Barry Smith: Unbearable lightness of being a N.Y. tourist |

Barry Smith: Unbearable lightness of being a N.Y. tourist

(NOTE: Barry is on the road. Enjoy it with him by reading this, his fourth installment.)

I can sum up my three days in New York thusly:


* See a show

* Get mugged

* Eat a bagel


* Eat pizza

* Eat falafel

* Empire State Building, top

Not to say that my first-ever visit to N.Y. wasn’t amazing, it’s just that my observations while walking around, which we did a lot of, were on the “Wow! Look at that cool old building” level.

So, let’s talk instead about being a tourist.

One of my projects still in the works is a little ?zine called “True Tourist Tales.” The idea is to collect and publish some anecdotes about the stupid things that tourists do, as told by the people on the receiving end of the stupidity: waiters, lift ops, raft guides and so on.

Now that I think about it the whole idea is a bit mean spirited: you, the tourist, do stupid things, I write about them in a way that makes you look even dumber, thereby making me seem clever. See? Everybody wins! Except you, the stupid tourist.

Well, nothing takes the hitch out of your git-a-long quite like being a stupid tourist yourself. Or, in this case, myself.

Christina and I, while still in Washington, D.C., were attempting to ride the subway. Actually, we were attempting to figure out how to buy tickets for the subway. We stood in front of the machine which seemed to be designed for the vending of such tickets.

Generally speaking, my wife and I are not stupid. We have both done some traveling in the past, her much more than me, have at least slightly above-average problem solving skills, are able to clearly articulate our wants, can safely operate motor vehicles, and so on.

My idea of a good time is troubleshooting my computer. I have long and detailed phone conversations with my friends about corrupt preference files and desktop rebuilding. And, the reason I’m in D.C. is that I have been hired as an Audio Visual Guy, flown out and handsomely rewarded for my technical prowess.

Yet we stood dumbfounded before this subway ticket machine like we’d just been transported there from the early 1500s.

We each held $5 bills in our hands. Christina fed hers into the slot that looked to be designed for such use, and it sucked the bill out of her hand. I pushed what I thought was the obvious next button to push in order to complete this transaction and out spits the bill. Then we stand there for a little while, mouths slightly open, before doing the exact same thing.

Meanwhile, things are happening. All around us people are hustling and, as they are prone to do in a big city, bustling. We stand frozen in the middle of this blur of big-city, human activity, like a scene from one of those “qatsi” movies, only occasionally slowly inserting and removing bills from a machine.

We had seized up. Living in a tourist town, I see this all the time; reasonable, capable, educated people huddled cluelessly around a parking meter, people walking into the icy street in front of oncoming cars in order to take a picture of their equally oblivious family, people asking things like “What time does it stop snowing?” I’ve been known to help people with the parking meters, but I always manage to slip in a “rocket science” or a “brain surgery” while doing so, just to let ?em know where they stand. The fact that they may actually BE rocket scientists or brain surgeons always makes my sarcasm taste that much sweeter.

“Ya’ll don’t know what you’re doin’, do ya?” the woman at the adjacent machine said.

We shook our heads.

“OK, hang on. I’ll be right there.”

She stepped over and talked us through the process of public transportation. And she did so with amazing kindness and a complete lack of condescension.

The woman completed her lesson and told us ? sincerely ? to enjoy our visit.

I’m profoundly touched. I have visions of returning to Aspen and becoming a superhero of kindness; giving directions, taking group pictures, yielding to pedestrians. Kindness Man! This may be the excuse I need to wear that cape I’ve been eying.

I came to the city for a dose of grit, and instead I got reminded of how vulnerable you can feel as a tourist. Now I have to be nice to people. Dammit.

Still, if you have any good tales of tourism to share, send ?em along. True Tourist Tales will be published this winter.

[Barry Smith’s column runs in The Aspen Times on Monday and Thursday. His e-mail address is, and his very own Web page is at]

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