Monday, January 30, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #3


I had a group one time that I believe was from the Midwest. I noticed something odd about their behavior as we walked down the street. I wasn't sure what it was, but it was as if they were in their own little universe. They seemed very isolated somehow. I later learned that they'd gotten some advice, presumably from their tour director, which I thought was one of the stupidest things I'd ever heard: Don't make eye contact with anyone.

As most people know, this is primarily a pedestrian city. That means that you're coming into almost direct contact with complete strangers all day long. Most of the time, you don't have the (limited) protection of being in a moving, lockable vehicle. As I already began discussing, you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. You need to be watchful for not only where the Crazy is coming from, but also what kind of Crazy is headed in your direction.

I'm not trying to encourage paranoia. Most of the Crazy is not much more than a nuisance. Other kinds of Crazy should be heartily avoided. If you're looking at your own feet, the storefront windows, or your travel companions instead of what and who is around you, you're putting yourself at risk of unnecessary hassles.

Looking someone right in the eyes and using the instincts all humans share is a great and easy way to determine if this is a person who ought to be avoided, and a second is all that takes. Trust your own gut. Over meekly staring at your own shoes, that look shows confidence (unless you have a scared expression on your face), which makes you less of a target. If the person is up to no good, they will know that you have seen their face and might potentially be able to recognize them. It's also friendlier. You will never personally interact with ninety-nine percent of the people you see. But looking people in the eye is a subtle way of indicating that you respectfully acknowledge their presence as a fellow human being in the shared space of a city street without having to say anything.

On the other side of this coin, please, don't stare. Yeah, there are a lot of weirdos here. I meet people from every part of the world in my job, and trust me, I've seen some pretty bizarre-looking people from where you live, also. That's no excuse. It's just plain bad manners. Just tell yourself, "everyone is different," and go about your business. As far as the crazy people go, who are purposely making a spectacle of themselves, they're probably the ones at whom you least want to be caught staring.

©2012, Ryan Witte

4. Quiet Down

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #2


There's a certain type of tourist I encounter now and then that makes my job less than satisfying and enjoyable. Often they're teenagers--who come with their own hormonal issues, to be fair--but adults are sometimes guilty of it, also. They've come to my city with a chip on their shoulder.

People from very small, rural towns already know cities like this one are bigger, faster, and crazier than where they come from (and I place no value judgments on that). They're often so flabbergasted and overwhelmed that they don't particularly have time to cop an attitude. People from other large cities sometimes have a "seen it all before" face, which can be annoying (and I do sometimes encounter the rivalry with Los Angeles, but not often). For the most part, however, these folks seem to feel a sort of urban kinship with New York and can simply appreciate how things may be different here, if not any more or less impressive than in their home city.

The attitude seems to appear most often in people from a town of a size in between these two. Their home town is large enough to have its own cultural identity, but not big enough to compete with a place like New York, Berlin, Tokyo, etc. New York has been way too hyped up for them, and in a way, they don't want to like it here. If they do, in their minds, it means there's something lacking, something wrong with the place they come from, and they would be insulting themselves by admitting it. In my own opinion, I think there is a great deal to be said for a place where life moves more slowly, people know one another, and nature is pristine and easily accessed. These are all things that we miss in New York. Visitors from places like that perhaps think that we're ignorant of these differences and believe New York has it all. Not all of us are, but it's the best explanation I've been able to devise.

The European attitude is a bit different. It can often be much more condescending. This attitude is not as much determined to be unimpressed, but gives the impression they think everything and everyone here is just very ridiculous. Yes, I know, the city you come from is 1500 years old and you have cultural history oozing from your every orifice. I respectfully marvel at the beauty of your European cities for that very reason. Oddly, this is not the attitude I get from visitors from Asia or the Middle East, who have all of us in the west far surpassed in that regard. I am fully aware that New York doesn't have the long, historical background that other places do, but we love it here despite that and, in some cases, because of it.

This city came of age in the past century. If you can't respect a city that was the pinnacle of everything that defines the twentieth century in the western world, kindly stay home. Whatever it may lack otherwise, New York celebrates technology and newness. We have gorgeous, gleaming skyscrapers and some of the most important, innovative buildings ever built during the peak of its development (around mid-century). We were the birthplace for numerous forms of music beloved throughout the world. I'll be the first to admit we may now have lost it, but from around the 1940s to at least the late-1980s, New York led the world in art, culture, and perhaps fashion. I'm not saying that's necessarily a good thing or bad. For one thing, I'd like to apologize to the planet for my country littering it with McDonald's restaurants. All I ask is that we collectively agree that the places we live and love all have something that makes them great. Visit here looking for that. Don't come here looking for things to piss on.

