Monday, May 29, 2006

The World's Widest Bridge

This is the story I read on Sunday. Longtime readers may recognize this from one of my earliest posts. This is a rewritten version and I think it's one of my best things yet. Enjoy!

The best kinds of jobs are the ones that hire you without checking your references or making you pee in a cup. I speak from experience.

Last summer, I worked as a tour guide for The Big Bus Company, a group which specializes in taking tourists around Philadelphia's Center City on a double decker bus. This is not to be confused with Philadelphia Trolley Works, a company which specializes in taking tourists around Philadelphia's Center City on a red trolley.

"You're in a great spot," said Tony, the crooked-toothed Brit manager of The Big Bus upon my hiring. "You're working for a great company. Not like those assholes at the Trolley Works. They want to take away our livelihood. Our goal is to take away theirs!"

The other new employees were similar to me -- college/grad students looking for a summer job. Training was simple. We were handed a thich, black finder filled with pages upon pages of minutiae about Philadelphia -- information about how many steps there are in front of the Art Museum (where Rocky Balboa ran up in the first Rocky movie), about the exact date William Penn landed in Philadelphia, and how many rowhomes are located at Elphrath's Alley. We were told to memorize as many facts as possible while we sat on the bus, listening to the tour of veteran Big Bus employees, constantly looping around Center City, listening to the same tidbits of information over and over again.

Our group started out by touring with Brian, a 50-years-old PhD candidate in Early American History from Temple, complete with a greying pony tail and the wide eyes of a 'Nam vet who participated in My Lai. Which he did. Brian's tours were gritty, urban experience, as if Martin Scorcese was directing a film about Philadelphia tour guides. Brian recited the facts of various spots on the tour, but augmented this by revealing his paranoid distrust of all levels of government.

Brian loved debunking myths about American history, largely to a group of tourists who didn't even know what it was that was actually being debunked. "Everyone knows that John Hancock signed the Constitution the way he did so King George would get the message. Right? RIGHT? Well... THAT'S A MYTH," Brian said, with an angry sneer as he proceded to make eye contact with each and every single passenger on board. "Handwriting analysis reveals that John Hancock always signed his signature this way. Don't believe what they want you to."

Brian became most enthusiastic whenever the tour approach Penn's Landing, with its clear view of the USS Constitution docked across the Delaware in Camden. Again, he started to make eye contact to each and every single member of the tour, all of whom were doing their best to avoid looking at Brian in the eye: "That boat over there makes me tear up every time I see it. You see, I didn't run like some people did, like some presidents did. I served in 'Nam. And do you know where that got me? I ened up face down in a rice paddy taking fire from the Cong. They had us pinned down. Death surrounded me. My best friends were being killed. But that boat was in the distance, and it started to fire its guns, and I cried, because that meant I would live for one more day."

Ernie was another veteran tour guide. Ernie was an exceptionally off-the-cuff black guy, the Rudy Ray Moore of Philadelphia tour guides. He was completely unflappable -- one second giving us tips on how to handle conversation while stuck in city gridlock, the next being able to turn around and to get the phone number of a woman coming out of the Gallery Mall. Ernie relied less on history on his tour and more on pop culture, pointing out to bus passengers where different Philadelphia-area musicians lived and the sites of various TV and movie shoots. "You see that shop over there? Lord and Taylor? That used to be called Wannamaker's and that's where they filmed Mannequin! You see that bar? They filmed a scene in Philadelphia with Tom Hanks there. You know the scene I'm talking about! It's the scene where people make fun of AIDS. You know, the deadly HIV virus."

The passengers on the tours remind you of how big and diverse America is. This creates an interesting dichotomy. On one tour with Ernie, the tour consisted of two groups of people. Sitting in the front was a family of three from suburban Newton, Mass. -- the daughter was wearing a jacket with the insignia of her private school, Mom had a shopping bag in her hand, and Dad was wearing a cap for a country club. In the back of the bus, with their teacher, was a group of students from an "alternative education" school from the South Bronx -- inner city teenagers wearing the latest in urban fashion.

Ernie led the tour, trying to placate both audiences -- talking to the kids in the back one second about Beanie Siegel's favorite clothing store and then to the preppie Americans the next about the Federal Reserve building. The divergence between these two worlds came between our stop after the Philadelphia Zoo and our stop in West Philadelphia -- the part of the tour that took us through Mantua, one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia. This part of the tour was always interesting: sneakers dangling from telephone wires, abandoned buildings, grafiti, homeless people smashing beer bottles, etc.

"Yo, it's like our neighborhood," one of the kids in the back said to laughter from his schoolmates, while the white family all had their hands cupped, staring down at the floor of the bus, the unmistakable look of white guilt. One of the kids in the bus then started yelling at a group of teenagers off the bus, until his teacher told him to sit down. "They was flashing gang signs at us," he explained. A really tough looking crew of teenagers was at a street corner, yelling threats and making gestures at us. Even Ernie, always cool under pressure, was nervous and told the driver to hightail it.

