The Bigot Spigot

October 14, 2010

The headquarters of Gray Line Bus Tours is at 777 Eighth Avenue, between 47th & 48th St.  In the 1970s, the building was a movie theater, Hollywood Cinema, that screened gay porn, and in the 1980s switched to playing revival flicks, but still promoted the second floor theater as the Night Shift, an “all male theatrical center,” which also offered a free continental breakfast to ticketbuyers.  Today, the second floor twin theaters remain intact, with seats and movie screen.  In one theater, which Gray Line advertises as the Blue Diamond, ticketed tourists are given a private show by a Broadway performer.  The other theater is where the tour guide staff hang out in between tours.  We call it the “lounge” or the “theater” or just “777.”

In the theater, I usually have made it a habit to stay quiet when most of the other tour guides talk with each other.  But I do listen, which is something most guides find it impossible to do, and end up blabbing to each other without response, like a batting cage or a one-way time machine.  There is often company gossiping and kvetching and exaggerating.  Other times the banter is highly entertaining and abstrusely informative.  Either way, no matter how alienated the vibe may seem, it never gets too ugly, just weird.

The other day I was alone in the theater with another guide, who sat a couple rows behind me.  I sneezed and he said god bless, and then asked why I held in my sneeze rather than let it out.  I said basically because it was less messy.  Eventually we started talking.  The exchange turned out to be a prime example of why I usually make it a rule to keep silent – it was weird and it was ugly.

This guide has worked for the company a long time, and though I’d see him ambling about 777, snapping caustic one-liners about the epically absurd rigmarole all employees of Gray Line can relate to, I never talked to him.  A few weeks earlier, when I was doing tours with the driver Mamadoo, this guide stopped by the bus. Mamadoo, born in Paris, his parents from Mali, had a laugh over how he thought he looked like Larry David, the comedian and co-creator of Seinfeld. “You watch Curb Your Enthusiasm?” Mamadoo asked. Mamadoo is a big fan.  The guide – I’ll call him LD – didn’t watch TV.

Talking this day in the theater, LD asked what me what a libray science degree entailed, what library science meant. I shuffled a bit in my description until finding the right terms, feeling that this is a question I should have a dense and succinct answer to. I boiled it down to organizing information so that it is most available to seekers of that information, etc.  As an example of the sensitive gravity of the field, I mentioned that it seems to be a pattern that often political regimes which commit the most heinous atrocities also keep the most detailed records of their acts.  LD used this to mention that Hitler “didn’t exactly have a bad idea.”  And suddenly the conversation was no longer about information science.  LD stressed a caucasioid bias against many different American ways of life, specifically Muslims, and generally non-Christians.

I do not usually engage most tour guides in conversation, but when I do, the odds favor that I will encounter a certain disturbed and anti-social psychology. For a few minutes I talked honestly about the job and about school, and LD was prompted to talk honestly too, about an ostensible belief in white supremacy.  He was calm in his enunciation but a suppressed rage roiled in him.  He hadn’t had fun on the bus in years and despised his passengers.  Did he think I was going to go along with all his bullet points of bigotry? No – he just realized he had an innocent listener, and this was a guy who no one listened to.  The irony of course is that his job is to talk to people.  After after a few minutes sniffing the rancid gust of LD’s temperament, I just turned back around to reading the newspaper, mumbling to myself (which is also a symptom of several tour guides, talking to themselves) . . . what the fuck?

New York City of course is a breeder of both enlightened civil consequence and violent prejudice.  A city this multi-ethnic and so fused with wealth and working class, is a pressure cooker.  LD is swallowed up in it, a mite in the teeth of the kracken, and for a few moments he exposed the dark depths in which people foresake human compassion and pragmatic sense, when they have given up common soul.  Clearly a weak man with a helpless mind, LD lashes out against minorities out of belief in his own existential captivity.  Might give him meaning – grossly – and he ends up posturing his negativity as a matter-of-fact.   You can’t argue with such a person – he is not arguing, just whining – but I could see him opening his mouth to the wrong person and rightfully getting his ass kicked.  LD gave a tour of his stance against the world, and I wanted off the bus at the first stop.  It’s an oral history that won’t make it into the Gray Line Archives, unless they got the theater rigged with secret microphones.