A bad attitude toward me and other people who live here will give you exactly the reaction you're expecting. People will be rude, unfriendly, unhelpful, and annoyed. I can assure you that the guests I encounter who are open-minded, willing to talk to me, and share my enthusiasm for my city get infinitely more out of their visit than the people who aren't. I go out of my way to show them the coolest stuff I can, because I can tell they'll be receptive and enjoy it. That's exactly the mindset I'm going to bring with me if I visit the place where you live. I'm going to want to see all the best it has to offer, especially if it's different from life here.

I just want to be rid of the people with bad attitudes. While I am never anything but completely professional with everyone, of course, these types get the barest minimum out of me. It only reinforces for them the "this place isn't so great" opinion they had before they even arrived. Would you walk into a person's house who has graciously invited you to be a guest and say, "your house isn't so great. I've seen better?" Maybe if you were raised by wolves. Most people recognize that as the very height of bad manners: a lousy guest. Well, that's exactly how it looks when you arrive here and act like my city bores you. You're insulting my home. As far as I'm concerned, you can take your attitude and get on the next plane out of here. Everyone else is completely welcome.

©2012, Ryan Witte

3. Eye Contact

Monday, January 23, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #1


This subheading may seem odd considering the title of these posts, but that will be explained later on. Back in the 1970s, before I got here, the city was a much different place. In the shadows of the two tallest buildings in the world--and probably two of the most expensive ever built at the time--lay a city crumbling into poverty and crime. Adding insult to injury, President Ford refused to help, as famously headlined by the Daily News: Drop Dead.

From most accounts I've heard, the city was mean and dangerous and, in a way, justifiably so. New Yorkers were pissed off, miserable, and struggling. This decade was also extremely culturally vibrant, perhaps ironically, perhaps not. It included the emergence and/or further development of Conceptual Art, Hip-Hop, Art Rock, Disco, Electronica, and House. But this was a city visitors needed bravery and a lot of street smarts to survive. Things are very different now, for better or for worse. New York has lost a lot of its creativity and individuality, but also a lot of its crime and bad attitude. When asking, "it's friendlier here than you were expecting, isn't it?" I have always gotten a "yes."

Only a day prior to this posting, without me even asking the question specifically, a visitor from London was telling me how surprised she'd been at how friendly a city this is. She and her companion would be studying their map, and people would go out of their way to approach and ask if they needed any help. I hardly think this is an isolated occurrence. I've done it myself.

These days, I'm always shocked to learn a visitor had a nasty experience with someone on the street who they presumed to be a native New Yorker. Shocked, that is, until I learn it was, say, around South Street Seaport. Very few of us were actually born and raised in Manhattan. Those who were are a somewhat quirky bunch in my experience. The people crowding the streets around South Street Seaport are not New Yorkers, unless they work in that area. You can usually tell the difference, or at least, I can.

Your experience asking someone for directions or advice would likely fall into one of three categories. Another tourist is unlikely to know the answer to your question, but should be relatively friendly about it. At most, they might be simply freaked out about a stranger in a strange land approaching them without warning. What may seem like rudeness may instead be caution. A real New Yorker, unless late for some important meeting, will very likely give you the twenty seconds to offer help with a smile.

The third person, who responds rudely to a polite, innocent question, would likely be from the surrounding suburbs. I don't mean to insult anyone from New York suburbs or imply that all or even most of them would behave this way, but allow me to explain. This person lives close enough to the city to know quite a bit about it. They want to appear native, and may actually think of themselves as New Yorkers. They may have lived here twenty-five years ago. They don't know enough about life here, though, to realize that nastiness is not a ubiquitous New York characteristic as perhaps it once was. On top of it all, being an outsider but only just barely, they have something to prove.

Just like any place, there are some people here who are dangerous or dishonest or both. Some are insane, others are just desperate and starving. The majority of people are none of the above. My advice is to be on your guard, but assume people have benign intentions unless they demonstrate otherwise. You'll know early enough if they're trying to get something from you that you don't want to give up, be it time, money, or property.

You get out of a place what you put into it. If you're terrified that everyone here is going to mug you or treat you like dirt, you're going to have a miserable time. On the other hand, if you're willing to talk to people who live here and interact with them, your experience will have much more personality to it than just a lot of photos in a photo album.

