`Shoestring' Explorers Bite Into the Big Apple

IT is 3 o'clock on a cold Sunday afternoon and Howard Goldberg, earflaps turned down and bullhorn at the ready, is off and running with yet another group of New York City explorers. The neighborhood of the day is Chelsea, which Mr. Goldberg describes as much like Greenwich Village but more ``laid back.'' First stop is the venerable Chelsea Hotel, once home to Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, and Virgil Thomson. Standing beneath a sculpted girl on a swing attached to the ceiling, Goldberg notes that much of the offbeat art in the hotel lobby was contributed by artistic tenants in lieu of rent.

About 40 eager walkers are here under the auspices of Adventures on a Shoestring. The Manhattan-based, nonprofit membership group was founded by Goldberg 28 years ago on the theory that the best America's largest city has to offer in cultural performances, chats with interesting people, meals, and neighborhood walks need not be prohibitively expensive.

Rehearsals of plays and concerts, top rear seats in Madison Square Garden, 2-for-1 barbecue dinner specials - all are familiar to Shoestring members. There are often group discounts for meals and performances. Members pay a $40 annual fee and $3 or actual costs for events.

Goldberg, who grew up in a Greek neighborhood in Queens, is no ordinary tour guide. He makes his living by writing technical manuals. It was his natural curiosity - ``I guess I'm kind of a frustrated newspaper reporter'' - that got him into what he admits is now an all-absorbing avocation.

It all began in 1963 when he wanted to tour the New York Herald Tribune. He was told he had to be part of a group of 15 or more. Not really expecting to get any takers, he took out a one-line ad in The Village Voice that drew 65 responses. Long a source of information for friends and relatives on inexpensive things to see and do in the city, Goldberg says that the idea of Shoestring seemed ``a natural extension.''

The more than 12,000 events scheduled since then require no reservations and include everything from museum and play previews and a visit to a pie-throwing business to flamenco dancing lessons and conversations with Malcolm Forbes, George Plimpton, Louise Nevelson, and Fannie Hurst. ``Generally the more important people are, the more likely they are to accommodate you,'' Goldberg says.

Some Shoestring walks, such as the hike across the Brooklyn Bridge to celebrate its birthday, complete with song and cake, are annual events. Everything from Wall Street to Roosevelt Island is on the agenda. Says one member: ``He gives you so many up-to-date tidbits about things as you walk along that it tends to make the whole neighborhood come alive.''

Though Shoestring has members in 25 states who regularly visit the city and will plan tours for any group of visitors from 2 to 50, most of its 2,000 or so members are New Yorkers trying to discover more of their city's hidden treasures.

One of the group's most popular events, and one that Shoestring pioneered for the general public, is its Metropolitan Opera backstage tour, which began at the Met's old location at 39th and Broadway. ``I kept calling and wrote to them, and they finally gave in,'' Goldberg says.

His pace is particularly hectic on weekends when he sometimes schedules four or five events in one day. On the Sunday in Chelsea, for instance, he had spun off one group of New Yorkers at noon for a bargain performance of Chekhov's ``Three Sisters'' and would shepherd another group to a soul-food buffet and gospel concert that evening.

It is both New York City's wealth of resources and its compactness that make it uniquely adaptable to Shoestring's aims, he says.

``This city is in a constant state of flux and you can't put a fix on it,'' he says. ``You almost have to send scouts out around the city every day to keep track of things.''

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