Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The end of an era?


Every year I think there can't be any more tourists. and every year I'm wrong. It's been a really good few years for those of us willing to hustle hard in the tourism game - we'll see what next year brings.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


I talk about pizza a lot on my tours. The more highbrow guides hate this - they want to focus on 19th century poets and Beaux Arts architecture. But this isn't what tourists think of when they think about New York - they think about things like pizza.

There are countless shows about various types of cooking and cuisine on TV nowadays - eating is big, and it's something everyone does. When tourists come to New York they want to experience culture, but they don't want the expense of theatre tickets, or the awkwardness of actually conversing with locals. So they go with food. Food is the easiest way for tourists (and most New Yorkers) to experience culture. They grab a slice, pretend it means something more than just some bread, cheese, and tomato sauce, and pat them selves on the back for doing something authentically New York-ish.

It's kind of irrelevant what the "best" pizza in New York is, if such a think can even be qualified. I generally tell them DiFara's first, then Lombardi's, then Totonno's, then Grimaldi's, but that's mostly just because it's what fits in with my shtick. If the route was different, the pizzerias in other neighborhoods, I'd probably tell them something else. Many times the tourists argue with me simply because the TV has told them something different. The TV is still the official arbiter of truth in our society, and to a tourist the opinion of one person on TV is worth 1000 opinions of people who aren’t.

But there's a certain limit to my playing it fast and loose. I let them know about coal-fired brick oven pizza (for those of you who don't happen to be pizza aficionados, the "coal-fired" part is more crucial than the "brick oven" part), and when talking about the best pies I stick to the generally accepted heavyweights. And like any responsible tour guide, I let them know that they aren't going to find anything really good anywhere near Times Square. In fact, on my last tour I spent a good 15 minutes letting them know not only what the best pizzerias are and how to get there, but also that there specifically aren't any anywhere near midtown. I mean, there's some OK ones: Patzeria is good for a slice, and John's on 44th isn't totally awful - but there certainly aren't any top, or even second-tier guys.

When I worked on the Blue Bus, our dispatcher was guy named Rodney. Rodney's quite a character in his own right, and there'll be lots more stories about him, but perhaps his most amazing trait was the way he answered questions. He always had one, and only one consideration when answering any question from a tourist (or anyone for that matter) - which is what answer would get them out of his hair the quickest. I don't think he was even of conscious of if the answer was entirely factually accurate or completely ridiculous - what happened to actually be the truth was completely irrelevant. One time I heard Rodney get asked by a tourist where he could find the best pizza in New York. Rodney’s answer – given without a moment's hesitation - was "Ray's, two blocks up." Now, if he had happened to be down on Mott Street, I'm sure the answer would have been "Lombardi's, right around the corner." But giving that answer on the corner of 50th and 8th, where he was at the moment, would have entailed explanations, subway directions, other questions, and generally a lot more hassle, so for that particular moment, on that particular corner, a day-old cardboard slice at the generic Ray’s across from the Hampton Inn was the best pizza in the 5 Boroughs of Greater New York City.

And you know what? That tourist was probably really happy that he just happened to be 2 blocks away from the best pizza in all of New York. Tourists don’t want to hear the truth. They want to hear what’s convenient. They want the New York that’s easy to also be the New York that’s good, and the New York that’s cheap, and the New York they’ve seen on TV.

I shouldn’t have brought up pizza on my tour. As it ended and folks were disembarking at the Northern outskirts of Times Square it was what was in their heads. I kept getting asked “so where’s a good place to get pizza?” I told them they could make it to Lombardi’s by the 10:45 last seating, but of course, nobody was interested. Despite my rant during the ride, the response was inevitably “no, where’s a good place like, around here?” Keep in mind “around here” to tourists means “between where I am and my hotel.”

The more I deal with tourists, the harder it is to not just follow Rodney’s philosophy of telling them the answer they want to hear. When I got asked, for the fourth time, where to find good pizza I almost gave in and said “Sbarro’s, one block down turn right.” But I couldn’t do it – I haven’t degenerated to that level of cynicism. Yet.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Solidarity Forever, Part 2

Grey Line Guides Accept New Contract

So the Grey Line (the red double decker you see around town) guides accepted a really, really bad contract. Why? Because the economy sucks and this city is built off of labor abuses. And tour guiding is a hustle, not a job, and unions are good for jobs, not hustles.

