BALTIMORE CITY PAPER | 11/14/2001

Holiday Guide Feature

Put Me in Coach

Shopping New York With Someone Else in the Driver's Seat

by Adele Marley

Michelle Gienow
Michelle Gienow
Michelle Gienow
Michelle Gienow
Michelle Gienow
Michelle Gienow
With the increasingly frantic, crass commercial push for premature seasonal spending, the holidays seem to commence earlier and earlier every year. Walk into any mall on Nov. 1 and you'll find holly-adorned halls already decked. The first Christmas catalogs come so early, you can swat mosquitoes with them. The broad definition of the holidays as a "season of giving" is a sentiment whereby spiritual, secular, and commercial interests collide: To give, you've got to spend.

This year, though, just about every American--whether he or she celebrates Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or Ramadan--can probably pinpoint how early the urge to give set in. For many, the most immediate response to Sept. 11 was to give: time, blood, cash, comfort to their fellow Americans. The spirit of unity and generosity that's prevailed in the wake of the attack on our country dovetails nicely with the ideals of the holiday season, although that "peace on earth" thing seems pretty much shot to hell.

At any rate, this year holiday shopping and tourism aren't just an indulgence, they're a patriotic duty. President Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have urged us to keep recession at bay by spending like mad and following through with any travel plans we may have, and why not? When else are you going to have a built-in excuse for both compulsive shopping and touring? Besides, as far as demonstrating patriotism goes, both sure beat enlisting.

Travel and tourism businesses especially have been feeling the pain of the post-Sept. 11 pinch, and they could probably use a boost. Which is why, on a balmy November morning, I'm boarding a charter bus for a day trip to New York. I've convinced a few game colleagues to join me, figuring we can help give an ailing local business a shot in the arm, furnish a beleaguered metropolis with some tourist bucks, and get some Christmas shopping done to boot.

Pikesville-based Superior Tours--whose Manhattan-bound bus is a fave among my friends for its quirky perks as much as for its reasonable cost ($40 round-trip)--haD reportedly been having trouble filling it's once-popular New York runs. Within three weeks of the terrorist attacks, The Sun reported, the family-owned tour-bus company's business had declined 50 percent to 60 percent, and Superior anticipated losses of $100,000 by mid-October. I've booked four seats on a Saturday coach, nicknamed the "bagel bus" for one of the ride's main treats: the continental breakfast served on the way up.

We begin on the parking lot at Greenspring Shopping Center on Smith Avenue just north of the city. It's way too early to be up on a Saturday; the bus departs at the punishing hour of 7 a.m. ("Don't expect me to be perky," one of my companions has already admonished.) This turns out to be a good thing: When you're barely awake, time flies. Of course, the dearth of early-morning traffic probably contributes greatly to the swiftness of the journey (a little over three hours).

There are three buses on this run, each a new 55-passenger coach that Superior Tours co-owner Marc Komins assures me will be fully occupied. Turns out that there are about 160 passengers making the trip, a normal Saturday haul.

Back in September, Komins says, the company was lucky to get a single bus half-filled, but in October business returned to normal, and early estimates of Superior's losses turned out to be exaggerated--business dropped 30 percent, rather than 50 percent plus. (Besides the New York trips, the company offers daily Atlantic City tours and a charter service, accounting for about half its business, which serves mostly church, youth, and seniors groups and goes all over the country.) If patronage remains at past levels, Komins says, the firm will transport about six busloads of passengers to New York every day between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

We pick up some passengers in Towson (at a Royal Farm Store on Providence Road) and head toward Interstate 95. Host Gloria Zimmerman distributes breakfast--bagel with a schmear, an apple, and a carton of orange juice. (If you want a caffeinated beverage, better bring your own.) Zimmerman is a no-nonsense, mildly sarcastic host ("I'll be by Tuesday to pick up your trash," she says as she hands out the food) with a precise, lacquered blond bob who is popular with regular riders, many of whom she greets warmly and knows by name. She fits the demographic of most of the passengers--female and in her 60s. (Our foursome of thirtysomethings is probably the youngest group on the bus.)

