-profit organization that connects visitors to New York City with a volunteer New Yorker. The Greeter shows travellers to hidden corners in neighborhoods that tourists may probably not find by themselves. Big Apple Greeter walks  are free of charge and generally start between 9 am and 3 pm. They can last anywhere from two to four hours. It is a great way to get a genuine “New York experience.”

Prada – SoHo
575 Broadway

TKTS – half price theater tickets on Broadway
TKTS – Time Square
47th St at Broadway

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