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Photograph: courtesy of THE RIDE

Pretend I’m a Tourist: An afternoon on THE RIDE, NYC’s wild, interactive bus theater

Follow comedian Zach Zimmerman on a quest to fall back in love with NYC.

Zach Zimmerman
Written by
Zach Zimmerman

A big, black bus, reminiscent of a rock band’s touring detail or a politician’s motorcade, pulled up. One side was windowless, making me wonder if someone was having sex inside; while the other side was a floor-to-ceiling window, confirming no intercourse was occurring. Its innards had been gutted, fitted with wide theater seats facing the sidewalk and enough lights and speakers to make the Halftime Show feel subtle.

“Please buckle your seatbelts,” announced Scott and Jackie, two sassy tour guides, by which I mean gay. We all searched for the belts before Jackie let everyone know the truth: there aren’t any. “Safety’s a joke to us.”

The bus pulled off, LED lights exploded like we’d won something at a casino, and a very loud, very original song played. Seventy-five minutes of surround-sound overwhelm that’s been experienced by over a million tourists over the past 10 years, THE RIDE (always in all caps) had begun.

“What compels us to live here?” Scott asked, pointing to the dirty, crowded streets outside the window: “Those bicycles, that cab, being single?”

And what had compelled me, someone who’s lived in New York City for five years, to be on a bus meant for tourists, to squeeze myself between 30 doe-eyed out-of-towners to take in streets I’ve already taken, see sites I’ve already seen, and go to midtown on a weekend?

I was exhausted by the onslaught of overstimulation and worried that this experiment might backfire entirely.

The hardest part of any vacation is the comedown. After a particularly lovely time away this summer, I returned to New York depressed. Maybe it was jetlag, detox, or my anxiety meds being trapped in customs, but I was feeling down on my town: less “There’s no place like home” and more “There’s no place like over there.” Like a sad, loveless marriage looking to spice things up, I wanted to recapture the magic I’d always felt for this city and fall back in love with my home. And who loves New York City? Tourists.

Webster’s dictionary defines a “tourist” as a “flesh-eating, succubus devoid of cultural value; an orc, zombie, eating, drinking, sightseeing, taking up space, a parasite blocking and feasting off the hard work, effort, and innovation of locals, cannibalizing and sabotaging what makes a city great.” And a “local?” Also a noun, a local is “someone who has grown so numb to a place, dull to what once made it special, taking for granted the amazing because it’s familiar, someone who can no longer have their breath taken away because they have places to be.”

I decided to undertake an experiment. Hypothesis: to fall back in love with New York City, I need to pretend I’m a tourist. Things a local would never do will be my new to-do: all the iconic, cheesy, cringey sites, sounds, tastes, and experiences designed for out-of-towners. If it succeeds, I’ll siphon the tourists’ joy, co-opt their urgency, and tap into their novelty, to defibrillate my love of New York. If it fails, my love has flatlined, the grass over there is greener because the grass over here is dead and crushed by concrete, and I need to leave New York immediately. Can I love New York again by pretending it's my first time? 

The Ride New York City
Photograph: Courtesy The Ride New York City

“See how he smiled and waved back?” Jackie said, pointing at someone outside the bus. “That’s what you call a tourist. They’re happy. They’re happy to be alive.” 

THE RIDE pulled into its first stop: the Crossroads of the World. I have a love/hate relationship with Times Square. I hate that I love it. It’s always had a soft spot in my heart: the giant, digital billboards, lighting up the city in a magical, retina-burning panorama. While I hate consumerism and crowds, I like magic.

“Let’s give Times Square a Ride Wave! 1..2..3!” Scott said. A “Ride Wave” is when all of the riders sort of waved our arms around for a few seconds. The patent is still pending.

Our guides explained that every New Year’s Eve, the incredible, famous ball drops here in Times Square. The bus was facing north, so we could not see the incredible, famous ball. We could see a woman wearing 2-0-2-2 glasses, though, approaching the bus a bit too closely. Her voice came over our loudspeaker, and it became clear she was part of the show. We did a fake New Years’ Eve countdown with her and went fake wild, which looked a lot like real wild.

“You just celebrated New Year’s Eve in Times Square!” Jackie said. “Just don’t tell anybody it was on a bus in September, OK?”

I thought being inside a bus would protect me from the chaos outside; instead, it amplified it. If Times Square can be a lot, Times Square in a see-through bus with lights and speakers and two chatty tour guides is A LOT. THE RIDE was earning its capitalization. I should’ve popped a XANAX before boarding. 

The Ride
Photograph: Zach Zimmerman | Inside THE RIDE

“Any divorces? Garden parties? Bar mitzvahs?” Scott asked.

It was Jaiden’s grandma Kim’s 65th birthday and Rhonda from Scotland had a bday of unknown age. Eddie’s wife let THE RIDE know about his birthday in advance, so he got a spontaneous inclusion in the freestyle rap from a man in front of the Shake Shack. 