Many more thought on unions will be forthcoming.

Field Guide

Field guide to NYC tourists

Not a half bad piece. The lady who drove into the city and then complained about the aggressive drivers is the only one I rolled my eyes at. But pretty representative of the general midtown tourists I've dealt with.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Solidarity Forever

A good write-up about tour guides trying to organize in the Tenement Museum. Check out my buddy H.R.'s quotes.


This issue is only getting any press at all because of the fact that the tenement museum is supposed to be pro-union. More thoughts later.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

RIP Stan Tomashaw

One of the place tour guides often run into each other is the Fulton Ferry landing. I saw the blue bus down there and decided to go say hi to my old coworkers. We chatted for bit, gossiping about the various things that had happened in the city while I was gone. When I went to go back to my bus, one of my former co-workers told me "Oh yeah, the old man - he die." The "old man" she was talking about was Stan Tomashow. Stan was a regular fixture back on the blue bus, and the best tour guide I knew.

Stan had all the tools a good tour guide needed. First, he knew the city. Saying somebody knows the city is the highest compliment I can give anyone. Stan knew the history, and the architecture, and the culture, sure. But he knew the city not like an historian, or architect, or docent. He knew the city like the 30-year cabbie (which was appropriate, he used to be a cabbie), or the bike messenger, or the Private Eye in the old 50s paperbacks. He knew the city from the ground up, from letting it seep into his bones every day for decades, and kept it by letting that knowledge out to people every day as well. You could blindfold Stan, drop him off at a random corner anywhere in the boroughs, and he could do a tour. Heck, you could probably throw a time machine into the equation, dial up a random year between 1609 and now, and he could still do it. The best compliment I even got at that job, the one that left me smiling the rest of the day, the one that made me feel like I was a real tour guide, was when Stan said "you know Moses, despite all your bullshit, I hear you give a halfway decent tour."

Second, he was one of the hardest workers, and best hustlers I ever knew. Despite being old, in ill health, and with knees that would barely allow him to get up the stairs, Stan would regularly put in more hours than almost anyone else at the place. 12 hours a day, 6 days a week were a regular thing with him. And this isn't a 12-hour office day. This is 12 hours, outdoors (rain or shine), where finding 5 minutes to pee is a luxury. I've always prided myself on being a worker but I, at half the age of Stan, would have collapsed from working so much. But working only gets you so far in the tour guide game. Being a tour guide is a hustle, not a job. So you've got to be a hustler, which Stan was in spades. Stan got the best tips out of everyone, in no small part because he let the tourists know they were supposed to about every 5 minutes. We used to joke he did everything to get a buck out of the tourists but hit them over the head and rifle through their pockets for change. One time he told me he was doing a tour when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. "So I said to them, 'well, the bad news is that we're not going to the Statue of Liberty, but the good news is that now you get more time with me.' And then the second plane hit, so I took them straight to the Port Authority. But I still hit them up for tips when they got off." This is what I first thought of when my former co-worker told me “the old man – he die.” That here was someone who had worked so hard for such a thankless company for the last few years in order to try and retire in a little bit of comfort, and never ended up getting the chance to do so for even just a short while.

Third, Stan was a character. Being a good tour guide isn't ultimately about knowing the facts and stories. Every good guide I know is a character in some way. Stan, despite being a bald, raspy-voiced, overweight Jew from Brooklyn, decided his best look was lipstick, pearls, and a pink purse. Legend has it he was fired from the Red Bus for refusing to stop wearing a dress to work. I never saw him with a dress, but he did insist his tattered pink shorts he wore were not actually shorts but a "cut skirt."

Stan deserves a better eulogy than a post on a random blog dedicated to the trials and tribulations of being a Tour Guide in New York City. But that's what he's got. Stan lived in Tourist Hell until the day he died, and might have even liked it more than not. I was sad to hear the news, but happy to have know him for a short time at the end of his life. It wasn’t much, but after I heard the news I wore a string of pearls and bright red fingernail polish on my next tour in his honor.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why the hate?

