The NOLA Tour Guide OR Herding Cats

12:39 March 14, 2018
By: Phil LaMancusa

I’m into my third year as a tour guide; I lead New Orleans tours. I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty, and my legs are thin, but folks laugh at my jokes and listen to my information. I know my stuff and have a great sense of humor; I have a license, carry a sign, wear an orange shirt. I work for a company named Destination Kitchen/MustDoNola, owned and operated by Julie Barreda-Cavigne, a chef and seasoning alchemist who is top-drawer. Monthly, I text Wanda my available working dates, and at month’s end, after emailing hours worked to Rachel, money magically appears in my mailbox. Winner winner, chicken dinner.  

There are half a dozen of us guides and we do everything, including food, history, cocktail, walking, Garden District, and custom tours from two to 200 people. Tours can be tailored, or we have pre-structured jaunts about town that cannot be beat. Tours range from two hours and up. The culinary tour is three hours and a walk of about two miles around the French Quarter with stops for eating, hydrating, and rest facility stops for folks who need to facilitate their bodily functions; this is my forte (the tour, not the bodily functions).

It’s kind of like doing a stand-up performance that includes wit, history, education, facts, and idiosyncrasies. This being New Orleans's 300th year in existence, guides have been quite active on the street. People are interested in learning more about our city, and my tour-guiding has turned into active employment.

Each trip out, I am given a number of people to lead, and I never know who my people are until I see them. They are of all ages from across the spectrum of the world’s societies—folks like you and me. I arrive 15 minutes before the departure time and collect my flock. We meet at various places around the Quarter, and I start by introducing myself as I size up my audience. I get all kinds: kids that give more attention to their electronic devices than to some old guy in an orange shirt; couples engaged in PDA (public displays of affection), ditto; students; older folks; women in tight clothing; and men with powerful hangovers. There are also the 11 types of dietary-restricted folks who we’re happy to accommodate, and just when you think that you’ve heard every aversion, someone will surprise you with yet another “sensitivity” (mercury?).

I warn them of treacherous walking conditions, explaining the alluvial soil that we’ll be traversing, ready to trip the unaware stroller. Watching someone trip and fall in the street is one of the scariest things that any tour guide can experience; losing people is another. Usually people are interesting and interested: the shy, the gregarious, BFFs, fast walkers, slow eaters, weak bladders, or those most interested in another cocktail. We accommodate them all. I have a set schedule of places I need to be and when I need to be there, but by in large—hard as I might try—it rarely works out with precision. Occasionally, there will be an overly impatient person, a couple who would rather talk to each other than listen to me, and/or the husband who couldn’t care less because it was his wife who made the reservation and he’s just along for the ride. There are also those people who want to make sure that they get their money’s worth, the ones who want to eat right away because they didn’t stop for breakfast, and guys who need to sneak a smoke or those lingering for selfies or photo ops. These are my children, and I love each and every one of them. “Are we there yet?”

Our purveyors, the food and drink outlets where we stop, are gems of perfection and patience. We are blessed with being able to show off the best of our local foods and locations, and my tourists always leave the tour knowing more about the city than can be gleaned from just a map.

I start by telling my group my name (and getting theirs), where I come from (and where they are visiting from), and then explain my credentials and a word about our company and about Julie. I tell them that we will be on a three-hour tour, but I have 30 hours of information, and how I’ll be talking about food, culture, food, history, food, architecture, food, legends, and facts (and food). And off we go.

You can be sure that no one on the excursion knows where we’re going; I take them up streets, down alleys, around in circles, and backtrack. I could be kidnapping the whole bunch and they’d never blink an eye; once they start following you, they’ll go anywhere. I suspect that if we stopped for an espresso, I could walk them to Abita Springs, especially if there was beer on the other end.

On any given tour, I walk about five miles to, from, and on. I could go on forever. After I’ve exhausted our time together, I still have only let them glimpse the tip of the iceberg that is New Orleans. Probably what will make me a great tour guide (instead of just a very good one) is my love of this place that I have chosen to make and call my home. The addiction that I have for all things New Orleans, all of the stuff that makes living here so much more preferable to other places, as well as all the things that I love not to love about her. The funniest thing that I love about New Orleans is how we all know what’s misfunctional about it, and with each election, we pin our hopes on being able to change things. New Orleans laughs back at us—what fools we mortals be. 

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