UPPER WEST SIDE — The Lincoln Square Business Improvement District's information kiosks help lost tourists find their way, but for the past two summers, they've also helped seniors and teens find friendships.
The BID has employed teens at the kiosks since 1998. Two years ago the BID partnered with ReServe, Inc., which links retirees with nonprofits that need skilled workers. Now the teens and seniors work side-by-side in the kiosks, at Richard Tucker Park and Dante Park, from late June through August.
They hand out brochures with lists of restaurants, give directions and answer questions ranging from "Where is Lincoln Center?" to "Where is the nearest laundromat?" Along the way, the teens and seniors say they've formed deep bonds and walked away with a better understanding of each other's generations.
"Although there's a huge generation gap, I had deep conversations with them," kiosk worker 18-year-old Chris St. Armand said of his co-workers in their 60's. "We would sit here and just talk and talk. It's been a great experience. I can use what I learned from them."
The teens said they got a crash course in New York history from co-workers like Shirley Zafirau, a senior jazz buff who doled out nuggets of knowledge like the fact that the ABC building on West 66th Street and Columbus Avenue was once a theater where Charlie Parker played.
"Shirley is like an encyclopedia," said 17-year-old kiosk worker Tiffany Cordero. "She knows everything about the city and its history."
Cordero, who's going into her senior year at the High School of the Arts and Technology, said she shared reading recommendations with her 66-year-old co-worker Selma Jackson. Cordero suggested two Junot Diaz books. In return, Jackson shared her knowledge of New York City night life and culture with Cordero and St. Armand.
Jackson, a retired banker, business owner and teacher, said she grew up with a bus driver dad who encouraged his children to get to know New York and take advantage of everything the city offers. She tried to pass that enthusiasm on to her younger co-workers, she said.
"It was a fun way to interact with them and share with them my excitement about being a New Yorker," Jackson said. Along the way, they inspired her, she said. Some of the teenage kiosk workers speak foreign languages; now Jackson want to sign up for Spanish class.
Elizabeth Grant, a 61-year-old with no children, said she was skeptical at first about working with teenagers. "I thought, what am I going to talk to them about?" Grant said. But connecting was no problem. "We got into deep, heart-to-heart conversations," said Grant.
Grant told the teens about her 23-year career with the United Nations, including a "hair-raising" stint with peacekeeping forces in Kosovo in the 1990s. "I had things to tell them about the world," she said.
Last summer she worked with a teenager from Haiti who's mother had survived the earthquake there. Grant, who lost three U.N. friends in the earthquake, quickly formed a bond with the young man. They still call each other, and Grant says she considers him a good friend.
This summer, St. Armand and Cordero said they enjoyed talking politics and restaurants with Grant.
"It was good for me," said Grant. "Mainly I'm with people my own age. I didn't know what I was walking into, but it was a very heartening experience."