One of five part-time hosts Superior employs for New York runs (the company has about 20 full-time staffers, most of them drivers), Zimmerman is a good resource for day-trippers--she's quick to offer advice on sightseeing, shopping, and museum-hopping. She's also got the hookup for the Broadway-bound: She not only has a stash of coupons handy for matinée-goers, but she actually scoops the gossip columnists by confiding to us that Nathan Lane has been MIA from some recent performances of The Producers.

As we approach Manhattan on the New Jersey side, I scan the horizon. I'm surprised at--then depressed by--how quickly I adjust to the new view of the skyline. About midway through the Lincoln Tunnel, music blasts through the loudspeaker. Normally, this is the point at which we hear Frank Sinatra belting out "New York, New York," but instead we're treated to Kate Smith's pitch-perfect rendition of "God Bless America." Superior switched tunes as soon as bus service to New York resumed in late September, Zimmerman says. Some passengers sing along, which would have seemed pretty corny three months ago.

The bus has two Big Apple drop-off points: Times Square (46th and Broadway) and Rockefeller Center (49th and Fifth). We get off at the latter and head to a nearby clothing store to freshen up in its rest room. (FYI: Rest rooms in New York--especially clean, roomy ones--are scarce. Once you find one, commit its location to memory for future reference.) Our first stop is H&M (51st and Fifth; there are also locations at 558 Broadway and 34th Street at Herald Square), a trendy Swedish chain that's godsend for fashion-hunters on a budget. We score more choice giftware and loot for ourselves at H&M than anywhere else on the trip. The 34th Street store has the widest selection of clothing lines and size ranges, but the merchandise at its Fifth Avenue counterpart is less picked-over.

We take a cab to Chelsea (one of us had just read a particularly unsettling story about the threat of subway-targeted terrorism and was squeamish about going underground), have lunch, and head over to Co-op (236 W. 18th St.), a youth-targeted outpost of the chichi department store Barneys. Among frost-white tabletop Christmas trees trimmed with fluorescent geometric cut-outs, we spot Susan Sarandon rummaging through the racks, accompanied by a look-alike teenage version of herself (probably her daughter, and a more likely candidate for Co-op's collection of haute scenester garb). I feign interest in a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress to get a better look at the copper-topped Hollywood siren.

A more intentional attempt at celebrity stalking is on the agenda (mine, anyway) when we cab it over to the East Village hovel that houses Sopranos co-star Drea de Matteo's vintage-clothing boutique, Filth*Mart (531 E. 13th St.). No luck on both the shopping and star-gazing fronts--de Matteo is a no-show, and the goods on hand, used concert T-shirts and lots of denim, aren't all that spectacular.

After wandering around the Village for a while, we wrap up our whirlwind shopping tour in SoHo. The neighborhood is home to quite a few stores that stock unique giftware, including Moss Gifts (148 Greene St.), which vends design-conscious, modern goods for the home, and Jonathan Adler (465 Broome St.), with its pottery and textiles in simple, organic designs.

We make it back to Rockefeller Center by 6:15 p.m., just in time to catch the bagel bus before its 6:30 departure. On the return trip, Superior treats its passengers to an on-board movie. The flick, chosen with family audiences and seniors in mind, is usually a dog, but part of the fun of the trip is having to sit through something like Patch Adams, just so you can goof on it with fellow travelers. This evening's presentation, Fried Green Tomatoes, is sappy but strangely calming, and not all that terrible. Easing the seat back and sipping from a paper cup of contraband vino that my group smuggled on board (a stunt that would no doubt be frowned upon by Superior Tours management and is in no way recommended), I ponder the best reason for taking the bus to New York: how glad I am right now that I'm not the one in the driver's seat.

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