A Note from Over Ground

Most New Yorkers never look up. Want proof? Note how, in their groping efforts to create something resembling a news story, reporters overlook an entire class of people, whose lives are ruled by the weather.

The CitySights bus travels through Times Square.  Photo by Hal Wiener, from A View From the Bus, A Tour Guide Takes Manhattan,  by Carla Stockton, Felicia Brings and Hal Wiener.

Next time a double-decker tour bus wends its way into your line of vision, look up at the sightseeing guide, the uniformed person holding a microphone, commenting on what the seated tourists are seeing. Try to envision what it’s like to be doing what she is doing – standing or sitting in the wind, talking over the noise of the city, being tussled about by the movement of the bus. In the summer, there is no relief from the heat, the sun, the exhaust, nothing to protect the skin from burning, the lungs from choking; in the winter, there are no coats warm enough, no gloves thick enough, no boots repellent enough to prevent frostbite or worse.

carla tourguideOnce upon a time not so very long ago, I was a guide on a big blue bus, and my winter initiation happened during my first week, on a late afternoon in early March.

Somewhere between Madison Square and 14th Street, the temperatures had dipped dramatically, but because the day had begun quite temperately, no one – myself included – had dressed for cold. As the air turned frigid, passengers on the bus huddled together, nuzzling for warmth; the young blonde in the very back of the bus took an oversized poncho out of her bag and drew it over her head. Her dark-skinned companion burrowed under the poncho and brought her head up thru the top, so that the two heads bobbed with the motion of the bus, giving the women the look of a souvenir from some cheap carnival side show act.

The bus swayed in the blustering wind, my voice cracked with the cold, and I could see my passengers were far more interested in breathing warmth on one another, on rubbing their hands together for warmth, stomping their feet. I kept talking, of course, it was my job, but my voice was strained, and the stories I customarily told froze uncomfortably on my tongue. Now a light, wintry rain was beginning to fall.

We got to Battery Park, and I sighed my relief. A coach was parked in front of us, and my passengers now had the option to disembark from the open-top bus and cocoon themselves in the closed vehicle’s dry warmth.  Gratefully, all but the conjoined twins clomped down the stairs and hurried to the waiting vehicle. I approached the young women and encouraged them to join their co-travelers.

The looked at each other for a moment, then they looked up at me, standing over them.

“Please,” the blonde one stammered.   “Not to get off.”

“But it’s cold up here, the rain is coming and. . . “

The young woman flustered for a moment, clearly assembling a few words in this foreign language she had fought so hard to learn in time to make this trip.

“I begging pardon. Ehh. I wish be riding. Ehh. No. WE wish to look New York. Is storm city.”

The bus pulled away from the stop, and I wrapped myself in my jackets, drew a plastic raincoat over my head recommencing my talk about the tenaciousness of the immigrants who built this city.

It was my job.

 

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Get Real: Titanic on Wheels (Part 2)

Get Real: Titanic on Wheels (Part 1)

“Everyone’s up in arms about the poor horses, and I don’t mean any disrespect for those horses, but they are treated better than tour guides. The real victims out here are the humans driving this business.” Stefan Stanley.

Floating in Paradise

Tom Hanks, arriving in Thailand in as a rather unwilling Peace Corps recruit in the film Volunteers (1985),  looks out into the seering sun, surveys the landscape to which he has just arrived, and says rather desperately, “Jesus *H* Christ, we must be a mile from the sun!”

I was lucky.  When I arrived in Ko (Ko is Thai for island) Samui it was already October, and while it was far warmer than I prefer my autumnal temperatures to be, the cool breezes wafting off the Gulf of Thailand, the autumn rains blowing in from higher ground kept things downright comfortable throughout my sojourn there.  I had been told I was headed to Heaven, and nothing  about my 8-day stay disabused me of that notion.

