lost, for a little while

storyteller q&a: sandy hester
June 6, 2011, 1:37 am
Filed under: advice

Awhile back, before I actually began this road trip, I applied for a grant from a little organization called Roadtrip Nation and, behold, they gave it to me. The stipulations go a little like this: they give me a little cash to support this road trip, and in exchange, I post pictures and blog entries about my travels (as if I wouldn’t do that anyway), and conduct some interviews along the way.

Who do I need to interview? That’s pretty much up to me, and I decided that I wanted to talk to different kinds of storytellers–everyone from authors and journalists to artists, musicians, and, as you’ll see here, tour guides.

My first interview took place while I was in New Orleans; I sat down with Sandy Hester, a guide with French Quarter Phantoms, to find out how storytelling is a part of her job. In the process, I also learned how one becomes a tour guide in New Orleans, why being a fake hospital patient is a great way to get over shyness, and which neighborhood is New Orleans’ best-kept secret.

How did you get this kind of job?

I’ve always been interested in stories, and you can’t write a better story than half of what’s in your history book, so I got my master’s degree in history. Because I love history so much, and because I fell madly in love with New Orleans, I wanted to learn everything I possibly could about the city when I moved here, and I started buying up history books and reading them. Later, I had a friend of mine tell me about becoming a tour guide–I don’t even think I knew there was such a thing when I moved here–and he and I went to get our licenses together. At first, I didn’t even know if I could do it because I was this shrinking wallflower—I really was; I was the worst person in the world to take to a party because I’d be off in the corner holding my beer up like a shield. But I’ve been a guide for about eight years now.

What was your first tour like?

It was awful. Everybody’s first tour is awful, unless you’re just like…a really amazing person. I felt bad for my group; they all should have gotten their money back. My voice was shaking, I turned fifteen shades of red, and I thought I was going to vomit. But I think it had less to do with talking in front of 28 people and more with the fact that my boss was on my first tour. God knows why he didn’t fire me on the spot, but he didn’t. The next night, he didn’t come with me, and I was fine.

What’s the process like for becoming a tour guide?

The process itself goes like this: They do a background check and drug test, and then you have to pass a history exam in order to be licensed. And then you have to renew it every year. In order to pass the test, you study a book called Beautiful Crescent, and not to knock the ladies that wrote it, but it is fraught with errors and they test you on the errors. So you have to memorize all this stuff that’s wrong and then forget it and re-learn everything.

What did you do before becoming a tour guide?

God, everything. When I first moved here—you’re gonna laugh—I was a security guard, because they would hire you immediately, and I had no place to stay and no job. That was the dorkiest job on the planet. Most security guards are men, so no part of the uniform ever fit me and I was the least menacing  guard ever. My tie was hanging down to here and the sleeves went past my fingers and I had the belt cinched to hold up my pants and it was just ridiculous. There used to be this chain of grocery stores around here called Schwegmann’s, and I was a guard at those stores. They were in some of the worst neighborhoods in New Orleans. People would just walk up to me and say “I’m going to steal, and you’re going to do nothing about it.” And I’d be like “Thanks for shopping at Schwegmann’s!”

Which tour is your favorite to give?

Treme. I created that tour, and I worked really hard to get it to where it is now, and I think it’s just getting better and better. Treme is a neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter, and it’s the oldest continuously-occupied African American neighborhood in the country. It was also the epicenter for the Civil Rights Movement, and the birthplace of jazz. When I was writing the tour, I got a little nervous because I wasn’t sure how to get everything across to people, but it turned out that you don’t really have to do much with Treme to make it come to life because it’s just such an amazing neighborhood. Everything you think of in terms of the culture of New Orleans? It’s magnified in Treme.

What steps did you take between coming up with the idea for the tour and getting it to the point where you could start offering it?

It was a lot of time spent in archives, going through musty, dusty slave records. I bought a lot of books—I now have a small library devoted to Treme. I went into the neighborhood and talked to people to see how receptive they would be to the idea, and visited the Backstreet Cultural Museum to see what they had to offer in terms of information I could use and whether or not I’d want to recommend it to people who came on the tour. I did the same with the African American Museum. I did anything I could to soak up that culture, including listening to a lot of jazz. I like old-school jazz, so that was a perk.

What makes a great tour guide?

The best tour guides are the ones who continue to get books and pay attention to what’s going on around town. It’s more than just telling a story—you want to be able to say “This is where you go for good music tonight,” “I love this restaurant,” “Oh, you’re looking for gumbo? Go here, it’s a great price.” The best guides keep up with the changing culture of New Orleans and keep studying to make sure they’re the better tour guide. Of course somebody’s going to ask you a question that’s so off the wall that you have no idea and can’t possibly answer it, but the goal is to be able to answer 95 percent of the questions that people ask you. That makes you a better guide, and that makes them have a better time.

Do most tour guides share some common personality traits?

We’re all arrogant. We’re an arrogant, nerdy, slightly socially-dysfunctional lot. You know the ones in high school, those people you probably didn’t sit with at the lunch table in the cafeteria—the later bloomers and the ones with the Coke bottle glasses? We’re those people.

You mentioned being a wallflower, and that’s really not the vibe I’m getting from speaking with you right now…

I’m drunk. [laughs]

Have you just grown more comfortable with giving tours and talking to complete strangers? Or is it something you have to constantly work at?

I’ll credit a job I used to do with helping me get out of being a shrinking wallflower: I worked as a Standardized Patient for Tulane University. You’re given a role to play, and a med student comes in and you say something like “Oh, my chest hurts, I think I’m having a heart attack.” And it might really be anxiety or something; this is how the students are tested. In addition to this, you’re also paid to teach med students how to give physical exams and you use your own body as a prop. Here’s the thing about that: if you’re giving the cardiac exam, you’re in a hospital gown with no bra, and there’s only so long you can maintain this shrinking wallflower thing while people are groping you. You get over it. Oh—and it’s all on camera, too. So now you’re on camera, in a hospital gown, no bra, and people are feeling your PMI, which is right beneath your left breast. Or your femoral artery, which is in the crease of your thigh. I was like “Well, hell. If I can do that, I can talk to strangers.”

What are the differences between telling a story in writing and having to tell it verbally?

If you write something that gets published, your critics aren’t in your face taking issue with what you’re saying. You’re not getting heckled when you’re writing—you might get slammed in the press, but it’s different from trying to keep your train of thought while someone’s insulting you. The whole thing becomes a kind of performance piece; you can’t just say “Behind me is the Ursuline Convent. It was constructed in 1750,” and expect to hold their attention. You have to give them some history, you have to make them laugh, and you have to give them a good story. You’ve got to hold all this in your head while keeping the drunks on the street away from your group, keeping the drunks who are on your tour in check, and keeping your story going while that guy having a midlife crisis driving down the street is blasting music from his speakers. It’s a hell of a lot easier to write a story than it is to perform it.

So how do you do it? How do you keep their attention?

Make them laugh, make them laugh, make them laugh. Do anything you can to make them laugh, because if they’re laughing the whole way through your tour, they’re walking away having had a good time, and everybody’s happy. You want to craft a roving campfire story that includes a little bit of history.

Is there any other city you’d want to be a tour guide in?

In the United States, there’s no other city I’d want to live in. I’ve lived here about 16 years. New Orleans hooks you immediately; you’re either going to hate New Orleans, or you’re going to fall madly in love with it. And I fell madly in love with it. There’s something about the history here, it’s like you can touch the buildings and get flashes of the way it looked and used to be. There’s this magic about New Orleans that takes hold of you the moment you walk in. All those people who said “Just let it flood”? There’s something wrong with them.


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