By Stephen McKinley
No one knows New York City like one of New York’s finest. So who better to take you around town than a cop?
Police officers could be forgiven for being jaded, because they often see the city and its citizens at their worst — but not so Gary Gorman, who served as a police officer for 14 years in Harlem and now gives specialized tours of the city from a cop’s perspective: it’s Gotham at its grittiest, gloomiest, goriest best.
And Gorman’s enthusiasm for his hometown is like the city itself: infectious, electric, reveling in all the things that make the Big Apple the best.
“I think I’m lucky to be born in this country,” said Gorman, cruising up Sixth Avenue just after 8 p.m. one night last week. “But I am so much luckier to be born in New York City.”
Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Gorman is pure New York: Irish on his father’s side of the family, Puerto Rican on his mother’s.
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He laughs: “that meant that one evening we’d have corned beef and cabbage at Nanny Gorman’s, and the next night it would be empanadillas at Nanny Rodriguez’s house.”
Gorman’s tour of New York is tailored to his guests’ expectations.
He started out giving tours of the Brooklyn bridge, where as a member of the city’s Emergency Service Unit he had to talk down what cops call a “jumper” — someone who is threatening to throw himself off the bridge to his death.
“It’s a nice walk on the bridge,” he said, “and you get to explain something about police work, how they lowered me on a line to where the guy is.” Gorman’s tours also contain all the historical detail — but brought to life with an anecdote and a quip for everything the city throws at you.
It had just turned 8:15 p.m. and at Herald Square and 10 Muslim men are facing east and on their knees, praying to Mecca.
“Would you expect to see that after Sept. 11?” Gorman asked. He has also been giving tours of the perimeter of Ground Zero, and he peppers his talk with advice on living safely in the U.S. after its worst-ever terrorist attack.
“That’s the good thing about this city,” he said, referring to the Muslims at prayer. “People are still very tolerant.”
Tolerant still, but Gorman has vivid memories of Sept. 11, where he spent two weeks after the tragedy as a volunteer, helping out where he could. Several young people he knew were killed on that day, and their faces are often in his memory.
“Business did get better for me after Sept. 11,” he said, navigating his car past a Harley Davidson near Central park South. “I try to tell people, ‘Stay toward the southern end of the park.’ And after dark? Forget it.”
“This guy’s on something,” he continued, pointing at an erratically driven SUV that tore past his car heading north on Broadway. Its rear window was open and was full of muppets.
Gorman did a quick detour on West 72nd Street to point out the Dakota apartment building, where John Lennon was shot in 1980. He has been to Strawberry Fields, the Lennon Memorial in Central Park, where every December a commemoration of Lennon and his music is held.
At 8:37 p.m. Gorman was approaching Harlem, his old stomping ground, the 23rd Precinct.
“Did you know that Burt Lancaster grew up in East Harlem?” Gorman asked. “Not many people know that.”
“Once upon a time, some women asked if they could have a tour of the city that took in some of its nicest gargoyles. Gargoyles. So I got on the Internet and found tons of streets on the Upper West Side with Gargoyles. Problem was, I give my tours at night, so they were kind of hard to see.”
Passing Riverside Church and Grant’s Tomb, Gorman recalled the time he talked a crazy woman off an elevated section of Riverside Drive. He turned on to 125th Street, heading east.
“Harlem,” said Gorman. “Home of the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, and a huge African-American community. Also a lot of crime.”
Gorman is no fan of Bill Clinton, but he reckoned that offering the former president office space on 125th Street was one of Mayor Giuliani’s shrewder moves.
“Rudy’s mistake was micro-managing,” Gorman opined. “And that thing with him and the wife, dragging it out in front of the media and their kids? Disgrace.”
At 9:04 p.m. Gorman turned his car on to the Willis Avenue Bridge. Ahead lay the South Bronx.
“I started off on foot post duty, in 1970, ’71,” said Gorman, recalling his early days in the NYPD. “Gives store owners a sense of security. Then I was in a radio car, responding to incidents.”