 When I entered Bangkok, having arrived from New York by way of Detroit and Tokyo, the customs official who stamped my passport grinned largely when he read my local address.  “Oh, you go to Samui!  You very lucky.”  He looked me straight in the eyes to make sure I had got his drift.  “Heaven.  Samui Heaven!”

Thais are proud of this island with its langorous beaches and island calm.  The concierge in my Bangkok hotel told me it was his dream to go to Ko Samui.  He said he has to work too much and can’t get away, but if he could ever get a vacation, he would head straight for Samui.

Who wouldn’t!  In October, Samui is a veritable perfection.  When the rains come, they cool the jungle, refresh the air, descend deliciously.  After they leave, the air is clear, crisp, clean.  Everywhere you go are sandy beaches, and when the fishermen are not dumping their garbage, the beaches are downright pristine.  The water remains warm enough that you never need to acclimate; just jump right in!  And yet they have just enough chill to envigorate.

Lots of expats live on the island, and that makes it very comfortable to be a “foreigner” in Samui, but it also poses a challenge.  If the quiet, serenity of Lamai or Netong, for example, or the solitude of Boku seem commonplace, then the crowding and the noise of Chaweng can be jolting.  Night life in Chaweng — especially along the routes of the Sexpats, foreigners here for a deeper plunge into Thai hospitality.   Dance club owners, fight promoters, even bar girls’ agents roam the streets in vans equipped with loudspeakers and recorded music to accompany a speaker extolling the virtues of the establishments, inviting all who are hungry to come imbibe.

Expats, naturally, bring development to any Paradise, and on Samui, construction is everywhere.  Crews are brought in from cities around Thailand and other countries to work on the sites; they are bused from their communal housing to the workplace in the morning and bused back in the evening, and the signs of their work can be seen in the most unexpected of places.  Unfortunately, where a sense of conservation and preservation is thematic on the island, its rank oposite is equally so.  Impromptu garbage dumps abound in the jungle, along the beaches.

Funny thing about expats is that they pretend to know more about the place than the natives.  Maybe, in some cases, they do.  But, like NY sightseeing guides, they make things up, pass fiction off as truth.  I overheard one guy, who’s lived there, he said, for fifteen years, say that the garbage washes in from Hong Kong and China, that the pollution comes from as far away as Seoul.  “Not our garbage you’ll see out there in the water.  It’s all stuff from far away.”

In any case, as I said before, I was lucky. I saw no garbage in the water. But I was told that there are times when the beaches are piled high with discarded nets and food containers, thrown off the fishing boats; algae find their way to some of the coves, and jelly fish, wrenched from elsewhere by storms, will taint the joy of swimming.  But I was never subjected to any of that.  All I saw were lovely white beaches and clear, inviting water. Because you’re on the Gulf of Thailand, you don’t even have the interference of waves.  I told you, just enough gentle undulation and the weight of salt to remind you you’re in an ocean.  Paradise.

Massage enthusiasts must love these beaches.  Everywhere you go, there are impromptu massage tables set up to enable a client to can lie down, listen to the sound of the gentle surf, bask in the sun, and indulge him/herself in relaxation.  And on top of that, it’s Thai Massage — very hot these days!

All along the shorelines, food mongers gather, offering every kind of seafood and fresh fruit and vegetable one’s imagination can conjure.  Like coconut water?  You needn’t walk fifty steps between sellers offering to open a freshly fallen coconut and make available to you its succulent and refreshing juice.

There are lots of coconuts on the island, and the natives are very good at gathering them.  They’ve got cheap help too — local monkeys are trained to climb the trees, twist the giant nuts from their limbs and throw them to the ground for harvest.  Of course, this can create something of a hazard to beware of — a coconut thrown from a height of 60 feet (frankly, even a coconut pulled by its own gravity from a height of 60 feet) can do real damage to your head and other bodily parts.  Even Paradise has its dangers.

