They say there's no free lunch; and yet every year, 5,000 visitors get a beautiful bite of the Big Apple, absolutely gratis, thanks to 400 volunteers who love to show off their favorite town. If relatives or friends are coming into the city, this is a way to send them off for the day on an outing that is likely to be as memorable as any they may experience. "Our Greeter, John, made our trip to New York an experience we will never forget. Absolutely fabulous," says Shannon Leon from California, who visited with two pre-teens. "John taught the kids to feed squirrels; he also took us on a wonderful trip through Central Park," says Donald Crossley, a New Hampshire grandparent. "We found the whole experience with John very helpful and welcoming," says Alistair Guyatt, of Kingsmead, England. What's a Greeter, who's John, and what's so wonderful? All these families signed up with Big Apple Greeters (BAG), a non-profit organization that matches visitors with a volunteer New Yorker who'll squire them around town for two to four hours. "John" is John Borders, who specializes in showing Manhattan to families. A long-limbed loping lover of corny jokes, John is famous for extra-long "Greets”. In April, for example, he met the Guyatt family — Alistair, Pauline, and 15-year-old Rebecca — in their hotel lobby, handed each a MetroCard, and taught them how to use the subway, a key element of every Greet. Then he shepherded them onto the Staten Island Ferry for a free harbor tour; provided peanuts for squirrel-feeding in Battery Park; gave a short history lesson about Trinity Church; proceeded up Wall Street, with anecdotes; ended with a respectful visit to Ground Zero — and that was all before lunch at a diner on the Upper East Side. After lunch came a cable-car ride to Roosevelt Island, and Dylan's Candy Bar. "John is clearly very proud of his home city," says Alistair Guyatt. "He also loves children, which made the day very special for Rebecca."
John himself is equally enthused: "I know I love my visitors, my ‘friends', and I think that shows. I have been fortunate through Big Apple Greeters to have met families from 28 countries and 45 states. I feel like I have friends all over the world." John is one of 400 Greeters, who between them speak 24 languages, cover myriad interests, and range in age from 18 to 84. Greeters show off neighborhoods in all five boroughs; Coney Island is another great choice for families. Big Apple Greeters started in 1992, the brainchild of lifelong New Yorker Lynn Brooks. For years, Brooks had been troubled by a perception that New York was a menacing place. "I love New York, and I know it's safe," she says; and 11 years ago, she dreamed up a way to show visitors her city's best face. The Manhattan Borough's President's Office offered office space; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority donates subway passes; New York Waterways gives volunteers a sunset cruise. With a little help from such friends BAG has thrived, and now has two offspring: Chicago Greeters, and Melbourne Greeters in Australia. Travelers can sign up at the Big Apple Greeter website (www.bigapplegreeter.org) or call (212) 669-8159, three weeks before arrival date. Visitors can specify neighborhoods and interests, or simply request a "Greeter's Choice". Up to six people can be in a group; children are meant to be seen and heard. An Access Program welcomes those with disabilities. The only exclusion is that New Yorkers themselves can't sign up — except as volunteers, for a flexible once-a-month activity. "Rebecca's favorite stop was the Candy Bar," says Alistair Guyatt. "She also liked the ride on the Staten Island ferry. She navigated us around on the subway, and she found this quite fun. She became our guide for the remainder of the trip." Sounds like a perfect Greet.
You, too, can be a Greeter! At home with small kids? Want a sociable, flexible way to do a good deed? Liz Smith, BAG's director of marketing, says: "Many moms like the chance to interact with people from around the world, and do something fun for an afternoon.” Volunteers for Big Apple Greeters need only commit to one 2- to 4-hour Greet a month, showing off a neighborhood they know and love. Greeters take a 3-hour general orientation course; each Greet is the creation of the individual. Coordinators match visitors with Greeters, who always have a choice about who, where, when. Greeters also get a free MTA FunPass for the day. Find out more at www.bigapplegreeter.org, or talk to a friendly human at (212) 669- 8270.