The Dollar Experience



1047 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Nearly every day the homeless men who hang around the front steps of St. John the Divine are keeping tradition alive. The tours they give of the cathedral’s western façade and the Peace Fountain are one part hallowed and one part hustle, and they’ve been going on, in one form or another, for ten years.

At a world famous cathedral where trained docents offer tours once per day, the scruffier homeless guides offer a convenient alternative that curious passersby don’t have to plan their day around. They have drawn mixed reactions from people who work there, though. Some feel the “tours” are a harmless way for men on the fringes of society to get their lives together while doing something worthwhile. Skeptics feel that there is no way to tell if the information provided is accurate, and dismiss the suggestion that the homeless men be formally taken under the cathedral’s wing, part because of their chronic alcohol and drug use.

Clive Givens, 33, started giving informal tours four years ago after one of the cathedral’s sculptors, Greg Wyatt, told him about the Peace Fountain and the children’s sculpture garden, located just south of the cathedral.

“I asked him for money one day, and he taught me about the fountain,” says Givens as he reclines on the steps of the sculpture garden. Before him stands the bronze fountain, shining in the bright summer sunlight. It is a twist of biblical, natural, and scientific symbols, which soars 32 feet above the much smaller bronze sculptures created by children from around the world. The fountain relates the story of good and evil, of how the archangel Michael, gripping a long sword in one hand and caressing a giraffe with the other, beheaded Satan. His pose is majestic and serene: with wings outstretched, Michael stands ten feet above all onlookers and is flanked by the sun, moon and more giraffes. Beneath them is the severed head of Satan.

Givens knows much more, but to get the full story – about the crab and the double helix and everything else – it’s going to cost you. The price is negotiable. What you’ll get is a man who would rather banter with his guests than recite from an art analysis he’s memorized, someone who will give the playful wink when he gets to the off-color part of a Bible story, someone who doesn’t have to answer to a boss.

What you get might start out like this: It’s a muggy morning. Clive Givens is waking up on one of the steps at the foot of St. John the Divine. He is rubbing his eyes, then his bare feet. He stinks of booze.

Later on, he will tell a couple of willing passersby about St. Denis and how his story is depicted on one the cathedral’s porticos. Beneath the statue of St. Denis, the story of his life is depicted. That’s where Clive will begin. The saint was a nobleman and a close friend of the king. One day, St. Denis told another nobleman that the queen was looking fine. The other noble was jealous because Denis was the king’s favorite, and so he told the king about what Denis said. In a fit of rage, the king had Denis beheaded. The angels saw that this was unjust, and reattached Denis’s head. This is why the 7-foot tall statue of St. Denis is holding his head in place with its hands – so it won’t fall off.

When Clive is done, he’ll tell you about the statue of Moses and why there are two heads instead of one. Then with a smile, he’ll ask you for a small donation.

As Givens tells it his tours are probably much more interesting then when he started giving them four years ago, and he’s probably getting a bit more cash for them. As he tells it, he didn’t have the pattern of the stories down pat after first hearing them. Learning how to actually tell the stories with style took about five months and some help from a friend.

“The way I orchestrate it and put it together, I learned it from that guy,” says Givens, pointing to a man standing on the other end of the garden listening to a Walkman. Another homeless man, who was taking his lunch in the cathedral’s cavernous cellar that day, said the tours began long before Clive learned about them from the man with the Walkman – more than ten years ago. Nathan Wilson Jr., a 43-year-old recovering heroin addict, recalled how a friend of his learned how to give the tours from watching one of the professional guides.

“It was a con,” says Wilson, describing his experiences as guide. “Like a game. See, the first four or five lines I give you must catch you or else you’ll keep moving…. It wasn’t a learning experience, it was a dollar experience.”

Ten years ago, when Wilson first started hustling tourists on Amsterdam Avenue and West 112th Street, Clive would not have predicted that his dollar experience would be working as a vagabond tour guide on the cathedral steps.

