Friday, January 20, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York


In my job, I've had the opportunity and (dis)pleasure to be an ambassador to New York City for countless thousands of people. During my experiences, there have been a lot of things I've wanted to tell people (and sometimes have), to help them or out of my own frustration. Most often there isn't enough time, it would seem odd to offer unsolicited, or it would be downright inappropriate. So I thought I'd share them here.

The particular circumstances of my job put me in a somewhat unique position. A city tour guide who spends several days to several weeks with a single group of people will unquestionably get to know those folks better than I ever would. In contrast, I spend that time meeting group after group after group, that is, a much larger number of people in total.

Unlike a destination that's purely for entertainment value (like Radio City Music Hall, for instance), I work in an entertainment destination which is generally seen as having a higher degree of educational value, as well. As a result, I get a lot of captive audiences who apparently would much rather be gouging out their own eyeballs than listening to me. Therefore, it's imperative that I know who they are on at least a superficial level, to make my life easier.

Also, since there are indeed educational aspects to what I do and on multiple different levels and subjects, it is much more in my best interest to familiarize myself with the background knowledge of my groups in order to connect with them best and provide them with information that will be of use to them. For obvious reasons, a group of girls from a ballet school in an upper-middle-class suburb will get a completely different tour from me than senior citizens involved with their local Midwestern community theater, or high school students from the Bronx who have never heard Classical music before. I have to know who they are up front and occasionally in more depth as the time passes, in case I need to switch strategy or tone.

The purpose of this series of posts is to provide the reader with a few basic tools of survival for visiting this city, things one gets to know by spending a lot of time here, but which for some odd reason are not often explained by touristy guide books. There's always the possibility that it would make a good book, in fact. Writing out enough of it to be worthwhile on paper is time consuming and furthermore, there's no time like the present. If other New Yorkers would like to contribute installments to this, I welcome them.

Many people either don't realize that they look like tourists, or don't care that they do. Appearing as if you belong in a place has a number of benefits, however. It's safer, for one. There is not a lot of crime here anymore. In fact, cities as unexpected as Little Rock, Arkansas are far more dangerous per person than New York. But the fact is that for whatever criminal element remains, obvious tourists have a bit of a bull's eye on their backs.

Joining the flow of the city is a kinder, gentler experience. Although the major cities of the world have plenty in common, every one of them has its own rhythms and protocols. Sailing along with these currents rather than trying to row against them means you'll have an easier time. People won't be pissed off and confront you with unpleasant interactions.

This relates also to the global community we're beginning to see emerging on the internet. I'm reminded how wonderful this is every time I am able to chat with a person from the opposite side of the earth. I've come to know people who, no more than thirty years ago, I could have lived a million lifetimes and never met them. The flip side of our new electronic communications culture, though, is that diverse parts of the world are becoming increasingly alike. In a way, it has a very homogenizing effect on our various cities. So while the places where we live still retain some of the individual characteristics that make them unique, we should go out of our way to learn and celebrate them. If you don't, you may as well just stay home.

On a deeper level, your interactions with people here will be a bit more honest, less staged. On the rare occasions that I do visit sites mostly frequented by tourists, there's a sort of mask of formal courtesy that drops noticeably when an employee learns I'm a New Yorker. From the other side, while I treat everyone with equal humor, my comfort level is somehow higher with people who I know live here (or some place very much like it), who know what this is all about. In sum, if you go about your business like a New Yorker, you're much more likely to be treated like one. That is very much a good thing. Suddenly, you're an insider, not an outsider.

©2012, Ryan Witte

1. Friendlier Than You Think

2. Leave Your Attitude at Home
3. Eye Contact  
4. Quiet Down
5. Speak English
6. Get Lost!
7. Sightsee by Neighborhood  
8. Pick One Thing a Day and Forget It
9. Food
10. Restrooms
11. The Grid 
12. Transportation
13. Tipping

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