photo by Douglas B. Davis
I’ve had the good fortune to spend the past couple years as a tour guide here in San Francisco, and I’m here to tell you there’s no other job like it. Well, maybe a tour guide in New York or London would be like it, because basically you’re just showing people things and talking about them. But, here in San Francisco, we have things like this to make it interesting:

The Volunteer Fireman's Memorial in Washington Square Park, where scofflaws
climb up once in a while and place odd things in the fireman's outstretched hand.
Photo by DW Rhodes
I’m currently between gigs and thinking of hiring on with another tour company or going independent, like my buddy Joseph, who walks around as one of our more famous local eccentrics: the late, great Emperor Norton.

The REAL Emperor Norton circa 1870, and Joseph as Emperor Norton, checking his messages in
early 2014. Emperor Norton photo public domain and Joseph/Emperor by DW Rhodes.
If you visit San Francisco and for some reason can’t get a hold of me because I happen to be in the bathroom at the moment, you can either wait a few hours (prostate trouble) or just take Joseph’s Emperor Norton Walking Tour. Whenever I see the good Emperor strutting about town, he has at least ten guests in tow who all have shiny, happy faces.

Therefore I highly recommend it, and that’s not just because he bought me lunch the other day.

I’m not sure if I should figure out some kind of character niche like Joseph uses or just go as me, but it would obviously have to be a version of me that doesn’t belch out loud and keeps the racier jokes under wraps until he’s lifting a pint later that evening.

DRAG ME ALONG TOURS" is another great walking tour in town, wherein a nice fella named Rick Shelton dresses as the great Countess Lola Montez - a historical figure from California’s gold rush era.

The real Lola Montez and Rick of Drag Me Along Tours.
Photos courtesy of Rick Shelton.
I might not be ready to do tours in a skirt, or even a long, flowing dress like Rick does, although it’s very San Francisco. I haven’t worn a skirt since I was in the Navy and visited Singapore that time, which I’m not allowed to talk about for reasons of national security.

I’ve only been living in this city since 2010 but I’ve lived here previously and have returned on visits frequently enough to be sure there’s no other city like it. I’ve been to London, Edinburgh and Paris too, and can still say that. Paris has a really big, lovely tower but we have this:

San Francisco's very own FRANK CHU, the professional protestor,
protesting at SantaCon 2011. By Wutitang (Own work) via Wikipedia.
The tour company I worked for charged between forty and fifty bucks per person for tourists to ride around on a bus and hear stories, and by golly, they paid it with a smile. They’d also fling cash at me at the end of every tour, unless they were from somewhere that’s never heard of tipping. This includes a lot of countries, by the way. I can list them.

The point is, I live in a city that visitors willingly pay cold, hard cash to see so I’m going to continue separating them from their money while simultaneously leaving them with a smile on their face. I don’t have the curves to do it the way you’re thinking, you dirty-minded scamps, so TOUR GUIDE it is.

Safe, clean family fun!

I came into the job two years ago with experience in theater, radio, and Hollywood (that stint lasted about ten minutes), so I was able to bring some acquired skills to the position.

Here are some of the things I brought to the job..

NEVER tell other people how good you are, let other people say it for you. It’s more genuine that way.

We had a guide who billed herself as “The Best Tour Guide In The World,” which was even the title of her Facebook page. There’s a fine line between confidence and pomposity.

I had people tell me they thought I was the best guide in the world, which I really appreciated - so don’t feel like you can’t go on and on about that - but all I could think when they said it was, “How in the heck did you find the time to ride with EVERY OTHER TOUR GUIDE IN THE WORLD?”

I guess it comes down to phrasing because it’d certainly be preferable if they just said, “Dave, you’re the best darned tour guide we’ve ever had, in our limited experience of riding with tour guides in a couple other cities before coming here!” and that would be fine with me. So go on and say that as much as you want. Thank you.

Humor does not always transcend language and culture.

There are a handful of Chinese bus drivers employed with my former company who are all terrific guys. We got to be friends and I learned a few things from them about Chinese language and culture.

So, one day, a driver I’ll call Ye was talking to a driver I’ll call Frank (some of them use easy names for us because we’re idiots who can’t remember Chinese names that have more than four letters) and apparently Ye told Frank a joke. They were speaking Chinese, so I later asked Frank what the joke was:

“Was that a joke Ye told you?”
“Yes, but you no understand.. it Chinese.”
“But I like jokes! I do jokes for a living and I want to hear it..”
“It not be same in English!”
“Try me..”

Frank pondered how he would translate this for a few seconds, and then he shared the joke with me..

“A duck get in car, drive car into lake, now car wet too! HAHAHA!”
“HAHAHAHA!” (I was being polite).
“You not get joke! You being polite! Do not ask anymore joke again!”

Frank walked off in a huff, vowing to never again share any Chinese things with me.

It goes both ways because I’d often fling one of my best jokes out there during a tour, only to be met with stoic silence emanating from stony faces. Tours always - ALWAYS - have a different audience from one tour to another, and you learn to read that after a while, which leads me to..

Know your audience.

If you’re an up-and-coming comic and Paris Hilton invites you to do a set at her birthday party, it’d probably be best NOT to do all those “dumb blonde” jokes that went over so well at the Moose Lodge a week earlier.

I was once booked on a charter tour but wasn’t told ahead of time that it was a YMCA youth group consisting entirely of kids ages 8-12. I had absolutely no time to prepare because I didn’t find out about this until the driver and I showed up at the designated spot and all the kids were there waiting with three harried adult chaperones.

I had to dump my whole tour because, about ten minutes into it, I realized they weren’t very interested in what year the Ferry Building was completed. Instead, I was peppered with questions* like:

“Why is that statue of that man naked? That’s nasty! He’s old!” (It wasn’t a statue, btw.)

“Have you ever been to Ohio? I’m from there and my grandma lives there and if you ever go there she will bake you cookies but not good ones because for good cookies you need to know my Aunt Betsy, but I don’t know where she lives 'cause I’ve never been there, but I know her cookies are good 'cause she sent us some at Christmas and they were green and red and round but some were square, it was weird!”

“Did you ever get kicked by a donkey when you were a kid because my Uncle Jack did and he talks just like you!”

*These were actual questions.

With my tour narrative out the window almost immediately, I ended up riding around San Francisco for just over an hour on the top of a bus with about 50 children who relentlessly peppered me with giggly nonsense. At one point I actually got them to listen to my story of how the Golden Gate Bridge came into being, but only because I described it all in my best Godzilla voice and then afterward I had to pretend to be Godzilla eating the bridge.

This is an extreme example because the children don’t usually outnumber the adults on normal tours, but you still need to size it up and think ahead about what you might have to drop from your routine.

In summation, the above tips are helpful to remember not only if you’re a tour guide but in any kind of performance venue, be it theater, television, radio or marriage. Be modest, always. Humor is really, really subjective, and.. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.

In the next installment, I outline things I’ve learned since becoming a tour guide, including how to duck while riding on those open-top buses, and the fine art of pleading for and receiving tips.


Humor galore at my Amazon store:
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  1. You could always come and do tour guides around Dublin? It would be an easy enough job.

    "On your left is a derelict building and on the right just ahead is another derelict building. Up ahead we have an abandoned half-built apartment block and just beyond, another empty office block.........."

    Easy peasy.

    1. I just trained my robot to tick your Captcha form. Heh!

    2. Well now, when you talk about "doing tour guides" I suspect you're speaking of San Francisco. Also.. there shouldn't be a captcha required. You should be able to comment as Fargo P. Dimblewad if you want. Fitting, that.


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