Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Into the void
[You'll be relieved to know this is not about baseball —]
I manage a popular tour program in Old Sacramento, the site of the original city. It's not popular because of me, of course, but having been involved since its beginning, I count myself fortunate.
Starting as a guide six years ago, I became the program's manager in spring.
The tour shows and tells the city's remarkable story, about its leaders who in the 1860s started raising the center of the city to fend off frequent floods. Visitors get to go where the Sacramento used to be, and see the city from underneath, lifted above their heads.
I love these tours. I love leading them, love the challenge of spinning the tale so that visitors can wrap their heads around the gargantuan problem and improbable solution. I love the extra challenge of helping schoolchildren see Gold Rush history leap out of their textbooks into crazy reality.
I love making people laugh. I love seeing them shake their heads at its early leaders' organized lunacy. I love the little gasps from visitors when they realize the historic giants who once tread the same streets and alleys they're walking.
Even though it began as a part-time gig, tour guiding affected my life disproportionately. No other force caused (1) hair to grow on my face and (2) the whiskers to dance over my face over the last six years, crawling across my lip and then into horrid and wheezy mutton chops. Now they have settled into a salt-and-pepper mustache and a white beard on my chin like the bristles of an artist's brush.
I ate the first interpretive guide whole and burped up dozens of questions for clarity and expansion, which I'm sure annoyed the tour creators. I wanted to know the complete story; I wanted to own it. Some other guides kidded me about being the go-to guide with all the answers, but it was an illusion: I just happened to have answers to the exact questions they asked.
Now the guide ranks include an archaeologist, a historian, an anthropology student, three teachers, and several who drink history in great gulps and spur our collective fascination for chasing the mysteries that still remain about raising the city. I take a seat far back from them.
Forgive my braggadocio, but I'm good at this. Like the other guides, I have crafted a walking story, timed to let the space where we're walking add emphasis to what I'm telling. I have devised activities that help visitors take part in this barely believable solution to save the city. I stuffed enough knowledge in my back pocket to vary the tour and answer many out-of-the-blue questions.
I take advantage of our audio system to sing to visitors in the quiet spots, something I can only really do in character, and over time I have played three characters, complete with accents. It makes me laugh when visitors wonder on social media review sites what part of Ireland I'm from.
Most days these days I portray a man named Joel Johnson, one of those responsible for lifting the city. I present him as a taciturn Yankee with a dry wit.
I am well satisfied that I do a good job leading the Underground Tour.
Unless you're talking about the Underground Adult Tour.
I do not do a good job with the adult tour.
During the adult tour, up is down for me. In is out. Light is dark; good, evil. I cannot cope. I am under water in a horrid waking, walking dream.
The museum that operates the tour developed the adult tour about three years ago, and it's been a huge success. It sells out fast, in small part because it's offered only two or three nights a week during the season — in large part because it promises the seamy, bawdy side of the early city, full of stinking saloons, grifters, gamblers, criminals and cutthroats. Sacramento was a vacuum during the Gold Rush, a void with no government, no law, no moral code. Anything went, until civilization wrestled it to the ground.
The adult tour is a half-hour longer, costs a bit more, and ends at an Old Sacramento saloon with a commemorative shot glass and discounts on drinks, so it's for visitors 21 and older.
And I can't give them. I've tried, several times, and I'm horrible. Other guides of the adult tour say they wish I'd stop saying that; they tell me I'm being too hard on myself.
I'm not, though. I'm really, really bad. As good as I may think I am on the general tour, I'm just as awful on the adult tour. Awfuler.
All the other adult guides are masterful. They own the extra time and peculiar stage, with its blush-inducing topics.
But even they want a change to the tour, so the guides and I have embarked on a project the previous manager had started, to differentiate the adult tour from general tour — to keep it from being, as my predecessor described, "the regular tour with a half-hour of sex and violence tacked on."
We're not yet sure what shape the new tour will take, but guides are trying small experiments with their tours for the remainder of this season — reversing the tour route, welcoming visitors at different points on the tour route rather than the traditional beginning, interacting with the second guide who up to now only helped distribute equipment and locked the doors behind the group. We plan to unveil a new tour, whatever it will be, next season.