Yes, there are a lot of people here, and some of them want to scam you. But it's important to remember that, up to a certain point, people = safety. Unless we're talking about a cattle-herd density crowd, the more people there are around you on the street, the less likely someone is going to risk grabbing your wallet or pocketbook. The chances are just too high that when you yell out, some Good Samaritan is going to tackle them as they try to escape. This doesn't mean that an empty street late at night is necessarily dangerous in contrast. In all cases you merely need to remain consciously aware of your surroundings.

If, despite all this, you do find yourself being mugged, just give the mugger your stuff. If this person is willing to commit a crime for it, obviously they need the money more than you do. And stuff can be replaced, your life cannot. A whole day wasted at your country's embassy or wherever to replace IDs and so on is a hell of a lot better than spending the rest of your trip in the hospital with a knife wound. Hand over your stuff, say "that's all I have," and get out of there.

©2012, Ryan Witte

2. Leave Your Attitude at Home

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

Monday, January 2, 2012

Crossing the Line

I had a concept for my present wrappings this year. It wasn't as comical or goofy as "Ugliest Presents Ever." And I decided against trying to stage an Ugly Present Wrapping Contest. Wrapping my presents like that two years in a row would have been weird. So I'm back to what I hope are truly beautiful gifts. My theme this year was Stripes. Admittedly I was inspired in part by Gene Davis and also by the David Smith show going on at the Whitney at the moment.

Since I knew precisely what I was looking for, instead of the place where I normally get my wrappings (an art supply store on West Fifty-Seventh Street, the name of which escapes me), I thought my best chance would be Kate's Paperie. Unfortunately, they have moved to a much smaller space and don't have as comprehensive a selection as I'd remembered. In addition, by the time I got there, the whole store had mostly been picked clean by the Christmas Jackals. Luckily, there remained a wrapping paper that was almost exactly what I needed. The only problem was that the stripes were on the diagonal. So what you see here is the result of some very tricky geometry with the byproduct of a lot of different sizes of triangular scraps left over.

The arrangement under the tree was a later bit of inspiration, in response to the normally haphazard pile of presents one normally finds there. At the edge of the jumble, with the rough edge facing the rest, I wanted to form a sharp line, a border on the edge of the present pile. The ribbons color-coded each gift according to its importance, and the placement of them was the order in which I planned for them to be opened, with the first present (a bottle of Port because its obvious shape made it not a very big surprise) at the top. The bottle was actually the most difficult to get lined up with stripes. I had to match the stripe of the paper with the bottle's label and tape it into place before rolling it up.

Displaying my sort of craftiness with the tools of present wrapping again is no more or less related to the visual arts than Ugliest Presents was last year, I suppose. I did kind of make fun of the twisted way this holiday has evolved in the United States. [I've become more cognizant lately of saying "United States" rather than "America," to exempt from my criticism the Mexicans and Canadians. We in the middle of the continent are the ones who are the most screwed up.] Last year's critique was really not meant to offend anyone. I more meant to suggest in a tongue-in-cheek way that if one is going to celebrate this holiday and ignore its ancient mythological, pagan, and astrological roots, then one might at least celebrate what it was meant to celebrate: a great and kind political philosopher and perhaps prophet who preached love, acceptance, and forgiveness before being condemned to die for it. This is not to mention his admonishment of money changers in the temple, which is almost precisely what Christmas has become in an abstract sense.

This year, I'd like to discuss something almost entirely unrelated to the arts, but which follows the other line of pursuit on this blog, social justice. It's something of which I was only vaguely aware of hearing murmurs in the past few years. It was more acutely brought to my attention recently. It's the patently ridiculous and imaginary phenomenon known as The War on Christmas. Only in a place like the United States could anyone actually complain about something like this without being laughed right out of the room. I mean that this is a country populated overwhelmingly by Christians, but who also are in forced contact with people of an extremely wide diversity of different ethnicities and religions. It's sort of like a white person lamenting that there is a "war on white people" in this country. A lot of crackpots do say that, in fact, but anyone who knows anything at all about the world instantly recognizes this as utter crackpottery.

Much of the "war" seems to revolve around the scandalous practice of referring to the pagan, Viking symbol of a pine tree as a "Holiday Tree." One commenter on an article made an excellent point to someone from Britain who was confused about this. It was that no one in this country today would ever look at a pine tree with lights on it and associate it with anything other than Christmas, no matter what you might choose to name it to avoid alienating Americans who practice a different religion.

