When I was in grade school, New York City was heralded as the world’s “melting pot,” an anthropomorphic melding of cultures. Today, word is that teachers have moved onto a “salad” analogy, arguing that while the various human ingredients harmoniously mix and mingle, they retain their separate identities. Whichever school you subscribe to, one of the most esteemed attributes of our city is its acceptance of all types.
Within New York, each of these distinct individuals carves out his or her niche, the place that becomes “home.” For native New Yorkers, home is usually the vicinity around which they grew up. For transplants, it’s more often than not the neighborhood of their first apartment. This is part of what makes the city endlessly fascinating: it is a different place for everyone. There are the occasional shared experiences, but for the most part your New York is as unique as your fingerprint.
New York:The Pegleg, the most recent installment in the WhaiWhai guidebook series, highlights this diversity, presenting an entertaining and educational tool that crosses eras, classes and ethnicities to offer a unique look at the iconoclasts, visionaries and dreamers who created and continue to inhabit New York.
The term “whaiwhai” comes from a Maori word meaning “to search for,” and consequently the guidebook is structured around the search for “the pegleg,” a particularly powerful prosthesis that first arrived in New York in 1647 on the leg of Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant (true story). After Governor Stuyvesant’s death, the wooden leg, which was wrapped in bands of supposedly supernatural silver, was hidden in the family crypt in the East Village, where the governor was actually buried. The WhaiWhai story goes that before the crypt was permanently sealed, the leg vanished and has been missing since. The fictional narrator of The Pegleg, Shlep Wallace, is a longtime prop specialist who recently found the notebook of deceased scientist Nikola Tesla. Inside the notebook are clues speaking to the pegleg’s powers. Therefore, Shlep is calling upon the reader (you) to help recover the absconded appendage.
A text message exchange later (each book contains a unique code ) and you are on your way to exploring corners of New York that even the most seasoned city-goer has overlooked, which is why this guidebook is as entertaining for residents as it is for visitors. Each of the obscure sites featured contains a historical anecdote that exemplifies the eccentric personalities—past and present—who make up our eclectic “salad.”
My first stop was the spot where hotelier David Weissberg jumped to his death in 2002. Today it’s the Gramercy Park Hotel, a place I last visited for a luxury sunglasses launch. Next, I was led to 49 Irving Place, the former residence of interior design maven and style trailblazer Elsie De Wolfe and her partner Elisabeth “Bessy” Marbury, who entranced early 20th-century Manhattan society with their raucous parties. At each location you search for the answer to the riddle in the given story. Once found, you send it via text message and receive the code—which corresponds to the book’s tri-fold pages—to the next site. The ultimate goal, of course, is to find the elusive pegleg. And you can play as many times as you like; each adventure is different than the last.
Shlep may be the imaginary storyteller, but the real raconteur behind The Pegleg is Timothy Speed Levitch (who goes by Speed) a longtime New Yorker, writer, tour guide and actor whose descendants arrived via Ellis Island. Here, he reveals a bit about the creation of The Pegleg and offers an insight into his New York.
Erin Dixon: Tell us a bit about your background—how did you come to learn so much about New York?
Speed Levitch: I’m still learning about New York, of course. It’s an endless field of study. I started in the Bronx, lived in Riverdale and attended Horace Mann High School, but I barely knew my way around Manhattan until I went to NYU for college. I’m a flaneur and I’ve been appreciating the scenery and the stories of the city my whole life.
Erin: What was something you learned about New York during your research that surprised you?
Speed: That the Mercury Theater Company of players and their director/star Orson Welles all thought that the script for “War of The Worlds” was stupid, and right before they went on air Orson Welles apologized to his actors for burdening them with such dull, insipid material. Apparently, the actors were making fun of the script right up until air. Even as they were performing it live (as half of New Jersey freaked out), they were locked away in a little studio room in Midtown—just having fun with what they assumed was campy, overly sentimentalized material.
Erin: How did you decide which stories to incorporate?
Speed: In school, I studied playwriting and I was drawn to tour guiding due to the theatricality of the job—the performance aspect. When I’m looking at the history of the city, choosing stories about the city, I’m looking for a good play script I can perform. Mostly, I prefer comedy. I like funny stories most of all. Of course, a good play needs stories that are filled with passion, epiphany, surprise and dynamic human characters, which live through anecdotes we can all identify with and learn from. Hopefully, at the end of the stories there’s some kind of catharsis or healing for the reader.
Erin: Which is your favorite story or character in The Pegleg?
Speed: I’m a little bit fickle… The story I would choose for my favorite would be different depending on my mood and the time of day, etc. But I can answer for tonight. Tonight, my favorite story is “Flight of the Missouri Rockets.” It’s the story about how the Rockettes were invented and about the rite of passage that Radio City Music Hall had to go through in order to fully realize its potential as a music hall. Roxy, the visionary behind Radio City, is an amazing character and he stars in this beautiful tale about self-realization, the creative spirit and invention. (It’s also my favorite story because it features the Missouri Rockets, the dance troupe of 64 gorgeous ladies out of St. Louis.)
Erin: How did you come up with the character Shlep Wallace? Was he based on anyone you know?
Speed: Yes, Shlep is certainly an amalgam of several wise old men I’ve listened carefully to over the years, but, of course, Shlep is also his own man. I could hear his unique, rasping voice in my mind’s ear as I wrote the stories. While writing the stories, I often felt as if Shlep were giving me dictation.
Erin: Does the pegleg really exist, hidden somewhere in NY? Will the reader ever arrive at the true end?
Speed: I wouldn’t want to say for sure. I want to preserve the mystery and the fun of the game. Let me just say this: The stakes couldn’t be more raised! The pegleg really did exist. What really happened to it? Impossible to say for sure. It’s very possible that it’s buried with Stuyvesant’s body in his crypt underneath St. Mark’s Church. There are all sorts of historic images and artistic renditions of Peter Stuyvesant’s pegleg. Many of his contemporaries called it “silver leg” because it was a fancy pegleg that had silver bands. There is a Stuyvesant family crypt where his corpse was put, apparently with both his real and fake leg, but the family crypt wasn’t sealed until the last Stuyvesant went in there in the 1950s.
Erin: What is your favorite neighborhood in Manhattan?
Speed: Lately, my favorite neighborhood is the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Mainly, I think, just because it is such a mad mix of events. Another good name for that hood would be “unlikely.” It is a zany collection of events that birthed that current, unique place. It’s also a great place for nosh—the small, delicious immigrant foods you can enjoy as you walk. New York’s specialty is great food that moves with you.
Erin: If there is one place in Manhattan that everyone should see, what is it?
Speed: Rush hour. I enjoy viewing rush hour in and around Grand Central, of course. Penn Station is also excellent. Downtown, in general is good and the Staten Island Ferry Terminal…along the bridges, especially the Brooklyn Bridge. Really, I think the one landmark of New York that everyone should see is some perch where they can view and be properly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the city mobilizing during the two rush hours, daily. Of course, it’s always great people watching, too.
Erin: What makes Manhattan unique from other cities?
Speed: I tend to think that all cities and places are teachers. There’s something to learn from all real estate, basically. I’m writing a piece right now about Lawrence, Kansas and although Lawrence and its stories have different lessons to teach and certainly create a different tone and atmosphere than New York does with its stories, I’m still certian that both cities—the sixth largest city of the state of Kansas and New York—are equally themselves, equally unique. I think of them both as two great gurus, only very different gurus, who advise me on very different subjects.