On Becoming a Tour Guide

Travel Stories: Not just any tour guide. Wayne Curtis passed the drug test and is now officially licensed in New Orleans. You are now required to believe everything he says -- even that bit about Brad Pitt.

03.08.10 | 12:00 PM ET

New Orelans tilt shiftPhoto by Wayne Curtis

I’m standing in a narrow, fluorescent-lit hallway off the mezzanine at the New Orleans airport, waiting for a TSA official to call for me. A young man eventually sticks his head out of a door and yells my name. I step into a small, brightly lit office, where I am fingerprinted on an inkless machine, my arches, loops and whorls displayed in their paisley glory on a flat computer screen.

I’m then instructed to drive downtown to another office, where I am handed a plastic cup and directed to a small bathroom. I’m told that the toilet water contains a chemical and that if I try to dilute my pee it will turn a bright color, which leaves me in a state of considerable curiosity. (What color?) I avoid temptation, fill the cup, go home, wait.

A couple of weeks later a woman at the licensing division at City Hall calls and informs me that I’ve passed my written test, my drug test, and my Homeland Security background test. I report back downtown, where I sit in a stiff chair and smile unconvincingly at a camera behind thick plexiglass. A few minutes later I’m handed a piece of laminated plastic and a lanyard to go around my neck.

I put it on as I head back out to the street. I am now an officially licensed New Orleans tour guide. Under city and state laws, as I understand them, you—and by “you,” I mean you—are henceforth required to believe everything I say.

Here on your left, you’ll note two types of iron railings—one is cast iron and one is wrought iron. The difference is that, well, wrought iron was made earlier and cast iron was made later, and cast iron needs to be painted more often and it’s more intricate.

I became a licensed guide to volunteer with Friends of the Cabildo, a nonprofit that leads two-hour walking tours of the French Quarter twice daily except Monday. The tour guide training program requires that you attend a class that meets eight hours a day, three times a week, for a month. I signed up because I wanted to learn more about local architecture, and this seemed an efficient way to go about it. The catch was that, in return, I had to commit to leading public tours twice monthly for two years. I figured I could do that.

Becoming a tour guide in most cities is quite easy: You announce, “I am a tour guide.” But in New Orleans, New York, Charleston, and Washington, D.C., as well as in much of Europe, you’re required to be licensed, which ensures that guides have at least a minimal familiarity with local history. (As to the security clearance and drug testing, I have yet to figure out why that’s required. I suppose someone could get crazed on crack, load some fertilizer and ammonia onto a mule-drawn carriage, and drive it headlong into the John Minor Wisdom federal courthouse, which, as long as you’re asking, is neo-classical in style and was designed originally as a post office by the architect James Gamble Rogers in 1915.)

Our class consisted of about 30 people, ranging from young actors to retired educators. On our first day we received a loose leaf notebook containing several metric tons of information about New Orleans history—much about Indians, Frenchmen, some churlish and unpleasant Spaniards, and a great many drunks from Kentucky. For the next month a parade of local experts tromped through our class and crammed our heads with facts, like grain forced down the gullet of a foie gras goose.

Toward the end of the first day’s introductory lecture, someone (possibly me) asked “Where does Brad Pitt live and what should we say when tourists ask to point out his house.” The instructor frowningly responded with a spirited lecture about our duty to protect the privacy of all residents, no matter how non-private they may be. This question, we were told, was best answered with a vague sweep of the hand indicating a large downriver section of the city.

The person asking the Brad Pitt question did not follow up with a question about Nicholas Cage’s house. 

Well, this is Dumaine Street—take a look at this house behind me. Has anyone heard of William March, who wrote The Bad Seed? Does the name Rhoda Penmark ring any bells? No? Anyone? Ah, well. Anyway, this is a Creole-style house ...