More exist than meet the eye, actually. Like serpents and such also live here.  As I was about to go for a walk down the jungle path that led from my home base to the beach, I was warned, “Just in case. . . if you see a snake, let it pass.  People get hurt because they don’t see the snakes and step on them or something try to catch them.  Just let them pass.”  What kind of snakes, I wonder aloud.  “Cobras — especially King Cobras — and vipers mostly.

At the CDC office where I got my travel shots, I was warned to avoid bats and mosquitoes.  “Sleep in clothing,” the doctor told me.  “Bats will bite you while you sleep, and you won’t even know it. And wear Deet so the mosquitoes leave you alone.”  I saw a couple bats flying by in the evening when were were out, but I remained unmolested.  Though there are mosquitos on Samui, malaria is rare, but dengue fever, another mosquito-bourne disease, is less rare.  Still, it’s not considered threatening enough to cause alarm, and few among those living here would even consider using Deet.  We did carry a naturopathic bug spray around with us, and that seemed to suffice; one night, when we went for dinner at a beautiful beachfront restaurant, the waiter brought us bug spray with our menues; we did apply the substance, and we were left alone.  Didn’t I tell you this is paradise?

Some beautiful places are plagued by rats, but I saw none on Samui.  What Samui does have is a large population of feral dogs. They congregate like rats, menace local runners, threatening small pets;  they also lounge around in the middle of the road, creating a serious hazard for drivers, especially for those on the ubiquitous motor bikes.

And, speaking of perils, the motorbike riders are their own kind of menace.  There are so many of them that they have developed a kind of entitlement, a stance, at least,  that suggests that they believe they own the road.  Driving a car or walking can be risky because there is little awareness on the part of the swarming bikes’ drivers that there is anyone else on the road, and a little scooter can do great damage to a small car or little person attempting to navigate around it.

But these are minor impediments to an environment that is otherwise without flaw.

Times Square Apassionata

The other day, I heard a tour guide telling a walking tour, “Back in the days before Disney came to New York, Times Square was not so family friendly, but nowadays it’s been cleaned up, more like an urban amusement park.”  I sighed.  Remembering.

When I was 18, I had a job on 44th Street and 12th Avenue.  I lived in Queens, so to get to work, I took a bus to Main Street Flushing and then jumped on a still new-looking 7 Train, which took me to 42nd Street and 7th Avenue, from whence I walked west to the river.   My report time was 7:30; so, even in the summer, darkness lingered over most of my journey, and when I emerged from the tunnel into Times Square, the gray steam of early morning still dripped from the building overhangs.

The first time I made that journey, I entered the world hesitantly.  Times Square in the crepuscular minutes just before the sun rose was peopled by potentially terrifying characters.  I grew up in the granite-guarded isolation of the Adirondack Mountains, after all, and the only place I had encountered people like these was in the books and comics I read, the movies I went to see.  City of Night, Manchild in the Promised Land, Batman, Midnight Cowboy. Luckily, they were characters with whom I had an intimacy that promoted a modicum of understanding I did not have for myself. I didn’t know what they might think of me.

There was a small group of prostitutes who congregated together in front of the Lyric Theater, where the Hilton Theater is today, having coffee from a nearby greasy spoon, smoking and talking and giggling, perhaps too wired to go home to sleep or maybe waiting for someone to pick them up; I never knew.  I felt like I was in Junior High, having to pass the cool girls, hoping they wouldn’t make fun of me.

They didn’t. “Good morning, Sweetie,” a very large, older woman called to me; the others chimed in, warning me to be alert, to watch out for vagrants hiding in the shadows.  By the third or fourth day, they had coffee for me — I couldn’t drink it because I hated the “white Coffee” (extra cream) they drank, but I didn’t want to insult them, so I fake-sipped it as I headed west, thanking them profusely.  I lasted in the job (a story unto itself) for eight months, and every day in every kind of weather, the bevy was always there, expecting me when I emerged from the subway.

