Growing up in D.C., we only had two rules in my house: Wash your hands after bowling and don’t drive around the National Mall during cherry blossom season.
For many years I followed these rules. Then I got on a tour bus. All of a sudden, there I was in cherry blossom traffic that resembled a Canadian two-lane road after a Bryan Adams concert. The truly galling thing? Most of the cars clogging the streets along the Tidal Basin had Maryland and Virginia tags. Those drivers should have known better.
If our immediate neighbors can’t even get wise, what can we expect from out-of-towners?
I spent four years narrating tours through the Mall and Arlington Cemetery. Narrators offer running commentary as they drive tourists around town. Unlike tour guides, they seldom get off the bus—which means that, compared to the guides who actually take visitors through memorials and museums, I got a much higher percentage of questions about logistics.
The bottom line: America, or at least that portion of it that rode my bus, was not enjoying itself.
What was the matter? Their feet hurt. Yes, Washington’s expanding array of sightseeing options now includes guided coach bus tours, hop on/hop off buses, pedicabs, taxicabs, bikes, Segways, Metrobus, Metrorail and the Circulator. But I constantly heard that everything was too far to walk to, and that there was no place to park.
People cling with surprising strength to the idea that the sights can be seen without much walking, or that parking near memorials is free. Even folks with handicapped placards got frustrated. I once encountered a woman who, accompanied by her veteran father, screamed at me that there was no place for her to park at the World War II Memorial. I wasn’t unsympathetic. But I did wish she understood that just because I was wearing a nametag and a polyester necktie didn’t mean I was an authority figure.
At least she had a real gripe. My least favorite passengers were the folks who had last visited D.C. years ago, perhaps on a school trip, and resented that things had changed. I’d explain, say, that they needed tickets for the Washington Monument or an appointment to get into the White House. The responses were often openly hostile, as if I had suppressed pertinent information. Such visitors were even angrier about the post-Sept. 11 jersey barriers that force tour-bus riders to walk an extra 75 feet to the Lincoln Memorial or actually disembark to get close to the White House. Clearly, these were dirty tricks being played specifically on them.
I would try to explain that of course I understood that your dad once parked the Country Squire right on the Ellipse and that no one stopped you from strolling into the Capitol to eat navy bean soup with Everett Dirksen. But, you see, people have lately been blowing up buildings. Some perspective is in order.
It’s easy to forget, too, that Washington is a pretty health-conscious city. My riders from beyond the Beltway regularly expressed amazement at the joggers around the Mall. A woman once asked me, in all seriousness, “What are they running from?”
Of course, it would be easy to stereotype all visitors as overweight, ignorant of history, and unwilling to figure out how to get around. But that’s unfair. One class of tourists actually excelled at the work of tourism: Europeans. Carrying maps and guidebooks, my transatlantic riders proved highly motivated and extremely adaptable, despite often speaking little English. They’d ride my bus, but utilize public transit and bicycles, too. I once saw a Dutch guy sprint to the Marine Corps Memorial and back—a mile each way—while his girlfriend was using the restroom at Arlington Cemetery. He had a photo to prove it.
Americans, on the other hand, often proved rigid and uncooperative, even with their own agenda. Imagine driving 800 miles to see the Changing of the Guard and then skipping the ceremony because you can’t actually see the Tomb of the Unknowns from the tour bus. It happened. More than a few times. At least some people tried to make up excuses. But, really, you don’t need to explain to me why you’re skipping the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial: You’re saving your energy for the trip to Hooters. I get it.
I admit that it’s common for narrators to ridicule less-than-intelligent questions. I tried to empathize, even when the queries bordered on the ridiculous. For example, many people are under the impression that, like the pyramids, the presidential memorials are elaborate grave markers for our elected pharaohs.
Some misconceptions are understandable: I was asked more than once to point out the spot on the Potomac River where Sully landed; such inquirers confused the U.S. Airways captain’s Hudson River heroics with the 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90, which did land in the Potomac, albeit with deadlier results. And I can’t tell you how many times I was asked for directions to the Arlington Cemetery grave of Private James Ryan.
But just because my four years in the tour business featured many more questions about the location of the Hard Rock Café than about the Hirshhorn Museum of Art doesn’t mean I never imparted any actual wisdom. For instance, do you know the difference between a Japanese cherry tree and a flowering crab apple tree? Cherry trees often have horizontal markings on the bark, thank you very much! Likewise, tourists often want to know who’s on top of the Capitol. It’s a statue of Freedom, not Pocohontas.
Still, talking too much D.C. detail can be dangerous, especially in these polarized times. My company was particularly concerned with not giving offense. During training, I was instructed not to mention stripper Fanne Foxe’s late-night Tidal Basin dip. Narrators were also to avoid any statement that could be interpreted as remotely partisan. When talking about the Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon on Louisiana Avenue, for instance, I would mention that its Senatorial namesake had been known as “Mr. Republican.” To spare delicate Democrats, I was obliged to add, “But he was beloved on both sides of the aisle.” I was forbidden to mention the ongoing trial of former Bush administration official I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby when the bus made its regular rounds past the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse. Republicans could ride without fear of hearing bad news, too.
As a native, I realize I’m in a rare category in getting to know the exotic tribe we call tourists. But let’s not hate. Despite the shocking lack of parking, and the need to walk when jersey barriers limit tour-bus access, our countrymen aren’t going anywhere. And that’s a good thing. For Washingtonians, the inconvenience of tourists during the next four or five months is still a small price to pay for the having the run of the Mall all winter long.