One of the aspects of the tour-guide training that I especially liked was its free-form nature. The first day we were told we could choose any streets on which to lead our tours (as long as we could complete the route in two hours), which buildings we wanted to talk about, which facts we wanted to emphasize. This was both liberating—who wants to simply memorize a script?—and burdensome, because, seriously, it’s a lot easier to memorize a script. But I liked that it allowed me to weave in some small discoveries of my own, such as the house where “The Bad Seed” was written, and an apartment where Lee Harvey Oswald once lived.

The training also managed to dredge up within me some deep-seated fears. To begin with, there was simple stage fright, heightened by the thought of having to perform on public streets filled with potential hecklers, among them many tourists from the Upper Midwest who several hours ago discovered that it’s perfectly legal to walk the streets with drinks in their hands.

Making matters worse, I was plagued by vivid recollections of every dreadful walking tour I’d ever been on. These were innumerable. Among them: The tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright house where the guide repeatedly lost his train of thought and after a long pause would repeat his last few sentences quickly, as if trying to drive up and over a particularly steep hill. Or the city tour where the guide lost interest in his own patter halfway through each stop, upon which he would mutter “and et cetera” before turning and shambling on to the next stop. Or the tour where the guide would stop and indicate various landmarks—statues, buildings—that not did actually exist; only later he’d mention that they had been scrapped or demolished some months or years earlier. They remained part of his tour through dogged loyalty and sheer inertia. And I had an especially deep-seated fear that I would start to talk in a singsong voice, which is the tour guide equivalent of the common cold.

So my goals shifted as the class progressed. When the class started I thought I would devise a tour so sublimely entertaining and inspirational that a new category of Tony award would need to be created to acknowledge my unique talents. Within a week, my goal was chiefly to avoid boring those on my tour to the point that they’d fall to the pavement and blood would run out of their ears.

This pink building was constructed in 1795, and in 1803 was sold to a bank and became the first bank in the new state. Note the railings—those are cornucopias spilling out coins. it became a private home in 1820, and for a time was the home of Paul Morphy, possibly the greatest American chess player ever until Bobby Fisher. Morphy actually died here.

In class, we were instructed to never make up dates or facts, but to say “I don’t know” or “let me check on that and get back to you.” If pressed on a date, we were told to fudge a bit, saying something like “the 1830s” or “the 19th century.” We were also told we could occasionally deploy “it’s been said” or “they say” in advance of outlining something that might not survive careful vetting.

Note: If ever you hear a guide use “they say” on a tour, what follows is certainly pure fiction. In tour-guidese, this is the verbal version of crossing your fingers behind your back, and is translated into “everything I’m about to say is fabricated from whole cloth, but other guides have been using this bit of information for a long time, and it’s pretty entertaining if not precisely factual.”

As a journalist who spends an inordinately large part of my work life dealing with fact checkers, I’ve found using this phrase is a considerable psychological impediment. I envied those who could deploy it and then make things up as they went along. One of my fellow students was especially adept at taking a small thread from history then weaving from it a complex Flemish tapestry, complete with unicorns. It was a small, sad moment when I realized I would much rather take his tour than mine.

I quickly learned that dates and actual facts, especially those involving numbers, are not friends of the tour guide. With a calculator, I once figured out that the Mississippi River flows past New Orleans at a rate of eight million six-packs per second. I used that fact on one of my trial-run tours, and the experienced guide mentoring me shook his head and told me not to bore people with data like that. But that’s really a lot of beer, I insisted. I used it anyway.

Turns out, he was right. On my first few tours, people regarded this fact with blank, fading stares, since numbers like “eight million” have no grounding in the real world. Others grew deeply distracted, and I could see in their eyes their thoughts were turning to beer and Bourbon Street. Trying to get them to focus on French Colonial architecture afterward was a losing endeavor. I’ve since dropped the reference.

Well, folks—and could you move off the sidewalk here a bit to let people by, sorry, sir—this is 437 Royal Street, and they say that this very shop was where the cocktail was invented.

