NYU Alumni 

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New York (and the Kitchen Sink) State of Mind

Timothy “Speed” Levitch / TSOA ’92

by Adam Conner-Simons

With a nasally voice, a flat-footed duck walk, and a machine-gun laugh, Timothy “Speed” Levitch was a sight to behold giving tours atop the double-decker Gray Line buses of Manhattan. He fell into the gig after college, delivering soliloquies about everything from the “supposedly natural creation called Central Park” to the way that Broadway “promiscuously” cuts through the conformity of the street grid. Quick to quote the likes of Federico García Lorca, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Willy Wonka, he became a pseudo-celebrity after starring in The Cruise (1998), an acclaimed documentary by Bennett Miller (TSOA nongrad alum), who would go on to direct Moneyball and other hits.

After years of giving quirky bus tours of New York City, Levitch recently hosted a cross-country travel show on the Web.

The film captures the Bronx native’s frenzied energy in one scene as Levitch expounds on the chaos of New York to his bewildered passengers. “[The city] is an explosion, an experiment, a system of test tubes gurgling, boiling, out-of-control, radioactive atoms swirling,” he says. “Civilization has never looked like this before. This is ludicrousness, and this cannot last!”

At that crescendo, he sighs heavily, pauses a beat, and announces: “The new Ann Taylor store on the right.”

Levitch, a former dramatic writing major, was originally drawn to tour guiding because it combined his interests in the city, history, performance, and wooing women. The Cruise then opened up Levitch, now 42, to new opportunities, from publishing a New York travel book and performing beat poetry with the rock band Weezer to befriending Oscar-nominated director Richard Linklater, who cast him in scene-stealing roles in Waking Life and School of Rock. Levitch eventually quit the bus company to lead his own one-man tours—first in New York, then San Francisco, and finally Kansas City, where he now lives. This past summer, he returned to the spotlight as host of the Linklater-directed Hulu show Up to Speed, which found him hopping across the United States discussing some of the country’s “monumentally ignored monuments.” Wired magazine praised it as “not your average walking tour”; Levitch calls it “Sesame Street as orchestrated by the Beastie Boys.”

But more seriously, Up to Speed is a passionate plea by Levitch for modern-day explorers to do more than just check off must-see sites. “Tourism is like high school,” he says. “The popular landmarks are vapid, while the dweebs sitting in the back of the cafeteria are the ones with interesting things to say.” The self-described “semi-schizophrenic” backs up that notion by striking up conversations with all kinds of inanimate objects. In Kansas, he asked John Brown’s Bowie knife (via Skype) how it felt to be supplanted by spears in the abolitionist’s rebel army; in New York, he chatted up the 52nd Street subway grate where Marilyn Monroe’s skirt famously caught a breeze. “I view cities as characters, as living things built and inhabited by living things,” Levitch explains. “You’re not just touring the place. You’re touring us.”

Levitch’s own tour of New York ended in 2004, when he left town after 33 years for San Francisco. He says that his relationship with the city remains complex, in flux, and, yes, quite anthropomorphic. “With New York I’ve gone through courtships, marriages and divorces, had makeup and breakup sex, considered it completely irreplaceable, and then never wanted to see its face again,” he says. “Ultimately, [I left because] I felt like it was just a bread crumb at the buffet.”

Whether or not Up to Speed gets renewed, Levitch will keep busy with mobile barbecue tours, occasional acting gigs, and a long-simmering plan to start a Shakespeare theater troupe that makes monologue “deliveries” across New York City. He concedes that he hasn’t led the most straightforward life, to others’ occasional chagrin—including his 99-year-old grandmother—but for Levitch, he can’t imagine living at any other speed. “There’s something permanently naive about me that I can’t explain,” he says in a rare moment of self-reflection. “I’m in a state of perpetual wonder about the world. As a tour guide, that has its advantages.”

To stream Up to Speed for free, visit hulu.com.

photo © Dana O’Keefe/Hulu