Et al. presents: On Tourists



I hate tourists. Or maybe hate is the wrong word. I guess I don’t hate tourists; it’s more of a frustration. Whatever it is you feel when something just keeps getting in your way that you want nothing to do with, like those hand moisturizer salesmen in malls. But coming to New York City four years ago was difficult for a boy like me who treasures the tapestry of forests and farmland surrounding my home in Pennsylvania. It was the open spaces that appealed to me – room to breath. When I was a child I memorized a poem titled "Daniel Boone." At a Recitation Night for homeschoolers I wore a coonskin cap and belted out my favorite line: “Elbow room, cried Daniel Boone!” That’s what I loved, and still love: elbow room.

New York has lots of rooms – small rooms, large rooms, short rooms, tall rooms. But it doesn’t offer much elbow room. Monumental towers of steel crowd out the sky and do their part in making the city feel cramped. But the most culpable element for me is the people. Every walk down the street involves dodging hordes of pedestrians, great and small. Alertness is key, especially when keeping watch for the toughest obstacle of all: the spellbound tourist, stopped in his tracks. A memory comes to mind from 2011: I was navigating the throngs of sightseers on 34th Street, panicked and claustrophobic but desperate to make it to class on time in the Empire State Building. Needless to say, I’m happy we’re here in the Financial District now.

I’ve certainly learned to be quite contemptuous of those who gape and rubberneck through the streets of New York. It’s a trendy sort of distaste, shared by many New Yorkers. But why is it so fashionable to be jaded? Imagine going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but when you pause to soak in a Van Gogh, the security guard scoffs and rolls his eyes at you. I’m loath to admit it, but New York City is an amazing place. Those towering skyscrapers are incredible feats of modern civilization. The cobblestone streets are the lasting memorial of an earlier era. The landmarks that are characteristically swarmed by tourists are famed elements of American history and culture. Even the street performances and sidewalk shops are fascinating expressions of New York artistic and entrepreneurial societies.

I think it’s tough to live amongst remarkable things and always keep a fresh eye. My home is in the beautiful Pocono Mountains, and one of my biggest regrets is not fully realizing how much I love it there until after I left for college. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess. Of course, living somewhere is a much different experience than popping in every now and then for a quick visit. New Yorkers see what tourists don’t – the crowded, sweaty subway commutes, the cramped and overpriced apartments, that smell in some less-than-savory subway stations. The same goes for my hometown and everyone else’s, I’m sure.

And that’s okay – I don’t feel guilty if I’m not ooh’ing and aah’ing all hours of the day. But I also think I have a lot to learn from the fascination of tourists with what seems everyday to me. Rather than scowling at those who stand in the middle of the sidewalk – eyes heaven-ward and mouths gaping – I hope I can appreciate the fact that they see something extraordinary where I saw only mundanity. And if I’m lucky, maybe I can muster the courage to play tourist myself once in a while, and see this city in a brighter light than before.