Saturday, February 18, 2012

Unpaid Urban Tour Guide

Grand Central Terminal, NYC

“You’re just two stops after us,” the woman semi-confidently told the group of tourists puzzling over their subway map.  Since she was consulting her own map, I figured she was a tourist too. New Yorkers don’t carry maps. We just continually squint at the in-car maps when forced to venture to the exotic lands that lie on subway lines less taken.
Maybe I shouldn’t have interfered with an adventure in the making, but my stop on our uptown-bound train was still a minute away so I stepped over and asked where the group was trying to go.
“Soho,” came the response as we pulled into Union Square. I grimaced and barked, “Come with me if you want to live!”
Actually, I didn’t say that, though in retrospect it would have been funny, at least to me. Instead, as the brakes squealed I quickly explained that they had missed their stop when our train had unexpectedly gone express and skipped a few stations. At my urging the group followed me out of the train. In short order I led them past potentially confusing signage to the appropriate platform and then headed out alone into the sunny spring afternoon.
Brief detours into nonprofit urban tour guiding like these always make me think back to an overheard comment a few years back in another capital city (whaddaya mean NYC isn't the capital?).  I can’t remember the speaker’s name, but I remember his voice or at least the way he talked. He was kind of rough around the edges, with an authentic New Yawk accent – not the type of guy I was expecting to encounter at Kap’s Place, a guesthouse in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. But there he was along with the rest of us – either planning an adventure within the country or wistfully waiting for the flight home the next day. 
The woman at the desk at Kap’s had been amazingly friendly and efficient in handling multiple questions from guests, especially about finding our way around the poorly marked streets of the somewhat sketchy neighborhood. Unfortunately, she had gone off duty minutes earlier, replaced by someone who proved far less prepared to deal with information-seekers. When the New Yorker cheerfully asked for directions to the nearest bus stop, her response was far too vague for the neighborhood. He politely asked for clarification on his map, but all he received was a sullen look.
It was pretty surprising, especially given how helpful the earlier clerk had been and how service-oriented Kap’s Place was (this was a few years ago and I’d certainly stay there again – the experience was overwhelmingly positive). New York took it in stride though. He just ruefully smiled and told her, “You know, if you were in my city, I’d walk you to the stop myself.”
I don’t know if the clerk understood him enough to be appropriately chastened, but I’ve never forgotten his words or the calm, matter-of-fact manner in which he delivered them. I have no doubt that New York meant what he said (and that he realized that the clerk was probably just having a bad night), though I doubt that he would have expected his words to be so memorable.
It’s not like the incident made me repent the error of my ways; I hadn’t previously been stiff-arming beseeching tourists out of my path, even on the few occasions I had made the mistake of attempting to maintain a reasonable walking pace through Times Square. But it did make me think twice about striding past people who look lost, and about the advice I give them. I’m a lot more likely now to take the time to lead people, usually tourists but not always, to their destinations if they appear to need the extra guidance. Sure the detours have on occasion cost me a missed train connection or the opportunity to grab a bite to eat, but they’ve never failed to make me smile and think to myself in my best New York accent, “Hey, you’d do the same if it was your city.”
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Gotta Gettaway by Josh Lewis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.