He was raised a Baptist in the Springfield Gardens section of Queens and went to Far Rockaway High School. The law debates with classmates there inspired him to go on to John Jay College, where he studied criminal law. For reasons Givens did not want to discuss, he didn’t finish college, but eventually found a job just a few blocks away from the cathedral, across the street from Columbia University at the University Market. He worked there for a couple of years until a seizure, which hit him on the job, put him in the hospital. Givens has been having the seizures since childhood, and he says they’ve become worse as he’s grown older. Although he isn’t precisely sure why they occur, he feels they’re connected with stress.

After being released from the hospital, Givens received disability checks that kept him afloat in his 113th Street apartment for a few months, but when they stopped, it forced him onto the church steps, park benches or the shelters. “I had a room and was doing all right, but when that money stopped coming in, I was out of there,” Givens recalls.

Unlike many who fall on hard times, Givens had no safety net in which to land. When asked about his family, he shrugs and explains that they left the area a long time ago for Canada, and that they no longer keep in touch.

L Right now though, he has a girlfriend who has an apartment in the Bronx. “When it’s cold, I stay over with my girl, except when she’s mad at me, which is most of the time,” says Givens. He and his girlfriend, Katrina, met on the church steps. She’s happy that Givens is giving the tours.

“He’s good – what he does is worth doing,” she says. Employees of St. John the Divine have mixed feelings over whether what Givens does is worthwhile. Carlos Rodriguez has worked at the cathedral visitor center for eight years and says that homeless men have been giving tours since before his time. When he began, so many homeless men solicited visitors that he told them they needed to work in shifts.

There have been times when the guides have made visitors feel uncomfortable, but they usually keep each other in line, according to Rodriguez. “The thieves have been run away by the good ones,” he says, adding that while the regulars manage to behave, most of them are struggling with drug or alcohol problems. “I tell them, ‘The moment you cause a misunderstanding or a problem, you just have to go.’” <[p> When Rodriguez ventures into the future of the cathedral’s unofficial tour guides, his eyes are downcast, and his voice is just a little less firm than it usually sounds. Some of them get AIDS, some are murdered, some just disappear, but not all fall by the wayside.

“Some of these guys have cleaned themselves up,” says Rodriguez. “Some of them come back and look good and are well-educated.” Rodriguez remembers one former drug addict who received help from the athedral Community Cares program, enrolled in a rehabilitation program, and years later came back to thank him. Last Rodriguez heard, the man cleans horses at a track.

Despite Rodriguez’s feel-good tales, a docent employed by the cathedral voiced skepticism about the idea of homeless men giving tours of the western façade. “I don’t know what they’re saying — if it’s accurate,” said Kathryn Filla, who also teaches art at the Pratt Institute. “They’re really not supposed to come on the steps and ask people for money.”

Filla began educating tourists about the cathedral five years ago and learned all her facts through study and discussing the artwork and sculptures there with other educators and docents. By her accounts, the cathedral employs three docents and 20 to 30 part-time volunteer guides at any given time. The difference between the tours she gives and Givens’ is that hers are given in groups of as many as 15 and his are usually given to one or two people at a time.

Raquel Granda, the director of the Cathedral Community Cares outreach program, is skeptical for other reasons. When asked whether she thought the tours might be integrated into the church’s social services offerings, she notes that to her knowledge, none of the homeless men have expressed an interest in becoming tour guides. And even if they did, Granda points out, “We can’t pay people who are on drugs and alcohol.”

For Clive Givens, giving tours might not be the solution to all life’s woes, but when he explains the minute details on the sculptures of the western facade, it seems they could begin to draw him in from the fringes. Maybe he’s just smiling because he wants to honestly separate tourists from their money, or maybe he finds the beheading of St. Denis a genuinely interesting story – most likely it’s a combination of both. Whatever it is, Givens says he certainly wouldn’t mind being more formally educated on the cathedral’s art so he can give tours as a legitimate employee. He’s dubious that the church would want him, though. “They really don’t want us doing it,” he said. “They want the money.”

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