For those readers living in other parts of the world, I think it's important to emphasize just how ubiquitous this holiday is. I live in the one city in the United States--with a huge population of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, etc.--where it might be most possible to avoid the complete cultural saturation of Christmas in the month of December. But even in New York City, it is practically impossible. In the parts of the country where the dominant residents are fundamentalist Christian (the people who imagine there to be a war on, presumably), it must be far, far worse.

I touched on this briefly in last year's, ahem, "holiday" post, but a great illustration is found in the music. We have a radio station here called 1067LiteFM. The station appeals to stores without their own custom soundtracks because it plays mostly upbeat, pleasant Light Rock and Pop inoffensive to the point of occasional dullness. They play LiteFM in the elevators of my apartment building. The small grocery down the street, the laundromat, and the liquor store all play it. I can literally shop at a number of different stores and hear the beginning, middle, and end of a single song in different locations. Halfway through November, LiteFM starts playing Christmas carols and nothing but Christmas carols until well after Christmas itself. I had to hear "White Christmas" on a day that was over sixty degrees outside. One day doing my laundry, I had to hear not one, not two, but three different versions of "Sleigh Ride." Granted, "Sleigh Ride" is mostly a secular song, but it connotes nothing whatsoever if not the Christmas season.

According to the poll, only slightly over half of U.S. residents even know what Ramadan is. Much as I might trust the poll, I'm actually quite certain the true percentage is much lower than that. For one thing, the question that was reportedly asked, "Ramadan is...Muslim...Buddhist...or Hindu?" in a poll about religion is a very different question than, say, "What is the Muslim holy month called?" and even more so, "What is Ramadan?" asked outside of a religious context. I suspect far fewer white (non-Canadian) Americans know what Diwali is. In fact, I'm sorry to admit I only learned about Diwali relatively recently in exploring the idea of visiting India. I was even speaking recently to a young Indian-American guy who didn't know what Diwali was, although granted, he's a Christian born in the United States.

[Edited to add: Whether or to what extent Christmas is acknowledged in India, Hanukkah in Indonesia, or Ramadan in Sweden or whether people of varying faiths are found in large enough numbers there to warrant discussing it are subjects for other people's blogs. Since I live in the United States, I can only have an opinion about my experiences here.]

If there is a "war" being waged--and there isn't--I think it's fairly obvious to anyone who isn't completely insane who is winning that war. And it is not the person who respectfully says "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" to someone of whose religious background they're uncertain.

And this is part of a bigger problem, as well, a conservative backlash to ethnic integration that I'll call Religious Privilege. It's like how many white people in this country seem to believe the dominant culture should reflect their (white, Western European) sensibilities merely because it has been traditionally that way since we murdered off the Native Americans and/ or stole their land. Similarly, hardcore Christians have the "privilege" of not knowing the slightest thing about any other religious beliefs. People brought here from Africa in the slave trade mostly had their religious traditions stripped away or possibly even banned. Others were no doubt proselytised by missionary zealots. But beyond that, most every other ethnic group that immigrated here were discriminated against despite their adherence to Judao-Christian beliefs. We now have a large and growing number of full-fledged and patriotic U.S. citizens who are not just a different color, not just a different branch of Abrahamic religion, but of an entirely different religious and cultural background altogether.

Perhaps subconsciously, my multicolored gifts, all lined up in a single monolithic arrangement under the tree was metaphorically related to what I'd discuss here. Although I considered not posting this rant at all. Especially now that both Christmas and New Year's Eve are behind us, it seemed a bit unnecessarily serious a topic. But I'd like to believe that despite our occasional bigoted setbacks, the overall trend in this country over the long term is toward acceptance and inclusion of all people who might choose to come here. A tiny droplet of respect and concession toward people of different beliefs amid the drowning tidal wave of Christianity that floods through this country every November and December is something I think we could all consider a healthy step toward the future. Being insulted by the idea of including all people in a season of joy is immature, arrogant, and not in the slightest bit "Christ-like."

In looking back over the past year, I noticed things had gotten a little slow here. To be fair, many of my stories required extensive travel, research, and organization. These are the ones that have historically been the most popular, but they are time consuming. One of my New Year's Resolutions for 2012, for anyone who might welcome it, is to post much more frequently to this blog. A very Happy New Year to all my readers, and thank you for following!

©2012, Ryan Witte