At the end of that tour, Ernie stood at the front of the bus. "Thank you all for coming out. This... this tour meant a lot to me. I hope you all learned something from me. Maybe, maybe all of you could go back to your own neighborhood and start doing tours there." Ernie then looked at the teenage daughter of the wealthy white famiy. "Even you, darling. You could even be a tour guide if you want." I had a feeling that Mom and Dad had different career plans for their daughter.

My least favorite trainer was Albert. Albert never stopped talking. It was like he had ADD, ate 55 pixie sticks and also did an 8-ball of cocaine. Albert's Asian, which he pointed out on his tour roughly 75 times, all in ways geared to make tourists as squeamish as possible. "Here is Roman Catholic High School. I didn't go there. You all must think I'm good at math. People think all Asians are good at math. This is SEPTA Headquarters. They run buses here in Philadelphia. And trains. No one likes them. You probably think I suck at driving."

After two weeks of riding around, non-stop, on the 4-mile loop, us newcomers were finally allowed to give tours. Donna went first. She was this heavyset woman with big bangs. The first day of work, before they handed us our uniform (purple sweater and yellow T-Shirt, all with The Big Bus logo), she came wearing a pair of skin-tight black Spandex leggings, paired with black socks and sandals. I'm not a fashion expert, but I recognized this as a bad choice.

There was a family of five on the tour. They sat quietly in the back, not paying any attention to the tour guides, looking out the side of the bus at the scenery of The City of Brotherly Love. We were stuck in Chinatown, parked in front of the Wawa at 10th and Arch. "That's Wawa. That's a conveeeeenience store," she said, her Philly-accent (with a "y" sound which shows up inexplicably with "oh" sounds -- so "home" is somehow "hyome") really noticeable and grating. "Wawa's pretty allright. I get cigarettes from the one up by my block. They also don't charge in the Mac machines, if you ever need to tap Mac." She then started looking around the bus and looked at Ernie. "I... I can't do this. I'm not any good at this," and she walked off the bus.

I finally got to do my first tour. I was by myself, with one woman, in her mid-50's, alone. She looked like the type of woman who would openly sob while watching Designing Women reruns she Tivo'd off of Oxygen. She sat right next to me while I spoke into a microphone, looking up at me as I told her about when the Liberty Bell was actually cracked and how the Girard Avenue Bridge was at one time the world's widest bridge. She then politely asked me stop. She had just moved to Philadelphia from Seattle, after a very painful divorce, and didn't know where anything was in the city. She asked if we would be driving past any supermarkets. Then she tenderly grabbed me on the wrist.

"Have you ever made a big change in your life?"

After spending two weeks on a bus, I came to a stunning conclusion: tour guides are complete and total whores. The veteran guys were completely shameless in their quest to recieve tips. It's one thing to say "tipping is appreciated." It's another to stand in front of the exit and say things like, "I appreciate your tips, I'm going through a really tough time right now, my daughters are going through a lot and we need to think about their future." In addition, as part of our "training fee," we had to give the veteran tour guides half of our tip money, even though they largely just slept on the back of the bus.

On my second solo tour, our bus driver rear ended a Volkswagon right outside of the Greyhound Station in Chinatown. The bus drivers were a notoriously shady group of people. The bus driver today was Charles, this toothless guy who was built like a second string high school basketball center -- 6'7" and maybe weighing 115 pounds. Charles bragged about his body frame. He stopped eating so 40's of malt liquor would "work better." After we struck the car, Charles put the bus in park and got out.

"Hey, motherfucker, hey! Watch what the fuck you're doing, motherfucker," he yelled, even though we had rear ended a car stopped for a red light, the driver of the car spoke no English and this was in full view of 15 paying customers. This exchange lasted for about 15 minutes, with a group of people watching a grown man threaten an Asian woman until the police came.

It got pretty boring reciting facts about Philadelphia. People just seemed bored when I told them about the history of art deco condominium complexes. I decided to veer course from my training. My presentations became less factually based and more about my ability to entertain myself.

I began every tour by starting out strong. Our tours had to begin with a recitation of safety procedures, warning passengers to remain seated until we came to a complete stop. I told the audience this was done to preserve their good looks. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are by far the best looking group of people I have ever encountered on a bus. Especially you, ma'am. Your eyes sparkle with the intensity of 1,001 fireflies." I sometimes changed it from fireflies to candlelabras or tire fires.

The veteran tour guides all told the same lame joke on Ben Franklin Parkway. There, next to the future home of the Barnes Foundation art museum, stand to statues, one called The Good Teacher and the other The Good Mother. "People ask me where The Good Father is. I'll tell you. He's around the corner at The Good Tavern having The Good Drink watching The Good Game."

