Friday, February 20, 2009

Why your tour sucked

If you rode the Blue double-decker bus last summer, chance are at least some of the following you'll recognize. The Red bus is a bit better, but not by much - Add longer lines but less general chaos. Since I never worked for them I can't really comment too much - check out this blog if you want the inside scoop on that company.

First, you were accosted on the street by a ticket seller promising the world (or at least New York) or maybe it was recommended by the Concierge. Stops everywhere, buses all the time, hop-on and hop-off to your hearts delight for three days, one low price. Throw in a cruise and a museum admission. Your questions were met with a heavily accented "yes, yes," you figured "what the heck" and bought. You might have even bought thinking that in addition to the tour part, that it was a great way to get around town. No paying for cabs! There's a fairly good chance the ticket seller claimed his credit card machine was broken and wanted cash. He printed out some strips of paper or gave you some tickets and pointed you to a bus on a nearby corner. And that's when your tour started to suck.

A bus came along, but didn't stop. Then an empty bus drove right by you. Another come along, but the guide tells you it's full and drives off. The ticket seller has disappeared or obviously doesn't know what's going on. Finally, after an hour, you manage to get on. This is going to be great! You sit down, ready for the tour, and hear some partially intelligible words through a static filled microphone by the guide. You get up to ask a question and the tour guide yells at you to sit down. A good thing you did also, because the bus is barreling along, and all of sudden stops short, almost throwing the guide over the side. Even though you bought the ticket because of "hop-on, hop-off," you're scared to get off, because you don't know if a bus that isn't full will come along again.

Well, at least the weather is good, and the view is nice. Riding along on a double-decker tour bus can be pretty fun. You wish you could hear though - there's someone jabbering away loudly in Italian next to you. You try to motion to the tour guide to ask them to be quiet, but he shows absolutely no interest in anything but talking into the broken mic about how this is a service profession, and you shouldn't forget to tip. And then it starts to rain.

At first it isn't bad, but when it starts to come down you decide to go downstairs. If you're on the Red bus, you're thinking that it would be nice if there were windows downstairs. If you're on the Blue Bus though, you're still wet thinking it'd be nice if there were a downstairs at all. Instead your tour guide gives you a flimsy yellow "poncho," and tells you there's not enough when you ask for two.

But it's OK. You've got a 48 hour pass, all the loops, the works. 48 hours is a long time. You're still ready for more (once it stops raining). And you don't have to worry about how to get back to your hotel - the bus goes in a loop, so you just stay on until you get there.

Except the tour guide kicks you off before your stop. He seems to kind of glance suggestively toward the box labeled "Tips," and offers you a grudging "thanks" when you throw in a buck. You ask how you get back to your hotel, and are told to walk, take the train, or take a cab. This is the end of the line. You could have sworn the ticket seller told you the buses run 24-7, but no, they stop in the early evening - you must have mistaken the "24-hour ticket" for "24 hour buses." The tour guide points you around the corner - maybe you can catch a "night tour" that will take that'll take you there. The line is down the block, but the buses seem to be filling up quick. Finally it's your turn - except when you get on the bus just sits there half-full. You keep asking when you're leaving and you keep getting "in 5 minutes" every five minutes. Finally it takes off and you learn this one isn't hop-on, hop-off. You got a two-hour tour, but not a ride back to the Hotel.

The next day though, it's a little less crowded. You decide to hop off and see the sites. You have a free museum ticket, but you're told the museum's closed. That's OK, you can still catch the cruise. The guide tells you that the cruise only leaves 3 times during the day, but you might make the last one if you hustle, and points you down the block. After 10 minutes walking, you reach a desolate industrial area, but you haven't hit the water yet. Another 10 minutes, you find the cruise terminal. The boat is taking off. No refunds or exchanges for tomorrow of course, but you can pay $40 for another ride. Instead you choose the $10 cab ride back to midtown. It sure would have been nice to know the times the boat leaves and that the museum was closed - you could have arranged it all perfectly.

An altogether unpleasant experience. You want your money back. You ask the tour guide about this, and he tells you to talk to the ticket seller. The ticket seller tells you to talk to the dispatcher. The dispatcher tells you to find the original guy who sold you the ticket, but how are you going to do that? Then he tells you to cancel the charge on your credit card, but you paid in cash. Exasperated, he tells you to call the office. You get a machine, leave a message, and never hear back.

Now, your tour could have been much different, without even a lot of effort. It could have been a pretty good experience - a smooth ride in frequent buses, space to sit, an intelligible tour guide more interested in pointing out the sites than asking for tips, an honest business transaction at the beginning where how the buses work and what you're getting are clearly spelled out, and you don't feel like you got hustled. But that's the thing - the double decker tour guide game is one big hustle. There's a reason why everyone acts the way they do, and it's not because they want to make your life miserable. It's simply because of how the business is structured. I'll spend the next few posts trying to explain.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

How to deal wth racists

I am not a gay Uzbekistani. However, today I played one on the tour.

The easiest, most non-directly-confrontational way to deal with the people who had mentioned that they had gotten their hot dog from "that immigrant guy," was simply to be "an immigrant guy" myself. Since I'm white and have no discernible accent (for character purposes, I had left Uzbekistan when I was 5), sometimes the tourists feel OK letting stuff like that slip. I threw in the gay part just for fun.

Now most tourists , even the bad kind of tourist, are not racist. But there are various levels of ignorance that are shown on the tour - mostly by Europeans, who don't really have a great sense of what is or isn't appropriate, rather than Americans. In addition, Euros sometimes have kind of a voyeuristic fascination with black and hip-hop culture (and especially Harlem) that makes me cringe a little.

But occasionally you get some unapologetic backward Americans. Not 1960s style racist, and without any real malice, but who say things like "look, a real life Chinaman" (I kid you not, that is a direct quote from a tourist while driving through Chinatown), or wear a "welcome to speak English" T-shirt. Or the person who asked my Canadian girlfriend on the tour "do you have blacks up in Canada like we do here?" And it's less what they say - it's more their reaction to what you're saying.

It's weird to deal with this. You've got a job to do, and you can't very well stop the tour and give them a lecture on inclusivity and tolerance and such. There's really only two things to do - start the general spiel about how great New York is for its diversity, or make yourself into the object of their prejudice so that the tourists feel like assholes and reconsider their thinking.

The first one is pretty fun - after my general spiel, my kicker is usually "it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, whatever walk of life, there's a place for you in New York. There's even a place for Republicans - there's an entire Republican float in the Gay Pride Parade every year (which happens to be true). It's function is to make the point to the tourists that they're in our city, and they need to behave respectfully in it. I don't go take a tour of Mississippi and talk about all the rednecks around, don't come here and talk about "those immigrant guys."

The second one is easier said than done of course. I can pass myself as an Uzbekistani immigrant, or even half-Puerto Rican if I have to. And since I actually am Jewish, the laughing and pointing at the guys in the funny hats with the beards and curls (which happens a good amount) is also pretty easy for me to deal with. I routinely talk about my boyfriend if I get funny looks when doing the spiel on the Stonewall riots in the Village. But of course it's tougher when the object of ignorance is someone who I have no hope of reasonably approximating.

I don't act any different from how I usually do, or even do much of a different tour - in fact, part of the point of doing this is showing the tourists that just because someone happens to look and sound like them, they can't assume they aren't "that immigrant guy," or whoever else they might think it's OK to subtly ridicule. It's not a perfect solution, but it's the best one I can come up with. And it's always a lot of fun.