I finished work at 4, and the streets could be already pretty dark when I made my return trip.  I walked briskly East on 42nd Street from the river, one of many, mostly other members of the work force wrapping up their day.  I moved in sync with gal Fridays, clerks and typists in too much make-up, too-high spiked heels, too-tight mini-skirts, with office managers in dowdy, cheap suits, sensible flats, hats and gloves.  Construction workers stopped packing up their wares to shout their version of compliments at us as we walked or to jeer at the drag queens slinking along the edges of the buildings.  Well-dressed family men pulled their hats down over their eyes as they were sucked in by the blaring, undulating light of one of the many peepshow or porn  flick theaters that staved off the deepening darkness.

Cleaned up?  Times Square may be overrun with families now, but it’s far more tawdry, far less wholesome than the Times Square of my youth.

The Naked Cowboy and his imitators strut around in tightie whities, miming molestation of people’s adolescent daughters while parents laugh and snap photos.  A ridiculous-looking middle-aged man, wearing a headdress right out of a ’50’s western, parades his insignificant jewels in a skinny pair of black or white briefs as he drums a come-hither on a child’s tom-tom.  A massively wrinkled drag queen in a green bikini, her face and torso too red from an overdose of tanning rays, adjusts the Ms. Liberty crown perched on her head and collects tips in the sagging bottom of the over-packed bathing suit.  A vanful of migrant workers, bussed in from Queens and handed costumes in a lobby near the Discovery Museum, walk about as the dramatis personnae from best-known Disney films and television series, encouraging the kids to hug and fondle them.   In the center of it all, every Friday, a group of hate-spouting Black men spew ill-disguised racism and anti-semitism while tourists from around the world grab photos to send home on their iphones.

Who would call this wholesome?

I saw Batman talking to the Naked Cowboy the other day, and for a moment, it looked like Batman might ensnare the offending creep and carry him off in the Batmobile.  Wishful thinking.

Oh, well, even if he did, there’d be another to take his place.  It’s simple economics.  Just like they did in the late 60’s of my youth, people gotta make a living.  Come to think of it, the tour guide was right.  Times Square really is just an amusement park, and the revenues are where it’s at.

Hot Time, Summer in the City

Something I’ve observed this summer, worse than ever before, is that tourists are invading every corner of the city, making demands, being cranky, expecting to find Valhalla and finding instead the tricked out, dark underbelly of Oz.  They have bought into the Disney image of New York that Mayor Bloomberg and his 1%-ers have hyped to the hilt, and they blame New Yorkers for the fact that in real life, this city is still a dirty, noisy, hot, muggy, polluted, poorly air-conditioned and ridiculously expensive cesspool.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love New York.  I have never wanted to live anywhere else.  But when I am solvent enough to leave the city every summer, I shall.  Where will I go?  Anywhere but here.

Summer temperatures top 1000 at least in heat index for much of the summer.  While weather idiots on the tube regularly crow about the gloriously hot summer temps, they are safely ensconced in studios with average temperatures of 700F or lower, knowing they are about to get into hyper-cooled town cars that will whisk them back to whatever well A/C’d suburban lushness they left this morning. The rest of us are pouring schvitz, and no building we find ourselves stuck in is adequately cooled.

For most of us in New York — both native and visitor — there is no place to go for real relief.  The tourist who paid exorbitant prices to get here is not going to leave the city for a weekend spent floating in a not-nearly-as-icy-as-it-used-to-be glacial lake in the Adirondacks, which might be the only place left in the Northeast that isn’t miserable.  That tourist is probably wishing s/he had considered Alaska for this summer vacation.  Whatever possessed her to come here?

New Yorkers — well, those of us stuck down her here on the ground for the summer; remember, the 1% are out of town or in their refrigerated towers where weather is irrelevant — take the blame.  The tourists scream at us, push us out of their way, scowl at us when we try to help them.  And the way they treat service industry workers is appalling.