I made my own joke. "People ask me where The Good Father is. I'll tell you. He's unsupportive of my dreams."

I also loved driving down Spruce Street, a residential block downtown. We'd drive by one rowhome, where I announced to the patrons: "At this address and 955 Spruce Street lives my ex-girlfriend, Cindy. She is one of dozens of Philadelphia-area women who have filed restraining orders against me. Don't worry, Cindy. I'm 50 feet away! And I'll be back in exactly one hour!"

Asking for tips makes me feel really squeamish. The customers pay about $30 for a ticket. I made a decent hourly wage. I just felt like a total asshole asking for tip money, especially since my job pretty much became me just fucking around with strangers for a few hours a day. I was headed to the train station after the tour one day. One of our passengers, a well-to-do guy in his 60's, he wanted directions to his hotel. I told him I would walk with him, since I was headed that way anyways. We walked to where he was staying. He reached for his wallet. "Here's something for helping me out." I told him no thanks. "No, really, you didn't have to do that." I told him that I was doing it to be nice, that it wasn't any extra effort, and I would have done it even if I wasn't a tour guide. "No, I insist. Take this. The money isn't a problem for me." He then reached into my pocket and placed in a $5 bill, like I was a stripper.

I was getting really sick of The Big Bus. The tours were entertaining, but the company sucked. Our schedules would get changed without any notification. Imagine routinely showing up to work to find out that you didn't have to work. Or not showing up to work when you were supposed to. This happened to me every day for six straight days.

Modern American cities were not designed with shoddily built double decker busses in mind. Frequently, I had to get off the bus and help the driver navigate a tight turn. Or, I had to tell passengers to duck as tree branches came flying at their head. I turned this into a game. "1-2-3 DUCK," I'd say. "Did anyone get their scalps lopped off by that rail trestle?" Sometimes, when the tree branches were too low, I'd ask the bus driver to stop, so our passengers could get onto the lower deck and not risk decapitation. They would always grumble about this. "We got a schedule to keep, I can't be stopping the bus so you can get passengers downstairs. We gotta be on time, man. Fuck them bushes," Charles told me.

One group of passengers on my bus were a group of three lunkhead 30-somethings. They liked my offbeat tour a lot. So much so that, afterwards, they wanted to go get a drink with me. We headed to The Locust Bar, where they immediately bought me a shot of Bush Mills. They were medical sales associates in from San Diego for a convention.

"You're a great tour guide," their ringleader said. "You'd be great at medical sales. You could clear $75K a year, no problem. I'll tell you what. If you're ever out my way, you look me up. I can get you a job, no problem. $75K a year."

He handed me his business card. "So, you know a place where we can score some blow?"

My favorite tourists were foreigners. All the foreigners, no matter what repressive regime they are from, always celebrate when they drive under the flag of their country on the Parkway. My favorite group was a family of seven from South Korea. They were the warmest, friendliest people, asking me about how to say things like "sandwich" or "truck." They taught me the South Korean national anthem. First, you clap your hands rhythmically. Then you chant "TAAAAY MAHHH HIIINNN GUA." Then you clap some more. Then you chant "TAAAAAY MAHHHHH HIIINNN GOOOOO."

In exchange, I taught them the closest thing we have to a national anthem in Philadelphia. "E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES." We drove by a statue of Frank Rizzo. They asked me who he was. "He is Philadelphia's version of Kim Jong Il." After the tour, they thanked me, gave me hugs and kisses and took my photograph.

They were my last tour for the day. My friend Pat from college was having a party that night to celebrate his completion from medical school. I forgot to bring a change of clothes, so I was stuck in my Big Bus uniform. Most of the people at the party were all med school students, a lot from UPenn or other Ivy League schools. They all just nodded at me, no one wanting to introduce themselves to me.

I congratulated Pat for his getting through med school. "Thanks, man. It's great that we're all doing so well with everything." I then waited for a beat. "Pat, I'm a fucking tour guide."

I knew I had to quit. I just needed the right demeaning situation to justify walking out of another crummy job.

My salvation came at the corner of Broad and Walnut. Here, a middle-aged woman pointed something out on the sidewalk to me. It was a homeless man, laid out on the sidewalk, dead. A businessman in a suit stood over him, trying to flag down a car.

I walked downstairs. I asked Charles if he could call 9-1-1 on his cell phone or if he could contact base and tell them to do so.

"I can't do that, man. We on a schedule. He's just a homeless dude. Don't worry, someone will find him. If he's already dead, who cares?"

He then stopped at our next stop, where our ticket sales woman, the mother of his child, asleep on the lower tier of the bus, got on, and sold him a dimebag of pot. I got off the bus when we returned and left. Never again would I tell people that City Hall was 565 feet high or how many murals have been painted in Philadelphia.
see web stats