Tourists on a guided neighborhood jaunt through Midtown Manhattan might expect to hear about the square footage of the Empire State Building or some other anodyne fact. They probably don’t expect to hear this:
“[We] peed in the middle of the road. [We] would stand right here and we would see who could pee further into the street.”
A semi-fanatical self-taught scholar of New York City history, seventy-two-year-old tour guide Mike Kaback tends toward hyper-personal digressions. To the tourists who follow him around, he is very much an embodiment of New York.
“I’m shvitzin’ up a storm here,” he said on a recent tour, in a strained New York accent amplified by a red microphone resembling a clown nose. Kaback had stopped his tour group at a strategic intersection in the Flatiron District. Pauses are rare—reserved exclusively for shvitzing or other essential needs. Moving or stationary, he talked nonstop, his confident but sputtering speech accompanied by frenzied gesticulations toward his binder of old photographs. His white polo shirt was tucked into his cargo shorts and his socks pulled up past his sneakers. He was armed with a fanny pack and his cap and shirt both read Mike’s Tours.
It is clear that Tour Guide Mike is a heightened version of Normal Mike. Kaback has created a caricature. The way he talks about the famous jewelry store—not “Tiffany’s” but “Tiffany”—a listener might conclude that he’s reminiscing about a young woman he used to know. This kind of anthropomorphism is par for the course for a man whose favorite part of New York is “all of it.”
Kaback is a master of urban history and spins it using his own wise-cracking and slang. Describing the Statue of Liberty, he told us, “In 1876 the people from France gave to the people of this country a statue—you know the statue—green thing, down there.”
He described New Yorker Herman Melville as the author of a story about “the guy with the bad leg who [was against] the big fish—the white fish.”
Is it partly a performance?
He referred to the last person to join the tour—an octogenarian—as “new guy.” New guy smiled. The tour was just starting.
“I’m boring you?” Kaback asked later. “I’ll talk about the sex in a few minutes.”
Nobody was bored. We were trying to keep up.
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Over cereal in Kaback’s Midtown apartment—“How many cups of milk do you take?” he asks—I inquire as to whether he has ever considered moving on to a different subject than New York. The answer is no.
“There’s a lot to cover,” he explains.
His bookcase is a literary graveyard of famous New Yorkers: Koch, LaGuardia, Tweed, Morgan, Baruch, Moses. On the table lies the novel The Gods of Gotham. During tours, he constantly issues citations to his facts and anecdotes, and makes repeated pleas for the people on his tours to read the books he has read.
It is not enough that Kaback live in New York. His apartment is stuffed with the city: pictures displaying the Brooklyn Bridge from various angles, old maps in his closet, museum buttons, an Empire State Building figurine. The actual Empire State Building is visible out the window—it’s the reason he chose this particular apartment. He calls his interest in New York an obsession and describes it as if it were a drug. But the intensity of his affinity didn’t arise until later in life.
Kaback grew up on the Lower East Side and eventually left the city for family-friendly Rockland County. He commuted in for a merchandising job in the Garment District, but the city held no special interest for him then—it was a place to work.
But when he moved back after his second child started college, he needed something to do on weekends. He started going on tours and got “hooked.” He would go on to volunteer as a Big Apple Greeter guide, lead bus tours, and eventually work for a company catering to student travel before heading out on his own. Around 1994, he lost his job and the guiding that had begun as a hobby became full-time.
He had a stint at Grey Line as a double-decker guide, but he found the regularity of bus tours stifling. “When you’re on a bus, that bus has a route,” he says. “It must go down Canal, up 8th Street, blah, blah, blah.” Now he follows his own route, and when Kaback talks about the city, on tour or off, he veers into almost manic enthusiasm.
“I went to get bagels—they got this bagel place you could die from—the best bagels on the planet are on Staten Island in that place—you could die from it. I always have one in my fridge. They don’t taste the same when you toast ‘em as they do fresh.”
His kids make fun of him for pointing out everything on every street. But he can’t contain himself. When he was visiting his girlfriend in Staten Island one day this fall, he found himself mesmerized by the explosion of colors on the trees, the reds and auburns and greens, nature in New York always a thrill because of its scarcity.
“I had to say something to the guy who was jogging by. I said, ‘LOOK AT THOSE COLORS. I can’t believe it.’”
For Kaback, the tours are opportunities for expression. Each one is imperfect, a cocktail of the facts most deeply imprinted on his psyche and subject to wherever his cognitive detours take him. City tours can sometimes feel like the driest of high school history classes, but Kaback is a man of flow and improvisation, a sort of jazz performer.
“It just comes…I’m on,” he explains. “If I have a headache or I don’t feel good, and I start the tour off, the headache goes, the stomachache’s gone. It just dissipates because I get into it and that’s the beauty of it, is people catch onto it and it feeds on itself and I become more into it.”
He “heavies up” the New York accent, but otherwise, his tours are spontaneous. It is very easy to forget that this man—who goes to the gym five times a week—gets senior citizen discounts. During a recent tour, he launched into an inexplicable paean to the bandana, enumerating its many uses—for shade, as a filter—as he wiped his forehead. For a few hours, it is his show.
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In a metropolis glutted with I Love NY T-shirts, enthusiasm is not quite enough to differentiate one tour guide from the next. When Kaback started out two decades ago, the ace he didn’t know he had was his own history. Later, he realized no one was offering a tour of the garment district. Since he’d worked there, and since various members of his family, Jewish immigrants, had lived the classic Lower East Side life, he found his niche.
Kaback grew up with “Cohens and Shapiros and Schwartzes” on the LES. He played stickball just over here. His father’s store—which sold furs—was over there.
These parts of his tours —the plundering of his own life for references and context—often draw laughs from the group. He met his former wife in the Bronx, when he was working at Alexander’s department store. She was on the third floor in ladies’ dresses and he was on the main floor in men’s underwear.
Back at Kaback’s home, it is difficult to separate the city from the person. He rushes from one artifact to another, and he and they become knotted together.
Among the pictures on his wall is a streetscape photograph of an immigrant, a woman of an older New York. This is his grandmother, photographed by Vivian Cherry. During his garment district tour, he uses her to represent the 250,000 garment workers who toiled in a time of sweatshops and tenements. Over the years his tour portfolio has grown to include other neighborhoods, such as the East Village, and these days, he leads a few tours each week.
Kaback stacks his experiences against New York’s history, from the political squabbles of LaGuardia to the architectural duel between the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street. He talks about the blizzard of 1947—how the snow piled all the way up to the first floor of a building and how he and a friend climbed up and slid down.
His tours get at the idea that “history” is too often taken to mean large, distant events and not the fabric of everyday life. But history is everything—it is us.
“See this picture here?”—he points to an ubiquitous vintage print of Times Square. “My real estate guy gave it to me for a birthday. He paid fifty cents for it. I paid 250 dollars to frame it. Why?”
Even in his living room he falls into the habit of posing questions and then answering them. “Broadway at 43rd Street was a Nathan’s—frankfurters,” he says, gesturing toward the print. “This was a stand-up, sleazy, crummy joint. But I was there!”
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An orthographical doppelganger for the star of several Wes Anderson films, Jason Schwartzman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in New York magazine, The New York Times, and The Classical, among other publications.
Emon Hassan, Narratively's Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.