Dealing with intriguing if factually challenged accounts of the French Quarter has been more problematic: that Girod House was built for Napoleon to live out his declining years, that Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon signed the Louisiana Purchase in the old city hall, that the cocktail was invented in New Orleans.

Especially the latter. That New Orleans is the birthplace of the cocktail is an ingrained piece of local lore, repeated so often and so well that it has developed a life of its own. I heard it at least five times during the class. “Facts are stubborn things,” President John Adams once said. It turns out that, compared to well-established falsehoods, facts are spider webs.

Tour guides often stand in front of 437 Royal Street and tell the story about a pharmacist named A.A. Peychaud and the shop where he compounded his proprietary bitters. He would add a few dashes to brandy served in an egg cup, called a “coquetier” in French. The drunk Kentuckians mangled the pronunciation. Et voilà: The “cocktail” was born.

The story has been told since at least the 1930s, when it started appearing in print. H.L. Mencken even aided and abetted this canard. It’s the perfect tour-guide story—compact, self-contained, entertaining, educational. More so, it leads to an “a-ha!” moment, which I’d come to learn is the holy grail of tour guide pitch. Coquetier! Cocktail! Launching into a spiel with brio and an engaging anecdote is easy. But stopping the same way? That’s much harder. If you have an a-ha fact, you can deliver it crisply, then turn on your heel and merrily lead your crew, infused with the glow of discovery, on to the next stop.

The problem with the cocktail story is that even cursory research runs it aground on the shoals of chronology. Peychaud was born in 1803. The word “cocktail” was defined in print in 1806. Unless you subscribe to the precocious pharmacist theory—and I’ve met several New Orleanians who do—you have to admit the evidence is troubling. A lawyer in Washington, D.C., named Phil Greene, who is a distant descendant of Peychaud, has tried valiantly to correct the record. “I would recommend registering for a sidearm,” he wrote me when I emailed him about this, “as these tour guides are rather fond of their myths.”

In the courtyard of this house the great fire of 1794 began in, um, 1794, I think. It happened one day ... yes sir? ... Oh, Brad Pitt? Yes, well, I think he lives down that way somewhere. I’m not exactly sure.

Now, where was I?

Wayne Curtis

5 Comments for On Becoming a Tour Guide

Jeffrey Andreoni 03.09.10 | 4:47 PM ET

I remember when I became a tour guide. The training lasted about a day and a half in some village in Germany. Next thing I know I’m put in charge of a group of 45 North Americans who I’m supposed to show the entire continent to in less than 2 weeks. Needless to say, every church we passed in Germany was called either Frauenkirche or St. Stephen’s - I had to recycle the names over and over again.

Tim Krepp 03.12.10 | 9:17 PM ET

Ha! No drug test required for DC, but I did have to get a notarized statement from a doctor attesting that I am not a drunkard. Glad to see near-random requirements aren’t confined to the nation’s capital.

Like yourself, I’ve found that a rigid adherence to facts to be an impediment as much as a help.

And if you tell me where Brad Pitt lives, I’ll rat out three Senators. Act now, and I’ll throw in a Rep of your choice.

Jean - OurExplorer Tour Guide 03.14.10 | 9:08 AM ET

Many places require people to take proper training and pass exams to become a licensed tour guide. Though facts are not the interesting part of a tour, being a professional tour guide, I think one shall be as accurate as possible. Not mentioning the figure to bore travelers is one thing, but making up fake data is another thing.

Tour guide learning does not stop with acquiring the license. It is actually a continuous learning process when one guides more clients and meets more questions from the clients.

local guides, local wisdom

kathryn 03.15.10 | 11:16 PM ET

what a happy surprise to find your article mailed to me by 2 different new orleans tour guides.  i enjoyed it very much.  come home soon.  we miss you here in the “Big Easy”.

Marty Cairns 03.22.10 | 10:26 PM ET

There definately wasn’t any drug testing to become crew on the charter yachts in the Whitsundays - if there was the boats would be crewless

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