A Day Trip With My Mother
by Stas Holodnak
It seems that there are no dumb questions except those asked by a tourist in Washington. On drizzly Wednesday afternoon, second week into the Cherry Blossom Festival, my mother and I descended upon the capital city of the United States impatiently seeking out government landmarks from a window of a “Tourmobile Sightseeing” bus.
There were only a handful of people on the tour-mobile, a guide and a driver. “Will we stop at the Capitol Hill?” I asked the tour guide, a middle-aged man, as we made our way through the National Mall. “Yes or, alternatively, you could walk”, he replied slowly rolling his eyes.
This guide was special. He wanted everyone outside on empty and wet Washington streets. He set up traps that like whirlpools sucked tourists out of his tour-mobile at every stop.
– National Monument! There are free tickets available now but they will run out very soon.
– The Museum of Natural History – there are no school buses there now, you probably will have it all to yourself.
– The FDR Memorial is the most beautiful in my opinion but you have to get out of the bus to see it.
When I asked him to tell us about the Federal Reserve building we were passing, he flashed a one dollar bill in front of my face. “You see money, they print money there!” After crossing the Potomac River my mother and I were the only ones left. The guide grew restless, his tourist gloves came off.
“Don’t go to the Arlington Cemetery unless you plan to stay there,” he said bluntly.
“We would rather stay on the bus and listen to you.”
“You won’t see anything and you won’t hear anything, do you think I am stupid?”
“Not at all”, I reassured him. “It is me who is stupid here! It’s me, who dragged my mother all the way down from Brooklyn for this. I am a stupid tourist, your true believer, and I came in hungry. Talk to me tour-guide. Show me your city and I will show you mine!”
We were marooned at the pyramid of stairs known as the Lincoln Memorial. Our next tour guide did not have ‘get out of my tour-mobile’ attitude or any other attitude for that matter. Her tour reminded me of a double-decker my wife and I hopped on once in the New York City to see our town with a tourist’s eyes. On the upper deck tired tour guide monotonously listed landmarks like stops on a city bus.
“Back in time”, my mother said longingly, “we had some gifted tour guides”. Mothers know best. I paid $40 for a Tourmobile ticket – a price of a theater play. Actors too repeat a lot of text and we call some of them gifted. And who is a tour guide other than an actor performing for tourists, his audience?
I met a gifted tour guide once. A self-proclaimed ‘true Philadelphian born and bred’ he proudly told us about his city of many Firsts, from William Penn to Rocky. Yes he named the landmarks but he also connected the dots between them, giving the tourists the feel of Philadelphia. Granted a city tour is a visual experience but without a good background story it’s only a pile of spectacular snapshots overwriting one another and soon forgotten.
The tour-mobile stopped at the Capitol Hill. The stop announcers were out, the actors were in. Inside the Library of Congress, on a free tour, a smiling guide took in questions with enthusiasm – you would not think she was doing this all day long. My mother derided me for lack of translation at the library’s exhibits. I had to admit that a word of Russian or Chinese here and there definitely would not hurt tourism in Washington.
Back in New York as we emerged from the underground, my mother breathed in the sweet smell of Penn Station traffic. “Now that’s a city” she said lighting a cigarette. “Want to take a tour?” I pointed at a double-decker that, like our day together, glided past us and away, a red blip on ever stretching yellow canvas.
Stas Holodnak, originally from the Soviet Union, now lives and writes in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. More of his writing can be found here.
Art by Margarita Korol.