“Hey man – we just want to go to what we’ve seen on TV.”

This is the answer I get when I finally snap and ask “why do you all want to go visit a construction site so badly?” I had just, for the umpteenth time, been asked if we're going to see "Ground Zero." When the guy in a blue T-shirt answers, it all suddenly makes sense.

I got my sightseeing guide license on a whim in the summer of 2001. Ever since I’ve been a working tour guide. I’ve done it full-time, part-time, sometimes only on a casual basis. I’ve herded Midwesterners on and off double-decker buses for seemingly endless summer days, schlepped gawking Brits around Harlem in Pedicabs, taken Eurohipsters on walking tours of the South Bronx. I’ve dealt with the young and old, dumb and smart, people from all over the world. And I’ve learned that fundamentally, there are only two kinds of tourists.

The first kind of tourist I love. They’re the ones that are interested in something. It might be Art Deco architecture, Revolutionary War history, Hip-Hop culture, any one of the myriad amount of subjects that could conceivably have something to do with New York. They might have a PhD in their particular interest or just read about it on Wikipedia last week. It doesn't really matter to me. It’s enough that they want to learn more about some aspect of the city I love, and I get a lot of professional satisfaction from helping them. It's what the job is all about. These people are, perhaps, 15% of all tourists.

The rest of the tourists I hate. They’re the ones who come to New York because they’ve seen it on TV.

They’re the ones who take entire tours based on learning how to act like
characters on a fictional television show. The ones who ask me, in all seriousness “so where do the celebrities hang out?” It’s their chance for a real visit to a make-believe place – and they want to go see the parts of make-believe land that they’ve seen from their living room couch.

And all of these type of tourists still have an amazing, seemingly never-ending, fascination with the World Trade Center site. Some try to dress it up in patriotic or historical clothing, but once the guy in the blue T-Shirt said it out loud, it finally made sense to me. The reason tourists all want to go to Ground Zero because they’ve seen it on TV. It’s really that simple.

Tour guides can always count on being asked where they were on September 11th (a question I usually answer with a terse “sleeping”). This is the most common question we get. More common than “is the subway safe?” More common than “where does so-and-so celebrity live?”

Of course, tourists don’t ask this question because they’re actually interested in what the answer might be. Occasionally they ask it as a way to take a stab at some strange sort of bonding experience over the event – in which case the question is inevitably followed by the “my cousin/neighbor/insurance agent’s daughter-in-law was in New York on September 11th” story that they’ve been dying to tell me since the tour began.

But usually they ask this because they’re secretly hoping that, maybe, just maybe, they’re talking to someone who was part of what they saw on TV. They’re hoping for stories of running from collapsing towers, or seeing people jumping out of windows, or being comforted by an ash-covered Rudy Giuliani before he has to fly off to Iraq to catch terrorists. Not only has the World Trade Center site long since been turned into New York’s primary tourist attraction, if you happened to be in Downtown Manhattan on 9-11, you’re a tourist attraction too.

This is why you always see tourists posing with cops and firefighters. Because other than maybe going to the Hello Deli to see Rupert Gee, it’s the closest they can get to celebrity. Not that they saw that particular cop or firefighter while they were watching the World Trade Center collapse, but at least the uniform’s the same and that’s usually good enough. This is now who is a “New Yorker” in tourists’ heads. Whereas before 9-11 New York was populated by pushy Jewish lawyers, drag queen heroin addicts, and gun-toting rappers, post 9-11 New Yorkers are all hunky heroic firefighters, differing only from their counterparts back home because of that funny accent.

The other thing is that while tourists can all rattle off the facts and numbers of September 11th, 2001 with startling accuracy, starting Sept 12th they know absolutely nothing. The second most common 9-11 related question I get is “so when are they going to rebuild the Twin Towers?” But I’ve learned to take this in stride. After all, why would tourists know anything about the rebuilding? It hasn’t been on TV.