Last week, in a moment of exaggerated irony, I heard a woman yell at her husband, “Stop that.  You sound like a New Yorker.”  He was in mid-rant, flinging filthy epithets at a tour guide whose bus was full and could not take the couple onto her bus.  I was standing close by, a witness to the whole episode.  “I’m sorry for your trouble,” the guide had said consolingly.  “I’ve called the dispatcher to send an empty bus. You are not alone — we have . . .”  “You f-ing liar,” growled the man as the guide ran back onto the bus, pleading for the driver to close the doors behind her because the man was clearly about to lunge.  “You’ve made me stand here for two f-ing hours, you stupid bitch.  You think I believe for one minute that you got off your fat ass to. . .” The tour guide said less than nothing; she did look like she was close to tears.  If this guy was any example of the kind of customers she’d been taking on all day, she was probably frazzled.  And broke because no one was tipping.

Most Americans  — and foreigners these days, for that matter — turn their noses up at tipping, and many foreigners simply don’t understand our system because where they come from, tips are included in the price they pay for everything; no one ever has to ask.  Most tourists view service industry people’s asking for tips as akin to panhandling.  Yet the tip seekers are hard working, critical members of the labor force.  Nothing would run without them.  Yet their greedy, megalomaniacal bosses don’t pay them what they are worth;  they expect you to do it for them.

Consider the same tour bus, for example.  You have paid what feels to you like a king’s ransom for the pleasure of sitting on a steaming solarium, getting stuck in traffic long enough to have your skin sun roasted to the color of polished pomegranate seeds.  But in truth, you have actually paid very little for the service you are receiving.  Think about it.  On every bus, there is a driver and a guide who will answer all your questions, take all your abuse.  At every stop there is a dispatcher who keeps the buses rolling and protects you from one another when you fight over who’s first in line.  In the offices there are accountants who count and account for the money and bosses who tell each of the underlings what to do at every moment.  You use this service as a taxi, and in a day’s time, your handful of money has paid for some 500 people to keep the rig running.

Do you honestly believe those 500 people are paid what they are worth?  How could the employers’ profits soar as they do — these are figures Mayor Bloomberg loves to crow over — if all those foot soldiers were substantially paid?

Out-of-towners look down on service industry workers, consider them beneath contempt. They are, after all, the working class and deserve to be underpaid, undervalued, overworked, and maltreated because they didn’t pay their dues, get a good education, work their way up the corporate ladder.  In this age of Romney-ite philosophy, if you’re not rich, you are a loser.

Boy are you in the wrong city for that attitude!  I’m sure it’s like this elsewhere, but in New York, a surprising  — no, an ASTOUNDING — percentage of those working blue collar jobs are well-educated, well-read millions who were traind for jobs in industries that have failed in the past two years . . . like publishing and its fellows.

And here’s another insight.  Maybe where you come from your bosses talk to you like you deserve to be treated like a human being.  But in New York, particularly in the tourism industry, thugs are in key management positions.  That same tour guide who was being upbraided mercilessly by the unhappy customer will go back to her post and take another verbal beating for some infraction she executed unawares, and when she gets her paycheck, chances are it will be short by at least five of her exhausting hours’ work.

So, what’s my point? 

I hope you do come to New York — come soon, and come often.  We need your dollars for sure.  But try to remember that you need the service industry workers at least as much as they need you.  They go out of their way to make sure you are having a great day; they answer your questions, make lists, point to landmarks to guide you on your way, recommend places to pee, protect you from as much of the unpleasantness as is humanly possible.  They bring you your food, valet your car, carry your over-stuffed suitcase, call your cabs, drive your transports, clean the washrooms (yes, they do — people are slobs, remember?), ensure that you get safely to whatever floor you seek and, well, there is little you don’t take for granted that doesn’t require your thanking a service person.

Treat all New Yorkers with kindness and respect.  But treat all your servers with some extra consideration.  Leave a tip.

And for goodness sake, try to have a great time.  That’s what you came here for.