This past spring, I decided I was interested in becoming a D.C. tour guide. I was looking for a way to earn a living between assignments in my main job as a contractor for the Department of State’s International Visitor Program. I also figured guiding was something I could begin doing in a month’s time.

All of my State Department assignments begin here in Washington. On one assignment, my visitors took a guided tour. We were in the vicinity of the White House, and I was able to tell the guide some entertaining stories about the White House that were previously unknown to him. He told me he was going to add them to his repertoire.

Being a tour guide seemed like a good arrangement for me. I could work on a flexible basis, and I might even learn a few stories I could pass on to the State Department visitors. I was particularly interested in giving neighborhood walking tours.

I had explored the possibility some years ago, and I had learned that it’s impossible to get a tour-guide job without a license. So my first step was to learn more about the licensing process. I was aware that there was a test involved, but I had no idea when tests were given or what questions would appear on them.

The DC.gov Web site didn’t supply any pertinent information. It just said to call the District Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). I called, and the woman at the other end told me tests are given every other Friday and offered to send me more information.

A few days later, the information arrived. It included a list of test dates—not all of them on Fridays. But there was no information on the format of the test, what subjects it would cover, or even how long it would take. There were, however, forms. Lots of them. According to the forms, it was going to cost $45 in fees to get licensed. Also among the paperwork was something called a “clean hands self-certification,” requiring me to state that I was up to date on my D.C. taxes.

Unfortunately, I was having trouble paying my D.C. income tax, which was one of the reasons I wanted to get work as a tour guide in the first place. I put the paperwork aside for a few months, until I could get caught up on my payments.

When I returned to the forms, I was astonished by what I saw: Just to be allowed to take the test, I would have to complete and submit all the paperwork three days in advance. This included, for starters, obtaining a master business license (MBL)—which involved a breathtakingly confusing application.

I called the DCRA for guidance, and was told that to get an MBL I would need a certificate of occupancy for my apartment. Eventually, the woman I spoke with concluded that if I wasn’t starting my own tour company, I probably wouldn’t need it. It wasn’t until after the call that I learned the MBL program was being abolished. I gleefully trashed the forms.

That, however, was far from the end of the paperwork. The DCRA also required would-be exam-takers to submit six letters of reference, vouching for my “sobriety, honesty, and general good character.” Six? Was I applying for a job at the CIA? All six, moreover, needed to come from residents of the Washington metropolitan area. And three of them had to be written by “responsible businesspersons or professionals.”

This presented me with a problem. Two of my best references had just moved away from the Washington area—making them less trustworthy human beings in the eyes of the DCRA. Another was recovering from heart surgery. Then there were the ones who traveled constantly and worked long hours. I preferred to save those people for career-oriented professional jobs.

Another, more basic concern was going through my mind: Why is the District in the business of checking references at all? Wouldn’t potential employers prefer to set their own standards for references? And, again, this was required just to take the exam.

The next requirement was a certificate of good health. This needed to be filled out by a doctor and notarized within 30 days of the tour-guide exam. Apparently, nobody at the DCRA has visited an HMO lately. Last time I tried to get a physical, I was given an appointment nearly three months later. What if I couldn’t get an appointment in time? Or what if I did get the physical, but I couldn’t round up all six letters of reference within 30 days? Would I have to get another checkup?

A professional tour guide explained what guides do. He told me of a little storefront doctor on Indiana Avenue who gives a quickie exam for $25 and will notarize the form. Cabdrivers, he said, use the same doctor.

The tour guide also warned me that the test is not easy. He said it poses questions that he’s never once been asked in his decades of leading tours. Such as what? “It’s good to know that the state flower of the District of Columbia is the American Beauty rose,” he said.

I was also required to get a police background check, at my own time and expense. The check seemed reasonable, but why couldn’t the city do it after an examinee passes and include the cost in the licensing fee? And why does each applicant have to provide two passport-size photos? Couldn’t the DCRA get an instant camera, like the Department of Motor Vehicles has?

Then came the real deal killer: Examinees are expected to supply the DCRA with routes for the tours they plan on giving. I couldn’t get a route without being hired for a tour-guide job. I couldn’t get hired without a license. I couldn’t get a license without passing the test. I couldn’t take the test without submitting a route.

I called the DCRA to ask how to get out of the Catch-22. The voice at the other end fell into silence.

If I were to somehow resolve the paradox, I calculated, it would cost me roughly $100 to procure the license. The cost in time and aggravation, however, would be incalculable. And even if I were to leap through all the hoops successfully, I would have to do it all over again in two years to get renewed. It’s a shame that the D.C. government works so hard to deprive people of the opportunity to make a living.

I’ve pretty much given up on ever working as a tour guide. I’m busy with my State Department work right now, and I’m pursuing other things in my spare time. The thought did cross my mind, though, that I may have come up with the perfect tour. It would go something like this: “Before we begin, ladies and gentlemen, I need six letters from respectable people and $100 cash. Our first stop will be a doctor’s office on Indiana Avenue. Then we will continue on to DCRA headquarters. The journey may take a while. Pack a lunch.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Greg Houston.

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