Thursday, March 31, 2011

Off-season and Off-route, or, "Tours Shouldn't Be Given by CD-ROMs."

I've been a guide for a long time. It's my career.  As you know where everything in your home is, I know where everything in Manhattan is.  Sometimes this knowledge is put to the test.  When New York City throws something in front of you, you have to know how to get around the obstacle.  That's a basic rule of NYC tourguiding.  Sunday, March 20, was the first time Elegante Tours had called me up this year.
The season officially starts tomorrow, April 1.  This tour was late in the off-season and we were not quite prepared for the problems of the day on March 20, but we adjusted accordingly.  A live, licensed  guide makes all the difference.

I came out of the Subway that morning at 8:45 AM for a 9:00 pickup at the Manhattan Visitor Center on Seventh Avenue at 53rd Street.  What greeted my eyes were hundreds, then thousands of runners.  Seventh was barricaded from sidewalk to sidewalk.  Runners were doing the annual New York Half-marathon. They were streaming (live!) out of Central Park, heading through Times Square and were taking a right on 42nd Street.  A cop from the 52 Precinct, assigned to security duty, told me he'd heard that they had the West Side Highway blocked off running north from 42nd.  He'd heard that; nothing official. 

I called my dispatcher, who let me know my tourists' names and their location, a block west, over by Letterman's Ed Sullivan Theater; and that the van was on the way, coming down Broadway.  A baby could have toddled through Broadway traffic that morning, it was going so slowly.  The customers were standing under the marquee, no problem.  And we settled down to wait for the van.  I started walking north a minute later to (a) stay warm and (b) intercept the van before it got down to 53rd.  We met at 55th, everyone got in, our driver Karrington started off, and we started warming up.

My guests were to take the Elegante Platinum Tour, the route of which goes out through Hell's Kitchen to the West Side Highway (WSH) then straight south along the outskirts of Midtown, Chelsea, The Village, TriBeCa and drops off at Battery Park.  There we would pick up our Ferry tickets and go to the Statue Of Liberty.  This should be about a 20-minute ride. 

A fellow guide mentioned recently at a Guides Association of NYC ( meeting that she'd taken a bus tour of Paris, given by a pre-recorded voice on a CD-ROM. When the driver turned off the tour route for a mandatory detour, the voice continued blithely talking about things that none of the tourists could see!

Karrington and I discussed what we should do regarding the race route on the WSH. I told him what the cop had told me, so he detoured by running south on Ninth Avenue.  We figured we could get back onto the WSH on 34th Street. 

Prevented from being able to talk about the mighty Hudson River, The USS Intrepid, the Passenger Ship Terminal and Captain Sullenberger's ditching of the jetliner at about 38th Street,  I told my customers about Ninth Avenue.  "This is where New Yorkers eat.  We don't go to the crowded, overpriced chain-restaurant venues of Times Square," I said.  "We stroll Ninth, which has roughly 100 locally-owned, moderately-priced restaurants in the ten-block stretch from 54th to 44th."  They were shown The Film Center, between 45th & 44th, where the early TV series The Honeymooners had run for one year, and, across the street, Rudy's Bar, where costar Art Carney had been a regular all the rest of his days. 

We took a right at 34th but were rebuffed a block later.  The cop's information had not been complete: the runners were going south on the WSH.  We were turned down Eleventh, and went back to Ninth.  Okay.  We cruised through Chelsea.  I pointed out the Hudson Guild houses to the left, and the new dedicated bike lane that's painted green.  Told them the story of Clement Clarke-Moore.

Southbound traffic was slow due to all the would-be users of the WSH who'd been rerouted alongside us.  We were concerned because we were already more than 30 minutes late on the tour schedule. 

We took a right at Ninth & 14th, through the Meatpacking District.  I just learned, BTW, that the name of the district has now been acronymized.  It's now "MePa."  We tried accessing the WSH again, but were turned aside onto Washington Street, southbound through the West Village.

So the guests learned about the West Village! The Cherry Lane theater with Kim Novak's apartment on the second floor.  The identical houses built for the seacaptain's daughters (a myth).  Edgar Allen Poe renting digs, and getting treated for a bad cold.  The Stonewall Riot.  200-year-old townhouses.  The works.

The slower traffic goes
The more you have to know
Because it's the tourguide's show.

We gave up on the WSH and continued south on Washington until we neared the World Trade Center, took a left on Warren, and climbed the hill to Broadway.  "There to your left is New York City Hall.  Just for a moment, through its parking lot, you can see the twin Gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge." 

Traffic was heavy as we made our way down the final ten blocks of Broadway.  We were a good hour late now, but I kept up a steady stream of patter to keep the guests entertained while we waited to get there. 

"The monument at the near corner of Trinity Church is in memory of all the New Yorkers who died in the American Revolution.  Most of the gravestones are from the colonial era."  This was a nice preface, because the tour would later go through Trinity on our walking tour to Wall Street, and double back through this graveyard.  Later I'd tell them of monopolist Robert Fulton, Secretary Alexander Hamilton's duel with VP Aaron Burr, and the grave of Francis Lewis.  Pointing out the monument early laid the groundwork. 

"Now we're closing in on the Financial District. Like London's 'City,' this is the oldest part of town, and it's where the money is traded. To the left is Wall Street.  Later today we'll walk down to Wall & Broad."

Finally, Karrington got us safely to Battery Park and our drop-off.  It was now about 11 AM.  We should have been there about 9:45.  My guests were way late, and the tour would run long today, but they'd gotten to see a great deal more of Manhattan, complete with information and stories, than they would have otherwise.  It was a fair deal for the customers, and that's what it's all about.

Stan O'Connor
licensed sightseeing guide
member, Guide Assn. of NYC
See for my private walking tours by searching for the name "TourguideStan."
@tourguidestan on twitter