The street performers justified why our seats were turned to face the sidewalk. While it was fun to wave to a random tourist (the subtext being “we’re both alive, human, and in New York!”), the real show was a variety of spontaneous street performances of dance and music. When we turned onto 42nd street, Jackie and Scott sang some of “We’re in the Money” while a contemporary dancer on the street danced along. We passed a delivery guy in brown shorts who breakdanced on the street. Occasionally, New Yorkers couldn’t resist getting in on the fun: during that Shake Shack rap, a customer inside did a silly, little dance down the aisle. When a singer and saxophonist performed a song on the street, the employees of the hot sauce store behind them became unpaid backup dancers.

When performances weren’t happening, the guides pointed out sites and administered THE RIDE QUIZ. (“THE RIDE points are worthless, just like our musical theater degrees,” Jackie said.)

Tallest building? Someone guessed the Empire State Building, but it’s One World Trade Center at 1776 feet tall.

What building are we coming up to right now?

“The New York Public Library!”

“Who said that? Where are you from?” The guide seemed suspicious.

“New York.”

Everyone laughed.

Wooly from Queens, who had brought his dad along, has lived here for 30 years, which felt like cheating.

I learned a few fun facts myself: the New York Public library has 75 miles of bookshelves, a Gutenburg Bible, and an original Winnie the Pooh doll, Bryant Park has the world’s third-best public restroom, and Port Authority Bus Terminal is the largest in the world. I usually leave the facts I learn on vacation in the location I’m visiting, but I made an extra effort to retain these New York factoids so I can sound smart and desirable on first dates.

“Can you think of a family-friendly word to describe what Times Square was like in the 70s and 80s?” Jackie asked. “A lot of…independent contractors,” Scott said. I learned the block’s bright lights aren’t just to catch eyes, but were part of the mayor’s plan to get rid of crime and sex work in the area. I think I already knew this, but it was nice to be reminded, like your long-term partner reminding you of their parents’ first names.

Suddenly, classical music played over the speakers, and for a moment, the bump of coke that is THE RIDE was as gentle as a hug. We made a loop around Columbus Circle, somewhere I’d only been on foot, while a tutu-ed ballet dancer circled the fountain as well, water and legs jetting in the air. “That’s so beautiful,” Jackie says, “And so random. I mean we hired all these people to sit there, but that dancer was random.”

We passed Central Park, Carnegie Hall, and Radio City Music Hall (“They have all kinds of music you can think of,” Scott said. “They have…I can’t think of anything else.” Nice one, Scott.).

As we entered our final 10 minutes, I was exhausted by the onslaught of overstimulation and worried that this experiment might backfire entirely. Why was I subjecting myself to being around tourists of all people on an objective tourist trap? This had a higher likelihood of making me hate New York, not falling back in love with it.

The Ride
Photograph: Zach Zimmerman | Inside THE RIDE

Then, Frank began to sing: “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today.”

I don’t know whether it was my relief that the tour was almost over, and my imminent return to only hearing the soundtrack of my mind, but I felt a pang of something during the Frank Sinatra “New York, New York” sing-along.  Scream-singing “New York” in a bus in Times Square, looking up at skyscrapers through the bus’ skylight, small TV screens showing shots of the city and lyrics, along with a chorus of thirty-odd tourists (with variable vocal training), it was hard not to feel something. A curious mix of nostalgia, optimism, hope, what some might call magic. 

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” 

When I first drove to New York in a compact car with my belongings and a bike that would be stolen within the year, I put on Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York.” Her take seemed at odds with Frank’s: “Welcome to New York, we’ve been waiting for you” versus “It’s up to you, New York, New York!”

I suddenly heard Sinatra’s lyrics differently.

Who is it up to? Me? Or New York?

The song ended.

“I heard some beautiful voices!” Jackie said. “And some other voices.”

I tipped Jackie $5, disembarked, and commuted home for a nap that felt seven years long. I was grateful to not be an actual tourist because I could go to my own bed. 

THE RIDE had tired, drained, overstimulated, and overwhelmed me, but it gave me that moment with Frank, that very brief, very loud reminder of what I once felt for the city all those years ago. On my subway ride to midtown that morning, a man asked for money and as he passed me, said under his breath: “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.” To sing with Frank, I had to get yelled at by Scott and Jackie.

A few weeks after I first rode my THE RIDE, I got an email that it was my last. On October 16, 2022, after 12 years and 30,000 performances, THE RIDE took its final bow. The show was ending and the bus was being de-commissioned, sent to bus heaven or bus hell depending on how well it behaved in this life (had someone had sex on board?) It felt like an omen I’m not yet ready to interpret. My very first tourist attraction in an attempt to fall back in love with New York shut down days after I took it.

It feels like an omen, like I have a reverse Midas touch. Should I have mercy on New York’s remaining tourist destinations? Or was I that big bus’s final act: kicking off my journey of self-discovery by over-stimulation? This experiment might change me forever; or worse, not at all. Either way, overwhelmed and under duress, I plan to pretend to enjoy THE RIDE.

Zach Zimmerman is a queer comedian, writer, and author of Time Out New York’s “Pretend I’m A Tourist” column. A regular at the Comedy Cellar, Zach has appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and had a debut album “Clean Comedy” debut on the Billboard Top 10. Zach’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Washington Post; and Zach’s first book Is It Hot in Here? (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth?) (April 2023) is available for pre-order now.

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