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.


  1. Whats up? You are awesome! I am also an nyc tour guide and was checking out your allcitynyc site. Really great stuff! I very much respect your work. It's well written and amazing all the bridges you climbed tunnels walked through! The QB bridge! That old Bx Courthouse! I am jealous. Did you/ do you work for the blue buses? If so, we met already. -Sam

  2. On second thought, I know you work for the blue buses. We definitely met - weren't you trying to get a petition to unionize? Wow you were pretty low key about all the cool shit you do! I mean you could've dropped a hint about what a master city explorer you are. Seriously, I have done the most city exploring and researching of my friends and family and pride myself on nyc knowledge but your adventures are mindblowing achievements! Way to go and thank you. I can't believe I met you already - I was reading your stories thinking "who the hell is this guy?" Why didn't you talk about your feats to the other tour guides? Anyway I gotta talk to you. You must be a NYC Sage.

  3. HAHAHAHA! I love this article, i'm from Las Vegas....Nevada NOT New Mexico! lol! I realize it is from 2008 but i just goolged, i hate tourist after having some bad guest. i work as a show and tour ticket agent and i get the most rediculous questions!