15 April 2009

Penitentiary Life, Week 4

Now that the "tourist season" is well underway, there are in fact more tourists! Of course, last week was also spring break for a lot of schools in the area, so that could have had something to do with the family groups that showed up to tour Eastern State.

Which brings me to the various interpretations there appear to be out in the world of the word "tour." Personally, I have always thought it meant the opportunity to visit a place - guided or on my own - and see all/part of it that I find interesting. All the better if I can learn something about the place/person/practice as part of the mix.

I have now learned that my version of taking a tour and that of many members of The Public are not one and the same. This is no more evident than during a shift in the Gatehouse, which is the main entrance to the penitentiary grounds. There is a tour guide stationed there during all of the hours that the place is open, to answer questions as well as provide directions, ideas of places to eat nearby, etc. To some extent, working in the Gatehouse is all PR, but as evidenced in the lizard story a couple of weeks ago, it can also be quite, um, fascinating.

But I digress.

There is a sign outside the Gatehouse which has the usual "Welcome to" info, and then a line that says "Self-guided audio tours available all day." Below that are listed the Topic Tours for the day (i.e., Uprisings, Escapes), and the times for those.

Member of the Public: I would like a tour of the penitentiary.
(I direct him to the ticket office.)
MotP: Well, can't you just show me around?
Me: The person stationed here cannot leave the area. But you can get an audio tour at the ticket office as part of your admission, and it's very well done. [Note: It really is. In some ways, much better than a person-guided tour. Plus the narrator is Steve Buscemi, which amuses a lot of people.]
MotP: But how will I know where to go?
Me: You will get a map, and the audio tour directs you from stop to stop.
MotP: But I wanted a tour.
Me: The audio tour *is* a tour. There are also tour guides stationed everywhere if you have questions, or would like more information.
MotP: Never mind. I wanted a tour. Thought maybe I would see some ghosts.

Then, there's the guide station in Center. Eastern State Penitentiary is built on a radial plan, simliar to a wheel, where the hub is the Center guard station, and the spokes are the cellblocks. At Center, you can stand and look into all seven of the original cellblocks.

Member of the Public: Where would I find Center? (Incidentally, he is wearing audio tour headphones, which have directed him to the exact spot.)
Me: Center is right here where you are standing.
MotP: What am I supposed to do now?
Me: If you stand here, and turn slowly, you can see into each of the original cellblocks. When the prison was originally constructed, this was considered a very efficient use of guard personnel.
MotP: When is there a tour of Center?
Me: There isn't a separate tour of Center. It's part of the public tour, whether audio tour, guided tour, or just walking around on your own.
MotP: So, are we not allowed to get a tour of Center?
Me: Well, as I mentioned, it's where we are currently standing, and as you can see, there really isn't anything here to "tour" other than seeing the layout of the cellblocks.
MotP: Do I have to stay here? This is boring.
Me (in my brain): Yes. I shall hold you prisoner and force YOU to give tours of Center.
Me (in reality): Sir, you can go on to any of the public areas of the prison, and only see the parts that interest you.
MotP: That is the dumbest answer I've ever heard.

Then we have the Topic Tours. The board in the Gatehouse lists the tours available on any given day, as well as their times. When people buy their admission tickets, they are also informed of the topics and times. Approximately fifteen minutes prior to the start, the guide giving the tour radios everyone else to see if additional people may be interested. So it's pretty difficult to miss one altogether if you are interested.

This is a conversation from a shift last week in Cellblock 7.

Member of the Public: I heard there is a Riot tour this afternoon. What time?
Me: That's at 2:15.
MotP: This afternoon?
Me: Yes.
MotP: Is it interesting?
Me (in my brain): No, it's incredibly boring and people who attend it run out of here screaming with their hair on fire.
Me (in reality): If you are interested in the different types of uprisings and riots that have occurred during the history of the place, it's very well done and quite interesting.
MotP: What time is it happening?
Me: 2:15.
MotP: Today?
Me: Yes.
MotP: Should I go?
Me: That's really up to you, but it is one of the popular Topic Tours.
MotP: What's it about?
Me: As I mentioned a few minutes ago, it's about the different types of uprisings and riots that have occurred during the history of the prison.
MotP: Do I have to figure it out myself?
Me: No, it's a guided tour.
MotP: What time is it?
Me: It starts ten minutes from now, at 2:15.
MotP: I guess I'll skip it, since I have no idea what it's about. I sure would like to know about riots, though ...

Exchanges such as those above always make me wonder how people have made it this far in their lives, and how they function from day to day. Don't get me wrong, I have my moments of complete inanity, and can ask a stupid question with the best of them. But I must admit that The Public has always fascinated me (even if for the wrong reasons), whether working in libraries, retail, or in my current job as a tour guide.

But I ask you - just where are the lizard guys when you need them???


Lisa said...

PHS couldn't have prepared you better for this. :)

(Next time, threaten to send them to Cell Block H. Yeah, I'm old enough to remember that.)

Carol said...

Oh boy, constant interaction with the great unwashed masses.... this is why I had to take a break from working retail at Rosie's. The public isn't satisfied 'til they've gotten a pound of flesh with their free audio tour...

Marie said...

Don't you just want to smack some people for being so darned dense?

Anonymous said...

You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried. Not so bright, these people.

Dianne said...

This post had me laughing out loud. I work in a museum and know exactly what you mean. I sometimes wonder how some people managed to get dressed on their own...

Lynn said...

Suddenly those lizard guys aren't so bad!! LOL And I bet that lizard was more intellectual than a lot of MotP!!!!

It really is scary how dumb some people are.

Lorraine said...

Bridget- I must ask- why Steve Buscemi?

It doesn't seem to matter- when dealing with the public at large, you are dealing with all kinds.

They need a smack upside the head.

Kathleen said...

I've learned to never underestimate the stupidity of the American Public. I mean, look who we last had for president, twice! Keep up the good fight :)

Knitting Granny said...

I totally admire your ability to keep your thought-replies to yourself. I just hope it doesn't make you ill. :o)

Quilting Mama said...

Good to see the PHS training hasn't gone to waste after dealing with the "VIPs" and him - your inner voices are ready for everything.

Bridget said...

It's true, the life I lead in my head, where the world is completely Bridget-centric, keeps me sane! (Well, as sane as I can claim to be ...)

And Lorraine - Steve Buscemi visited the penitentiary a few years ago, to see if it would work as a location for a film he wanted to make. It wasn't exactly what he had in mind, but he told the big shots that if there was ever a way he could help, to let him know. So he became the voice of the audio tour.

Brigitte said...

Ah, the gene pool...

I sure hope Steve Buscemi hasn't dropped any f-bombs into the narrative. That would REALLY wake some people out of their stupor.


MrPuffy said...

This makes for hysterical reading. Thanks! I totally want to go on a tour of the escapes :)