As a part-time guide, I had the luxury of ignoring the adult tour and distancing myself from my failure at it. I lose that luxury as manager, not only helping craft the new tour but, owing to staffing hiccups, having to give an adult tour once again!
The first time came apart because of my old foibles, trying to deliver adult topics in a way that didn't cause me to mumble and clear my throat. I had difficulty pacing myself so that we ended up at the saloon on time, and trying to figure out what to say in the expanded time.
I missed all my marks, blew my transitions, lost my train of thought, which then promptly ran me over.
Another staffing hiccup last week required that I pick myself up and try again.
A private company ordered two adult tours.
The demographics of an adult tour are hard to pin down. Many come as part of a date night, priming their evening with lurid tales. Some come because they want to hear history without the distraction of children on tour. A few, the most disappointed of the population, come hoping to see ghosts.
Private companies add another layer of mystery. Many businesses buy the general daytime tours as an activity for their employees, usually including lunch or dinner in Old Sacramento. "Staff development days," we sometimes call them. Most enjoy the change of scenery and the crazy story we spin; a small few check their watches and track emails during the tour instead.
Adult tours with private companies are rare but not unheard of, so they're harder for me to gauge. I hoped for the best last week, and resolved to experiment with my tour.
I decided the way to make the tour space come alive was to talk with people from long ago, as if they were present in the underground spaces with us. I would relay the conversation to the visitors. That way, the prostitutes could talk about their work without it coming from me. A business owner from 1860s Sacramento could describe devastating flood damage, channeling me.
I described my idea to veteran guides, got frowns and sidelong nods ("eh …" is the translation), and went ahead anyway. I had nothing to lose, and I could wrap my own head around the adult tour this way.
Thursday was its debut. The company's tour bus got lost and the group was late. Onto my tour stepped about 20 young men: Big, tall, strong go-getters, I could see that right away. They reminded me of the young men who ran a huge farming corporation I used to cover as a reporter long ago, men I described to myself as "golden boys."
The group had one woman, who appeared to be a recruiter for the company. The men were all company interns, jockeying for full-time careers. They were in town for some training event, and this was their scheduled Different Thing To Do in the evening. The men didn't really know each other, having come from many parts of the country. Two young men from the same town didn't even know each other.
In other words: Totally incongruous group for an Adult Tour. They were not dating, nor were they necessarily interested in history, let alone the history of this city into which had just been dropped.
A better guide would have adapted immediately and changed the tour on the fly to mine for the group's interest.
I was not that guide.
I went ahead with my experiment, talking to the air, miming close-approaching trains and a tangle of tent ropes. The young men gazed in every direction but mine, being polite. The woman stared at me.
The sweat glistening my face and soaking my shirt was not from the humid evening air.
On I plodded, looking for traction, puddling in sweat. Just when I thought I had gained some, asking the other tour guide to explain an archaeological site that I, as a 19th Century character, wouldn't know about, the tour itself felt like it was falling into a dark hole, never to be retrieved.
Only an hour more of this.
I picked up pace when I started talking about the mechanics of lifting the city, which fell in line with the kind of business the interns were in. I went into general-tour mode, saying much of the same things I say during the daytime.
Eventually, I hurried the group along to the saloon, coming in only a few moments after the earlier tour, deciding that they might find respite with the other group of interns, and regale each other with this last hour or so in their lives they would never get back.
Expecting to hear better news from the other guide, a master at delivery, I learned afterward that her group was just as ill fit as mine. I could pin the blame for my tour solely on me, but when a much better guide still struggled, I know that the blame still fell fairly and squarely on me:
I should have known to ask the group's organizers about its purpose and makeup. With advance knowledge, I could have recommended a general tour, or dropped my melodramatic pretense and given the group a no-frills, frank tour about the city's unseemly beginnings.
A better manager would have done that.
Maybe, sooner rather than later, I'll become one.