This past Sunday was my first bus tour. A friend helped me reserve and nearly fill the 36 passenger bus. I designed the tour (and flyer). To say the least, it was an interesting experience and filled with surprises.
I put my flyers in over 10 restaurants and grocery stores in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Around 100 of them were taken, but only 1 place brought me any passengers. I didn’t get a single phone call or email from any of the other places. I started passing out the flyers at the end of July with a payment deadline of September 1. When that date came, I had less than 10 confirmed passengers for a 36 seat bus. I was extremely discouraged, but instead of canceling the trip and refunding the few people who paid me, I decided to print new flyers with no payment deadline. The tour date was September 27 and around Labor Day weekend, the seats started filling up. It took until the week before the trip to finally reach 30 passengers.
When the day came, I was a bit nervous, but excited (in a good way). Although the tour company told me if would take four hours to get from Bethlehem to the Bronx, it took less than two. When we got to the first stop (Arthur Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy), I forgot how much more quiet it is on a Sunday. A few places were closed and I thought that some people would be disappointed. As our group of nearly 30 started walking along Arthur Avenue, people quickly disappeared into various shops. After 10 minutes, only a dozen people were still following me.
We walked northeast on Arthur Avenue towards 187th Street, where Alexandra Maruri from Bronx Historical Tours was there to greet us. I had arranged for her to meet us earlier in the month. After introducing herself, she walked my group of around 12 southeast on 187th Street towards Crescent Ave. My two favorite pastry shops in NYC are Veniero’s in Manhattan’s East Village and Artuso’s in the Bronx’s Little Italy. Artuso’s was our next stop and we spent around 30 minutes in there. I ordered two slices of my favorite (tied with Evelyn’s Kitchen in Manhattan’s East Harlem) red velvet cake and just watched everyone enjoying themselves. We were there just days after Pope Francis made his first visit to NYC. Artuso’s made “Pope Cakes” for him. When Alexandra showed Joseph Artuso the size of our group, he came out and gave us all sample cream puffs.
My Uncle and his wife had lunch at San Gennaro on Arthur Avenue (Gennaro was the name of my maternal Grandfather). Others ate as soon as we exited the bus. Half of the group had lunch with me at Antonio’s Trattoria on the corner of Belmont and Crescent Avenues. Earlier this year, I ate there with a friend around her birthday and Joe came to our table sang to her. There was a birthday girl in our group and Joe remembered me from the last time and was nice enough to come and sing Happy Birthday.
Our next destination was 31st Street near the northern end of the NQ subway lines in the Astoria section of (northwest) Queens. Some of my group shopped for Greek specialties at Titan Foods, which claims to be the largest Greek specialty store in the United States. The rest of us walked the half-mile to Artopolis Bakery on the other side of Interstate 278 (Brooklyn-Queens expressway). Since I love French macarons and they are more difficult to find outside of Manhattan, I bought four and quickly walked back to Titan Foods to buy octopus and seafood salad. I encouraged everyone to bring coolers since we would be shopping in three different ethnic neighborhoods.
Only one person on the bus had ever been to the Bronx’s Little Italy before. The same guy (and only one other friend of mine on the tour) had been to Astoria before this trip. Nobody else had been to Corona before. Our next destination was the Lemon Ice King of Corona. This is the place you can see at the opening segment of the King of Queens TV show. I never saw a full episode but I’ve seen the opening segment. A few people tried more than one flavor but I managed to buy four small cups. They do not mix flavors, so I always prefer to buy different small ones until I’ve had enough.
Our next (and final) destination was Flushing. Everyone on my tour was American-born except for one German-born woman who I never met before the trip and my Chinese-Malay friend who helped me reserve and nearly fill the bus. We had a dinner reservation for 20 people at Szechuan Gourmet. We got 2 different tables with spinning sections in the middle which makes it easier for everyone to share food. Szechuan Gourmet is known for spicy food, which I cannot eat. I managed to find an entrée which was not spicy, but we ended up being in there for two hours. Experiences like this are so much better when you have a Chinese friend with you. This was no exception as she helped everyone navigate the menu.
I really enjoy the food court at the New World Mall (intersection of Roosevelt Ave. & Main Street in Flushing). I suggested that anyone who was not joining us at Szechuan Gourmet should try the food court there. Nobody ended up doing that, but two other groups of people tried different restaurants and they each enjoyed them.
Like the ride from Bethlehem to NYC, the ride back to Bethlehem went fast. Many people slept, but I was not even tired. My adrenaline was rushing all day. I didn’t eat as much as I normally would because I was (sort of) working. Like I often do, I thought we would need less time at the stops than we actually did. We ran behind schedule all day and with the exception of the ride between Corona and Flushing, traffic was not to blame. The average person just moves slower than I do and no more than two people had ever been to any of the places we visited. Only my Chinese friend had been to Flushing prior to this trip.
It seemed like one minute we were crossing the Whitestone Bridge and the next minute we were at the Bethlehem exit off Interstate 78. I tried to give people as many historical facts as possible. The microphone in the bus was not working properly, so I just went in the middle of the bus and spoke as loud as possible. Although I didn’t make much money on my first trip, it was an excellent learning experience and I got an unexpected applause (and tip) at the end. I handed out a survey on the way back. Everyone wanted more time in the Bronx’s Little Italy, they had mixed feelings about Astoria. I was the one who enjoyed the Lemon Ice King of Corona the most and they had very mixed feelings about Flushing.