Twice Gorman was called to the scene of violent homicides.
“This guy stabbed his wife repeatedly,” he said. “When my colleague and me got there, there was this thick, gloppy blood all over the place. We knew immediately she was a goner. And you know what? He killed her because she was making the wrong kind of Campbell’s Soup.”
In all, Gorman made 230 arrests in his career as a police officer.
On the Major Deegan Expressway, the Bronx looks as if it is all neon signs and dark warehouses. Rounding a long bend to the right, Gorman pointed out the outline of Yankee Stadium, illuminated like a cruise ship.
Two blocks away, and there was another typical New York street scene: kids had broken a fire hydrant and danced back and forth through the spraying water.
“Police work can be a lot of fun,” Gorman said. “You laugh a lot, but also, you are seeing people at their worst, often. Or people in extreme pain.”
Worst of all, he said, was being detailed to deliver the worst news to a family — that their loved one had been killed.
At 9:16 p.m., Gorman had turned back into Manhattan and selected Fifth Avenue for the drive downtown.
“The Queen of Avenues,” he said. Unfortunately for Fifth Avenue in Harlem, Gorman explained, it is still a prey to drug dealers.
“Crack, grass, pills, coke,” said Gorman, when asked what he had seen over the years. “The most prevalent is grass.”
Bloomy and Conan
Then it was time for a quick detour to Gracie Mansion, New York’s mayoral mansion, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously doesn’t live. Gorman recalled being on guard duty at the mansion in the ’70s, when he was still a rookie cop. One evening, after he and his colleagues dozed off, someone turned on the light in the guardroom and another cop yelled at the person to “turn of the light, stupid. And it was Mayor Lindsay looking for a soda. He apologized for waking us up.”
At 64th Street, fire trucks momentarily block Fifth Avenue. Gorman took a swift detour to pass the Waldorf Hotel on Park Avenue, where he remembered having to ride the tops of the elevators with secret service agents, checking for bombs before a presidential visit.
Then at NBC’s rainbow room, Gorman points to a tall man on the street.
“Conan O’Brien,” he said. On the street, someone yelled “Conan,” and O’Brien waved, and then hastily got into his limousine.
Gorman’s tours last about five hours, according to the wishes of his guests. On this tour, he continued to Ground Zero, where he explained some of the details of the cleanup that was finished in just nine months.
He also gave his opinion on how people might protect themselves from terrorist attacks. For Gorman, the best invention would be some way to make one’s car safe from biological and chemical attack.
“That way, if you could get to your car, you’re going to be fairly safe,” he said.
He remembered the “King Kong” movie that was shot at the World Trade Center in the 1970s, and how the moviemakers asked for 5,000 volunteers for crowd scenes. “Fifty-five thousand of the nastiest, most aggressive New Yorkers you ever met showed up, and of course the cops were there for crowd control, including me,” he said.
Wall Street: “invest in what you use personally,” was Gorman’s snappy stock market advice.
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, Gorman’s tour continues to Brooklyn Heights, then through his home neighborhood of Redhook, then Bay Ridge, where he currently lives, Coney Island, where a few stragglers were still ordering hot dogs at Nathan’s Famous, then through Brighton Beach, where Gorman explained some details of how police work is conducted against organized crime.
He reckoned that the sudden shift of the FBI’s focus to terrorism after Sept. 11 could mean a resurgence of organized crime in the U.S.
He then took the Belt Parkway to Kennedy Airport and the Van Wyck Expressway to Shea Stadium.
Many of his guests are interested in where movies were filmed: one of Gorman’s favorites is the World’s Fair area of Flushing Meadows, where “Men In Black” had its crazy conclusion.
Back in Manhattan, Gorman, who is a careful and alert driver, braked sharply because he spotted a car coming in the opposite direction on a one-way street.
If your idea of touring the Big Apple is getting on a doubledecker bus and seeing some pretty buildings, then Gorman’s tour is probably not for you. But if you want to see New York’s underbelly and learn some thing of the city’s darkest recesses, then Gorman’s your man.