Sunday, January 17, 2016

You Can't Get This on YouTube, Actually

Getting yelled at by randos on the street is part of my job.

I'm a New York City tour guide, which means I encounter any and every type of person imaginable on these city sidewalks. Some people are perfectly sweet and nice -- entertaining, amusing, wacky New Yorkers. These people are great.

But I’ve also had people yell “TOURISTS!” and “LIES!” at me on my tours. I’ve had cabs deliberately splash me. I’ve had frat boy types yell, “Whooooo ghosts!” (Yes, I do ghostly and macabre tours.) One woman told my group they deserved to get hit by a car and die. Their crime? Standing on the sidewalk outside her house. Once someone called me a liar just as I was telling a group that Fraunces Tavern is still an operating restaurant. “You’re right," I said, "You can’t get a nice meal there, that was a total falsehood, you guys.” Most of the time the best thing to do in these scenarios is muster whatever shred of dignity you have remaining, and ignore them.

But it can get wearying. Because here's the funny thing: I don't like getting yelled at by people. Especially people who literally have no idea who I am, and what I'm saying. Not one of these people has ever listened to me talk, and probably even if they did they're so heavily influenced by indignation and alcohol it wouldn't matter. And I realize it's hypocritical to get uppity about street drunks on an Edgar Allan Poe tour, but something that happened last night bothered me enough to goad me into making a public statement to settle this once and for all.

A Response to a Real Life Troll

My customers are not "tourists". (80% of my year round clientele live in the five boroughs or the tri-state area, and even if they were tourists, that doesn't really mean they deserve to get yelled at just for existing.)

My guides do not tell "lies."

And you can't get this on YouTube.

Let me explain that last one.

Last night a particularly lovely and intelligent gentleman was idling at a stoplight on Waverly Place, where he treated me and my group to a barrage of insults for the entire duration of the red light. Yelling out his SUV window, he began with the usual ("Lies! All lies! Don't believe a word," etc.) then helpfully added, "You can get this all on YouTube!" He finished by admonishing my guests to "Read a book!"

What a truth teller!

Think of the incredible powers of deduction this man must have. Without even hearing a word of what I was saying, he was able to deduce instantly that I was simultaneously lying, reenacting a popular YouTube video (I usually alternate between Sneezing Baby Panda and The Evolution of Dance) and trying to convince my guests to stop reading. Unfortunately, before I could chase this genius down and beg him to make love to me, the light changed and he drove away.

For some reason, the whole episode really got under my skin. Why? I'm used to being called a liar. What was it about these comments that bugged me so much? Was it the fact that I basically experience the IRL equivalent of trolling? Possibly.

"Read A Book!"

I think the "Read a book" comment struck me as particularly irritating, for one, because there's a (wrong) belief among some people that tour guides do nothing more than regurgitate the same exact knowledge you could get from a book or a website. Let me tell you something: if your guide is doing nothing more than sharing information, he's doing it wrong.

You can't, as some have suggested, "save money" by "reading a book instead," or downloading an app or, god forbid, using Wikipedia or internet listicles ("Manhattan's Ten Most Haunted Places!") to get the same experience my guides and I provide. I mean, you could get the same raw information, certainly, but again, it's not about sharing information. That's barely half of what we do. The other half? Engaging in dialogue with you, sharing and listening to personal stories, answering your specific questions, synthesizing heaps of information from diverse sources that would take you hours if not weeks to find on your own, weaving narratives and telling stories (you know, like how they do on TV and in the movies), and making you laugh. Yes, my macabre death-tours are funny. Perversely funny.

Flesh and Blood Gore 

The spontaneous human interaction and element of live performance you get on one of my walking tours cannot be obtained simply by reading a page of text and staring at a specific location. But if you're still hell bent on going the self-guided route, by all means, do. Other things you can do to save money and pass the time include cutting your own hair, reenacting Broadway plays in your living room with your cats, and pulling your own teeth. (Actually, reenacting Broadway plays with your cats sounds fun. Let's make that, "Read a transcript of "Hamilton" or "The Book of Mormon" on your phone. Yes, that's a better analogy.)

Look, I realize the guided tour experience isn't for everyone, and some mavericks will never enjoy being part of a group or listening to a guide. (And some people will never feel weirdly compelled to watch Wicked Tuna either.) I know that sometimes it's more fun just to wander and ramble alone than to take a guided tour. But what we offer is less a "guided tour" than an imaginary exploration of a long-vanished New York City, accompanied by the telling of ghostly, gory tales by professional story-tellers. In short, it's a live performance. And you can't get that in a book or on a website, even YouTube.

PSA: How To Avoid The Bad Ones

If, by the way, you're ever on a walking tour where you think what your guide is doing could actually be replicated or even improved in webisode or podcast format, or if the info you're getting is widely and commonly available online and everywhere in the world, then your tour guide is failing as both a performer and a researcher and needs to be stripped of their license -- if they have one -- before they bore someone to death. Sadly, I'm in pretty tainted company here, because many, many ghost tour guides in the city are guilty of this... not mine, of course, but I'm not about to go around naming names.

Quick PSA: before you take a tour with any ghost tour company in NYC, please check that their guides have licenses first. Most reputable companies will list their guides' first and last names on their websites, and a quick DCA license lookup will show whether or not they are licensed. If they're unlicensed, or their real names are unlisted, caveat emptor. I say this not to bash my competition, but to keep you from suffering through a shitty, derivative tour.

You Make It Better

Look, YouTube is great and can totally offer some stuff that I can't. This is very big of me to admit, I realize, but I am a humble person. Mostly, it can offer this great version of The Raven as read by Christopher Walken (Poe's name is spelled wrong, but the poster has added a sincere apologia, so it's all good):

But here's a funny thing that happened last night. At the end of my Poe tour, a customer said, "You know, I'm inspired to go back and re-read some Poe. I haven't done that in so long." It's moments like that that make up for all the heckling and complaining. Much like my live performance is more satisfying -- really! -- than an app or a website, my real life customers are what make everything all worth it.

You guys are amazing and I love you. 

I'm not sure I was ever inspired to re-read anything by Poe because of a video I saw on YouTube, and there are actually some pretty decent Poe biographies/documentaries on there.

So yeah, watch them. Listen to Walken. Read a book. And if you're constitutionally inclined, take a tour that will immerse you in a live, interactive, engaging experience that will bring history and literature to life all around you. Don't yell at tour groups you see on the street; they might be New Yorkers and/or human beings with feelings.

And to the lady in the cab whose singing made a beautiful background for our discussion of Poe's ill-fated final days? We love you, too. Don't stop Beliebing.