Give us your frightened, your bewildered, your lost.
Give us the Gootnicks.
Fresh off the plane from Los Angeles, the young couple viewed New York City like millions of other tourists: with awe and trepidation. They had visions of corpses on the street, muggers on the subway and wisecracking natives who wouldn't give them the time of day.
Instead they got Lucy Littlefield.
The elegant Upper East Side woman welcomed the Gootnicks at their hotel with free subway tokens, city maps and several hours of her time to show them around town. Littlefield is one of 500 New Yorkers who make up Big Apple Greeter, a unique band of volunteers who help visitors like Ken and Andrea Gootnick discover the nation's largest metropolis. No other American or European city offers such a free public service.
Littlefield schlepped the Agoura Hills couple through the art galleries and boutiques of Greenwich Village. She waited patiently as they ogled pastries at Dean and Deluca's.
At one point, when the trio got lost on SoHo's winding streets, a lithe young woman and an unshaven man appeared and--don't laugh--asked if they needed help. So who were these compassionate New Yorkers?
Just actors Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, who happened to be walking by, hand in hand, on a lovely Sunday morning.
"We told everyone about that when we got home," Andrea Gootnick said. As for their guide, she added: "Lucy showed us how easy it was to get around."
Littlefield even had a Band-Aid in her purse for Andrea, who got a blister on her foot from walking a few blocks. ("I drive at home," she explained.)
Big Apple Greeter was the brainchild of Lynn Brooks--a New Yorker who was tired of people thinking of her beloved city as Detroit with grander museums--and Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, who donated city office space and supplies. The organization's $200,000 budget is largely raised from private sources.
Launched in 1992, Greeter was formed to enhance New York's image worldwide by helping out-of-towners to experience the city through the eyes of a New Yorker. Whether they lead tourists to the tastiest bagel shop or hold their trembling hands as they descend into the subway, New Yorkers who love their city show off the charms of their neighborhoods and help visitors see beyond the violent stereotypes associated with New York.
Go figure. The town with the roughest image turns out to extend one of the friendliest hellos. In four years, New York greeters have shepherded more than 15,000 tourists from all 50 states and 69 countries.
It's not surprising that requests for Big Apple's hospitality have surged this year, with a record-breaking 25.4 million visitors, according to the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau.
What visitors like best about Big Apple Greeter is peace of mind. "I've been able to carry a camera around my neck and nothing happened," said Liz Conners, an incredulous Australian, as she rode the No. 6 train to Brooklyn with greeter Amy Richards. "New Yorkers are really friendly."
Conners said she had only one bad experience--at the Carnegie Deli. "This dreadful waitress hovered, waiting to see if I would taste my friend's pastrami. She said there was a $3 sharing charge if I did. I was irate."
Conners' largely favorable reaction echoed other tourists who have taken advantage of the Big Apple Greeter services. And volunteers like Littlefield are convinced the program makes a difference.
"It's nice to show visitors that real people live in New York, that we are not all grumpy," said Littlefield, who raised two daughters here. "Many visitors think we all lead very sophisticated lives, which doesn't include doing your wash."
Here's how the program works: Tourists contact Big Apple Greeter by phone or mail at their office in the Municipal Building. After receiving an application form, travelers list the neighborhoods they would like to visit and the language they need a greeter to speak. Program organizers then match up the visitors with a volunteer.
Tourists can expect enthusiastic greeters, not professional tour guides. People like Anita Baron, a retired advertising writer.
"New York is very daunting for some people," she said. "So I try to show them that you don't have to be fearful, that you just have to use common sense like anywhere else."
On a recent outing, Baron escorted three young women from Australia around town. Their mission, not one of Baron's favorites, was to shop till they dropped. For shoes.
"They want shoes, I give 'em shoes," she said gamely. But Baron couldn't help persuading her charges to see something grander than the inside of a store. By the time they parted, the three women--a dental receptionist and two amusement park workers--decided to visit Ellis Island the next day. Baron also suggested other historical sites and gave the women her home phone number.
"She was great," said Haley Gilfoyle, 20. "She knew so much. It was kind of like having a mum in town."
Not every visit is so successful.
Steve Wright and Heidi Johnson-Wright came to New York from Columbus, Ohio, with a specific notion of what they wanted to see: Harlem and its history. The Wrights saw Harlem, but mostly its pathology.
On an aimless four-hour ramble, with Wright pushing his wife in her wheelchair, the couple saw a dead rat decomposing in the middle of West 124th Street. They saw police scaling the front of an apartment building and witnessed two guys fighting outside a bar called John's Recovery Room. The greeter was clueless about Harlem's rich past and, to make matters worse, Heidi's wheelchair tire was pierced by a broken beer bottle as they crossed toward Central Park.
"Does this guy know anything about the Big Apple?" Wright muttered to himself more than once. "He should be called the Big Boring Greeter."
Cathy Brashich, Big Apple's associate director, said that the Wrights' experience is the exception and that most requests are easy to oblige. Some, however, are bizarre.
A Wisconsin couple wrote in asking to visit McDonald's. They had heard that the Golden Arches near the World Trade Center has marble tables, a white-gloved doorman, a pianist seated at a baby grand and a stock ticker to watch as you dine. Even New Yorkers never heard of this one.
One of the weirdest requests, Brashich recalled, came from a man demanding that "a greeter with brown hair" come to his hotel room at 11 p.m. The director cleared her Connecticut throat and said: "Sir, what exactly are you looking for?"
"A lady to come to my room," he answered.
"He thought this was an escort service," Brashich said. "I told him we don't provide call girls and hung up."
A disappointed customer. But most visitors come away enlightened--one way or another.
"Everyone told me when I got off the plane in New York that my hair would frizz up and it didn't," said Andrea Gootnick.
Yet some things about New York will never change, no matter how hard Big Apple Greeter tries to soften the edges of a gritty town.
"The service people in our hotel and the restaurants were incredibly rude," Gootnick added. "New Yorkers are intense. Just what I had heard."