Tourist tale

New York City is swarming with tourists — especially in the area near Zuccotti Park, home to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the 9/11 Memorial. I’m one of them, of course, though I do my best to blend in. I like to think it’s only my frequent use of the words “thank you” and “excuse me” that give away my “not-from-around-these-parts” status.

It’s not that I think New Yorkers are rude. On the contrary, my experiences with native New Yorkers have been delightful. But the tourists are starting to get on my nerves. I paused at New York Comic Con yesterday to wait for a tourist who seemed to be having trouble deciding which way she wanted to turn.

She stood for a long time, eventually turning and running smack dab into me. I’m not the quickest thing off the block anymore, but I mean well — and would have been happy to apologize had she not cussed me out and dashed away from the scene. It seemed a fluke until a little-run in I narrowly escaped in a Lower Manhattan coffee house — one of 172 of this particular brand in the city, I’m told.

I'm going local in search of the fine art of customer service (Photo is from a lovely local joint near the Burton Barr Central Library in downtown Phoenix)

Fearing my feet were quite literally about to give way, I sought out a seat after getting my coffee. Two seats had been empty for 15 minutes as I waited in line, so I asked a couple, tourists with heavy German accents, if I could use the chairs. They’d been guarding them like the people version of a pit bull for all that time.

I went in search of other options after they told me the seats were saved. Soon a heavy downpour started to fall, and there were a lot more people in search of coffee and a place to sit for a spell. I watched as the couple, in their 60s I suppose, turned away other people who politely requested the seats.

I headed back to the counter and asked, very nicely, for a manager. I explained that a couple had been saving two seats for well over 20 minutes and that I really needed to sit down. He came out from behind the counter to ask them about the seats — then told me they were saving them for friends who were in the bathroom.

“The bathroom line gets really long here,” the manager told me. There was no line, and I’m guessing no friends. “First come, first served,” he shouted at me. Then he hurried back behind the counter. No “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you miss” or “Can I help you find another solution?” He couldn’t have cared less.

I returned to the couple and asked, again very nicely, whether I could just borrow one chair until their friends finished in the bathroom. But they turned nasty in a hurry. A gentleman sipping coffee with his wife at a nearby table quipped, “That’s why we had a second World War — Germany wanted more space.” I didn’t tell him my birth mother hailed from Germany.

Again, they refused — and the other couple, sensing my very real physcial pain — suggested I simply sit down. Nobody owns the chairs, they told me. So I tried that, explaining that I’d be happy to get up once the bathroom buddies returned. The older couple yelled at me, appalled by my so-called rudeness, until the more gracious couple noted that they had an extra chair at their table.

I was happy to move. I didn’t want to make a scene. I only wanted to get off my feet before they gave out. I’d take up a lot more space if I collapsed. I chatted with the friendly couple for a bit, who shared that they too have found New Yorkers to be perfectly civil — but that they’ve had similar encounters with other tourists in New York.

I can’t do anything about people who guard public spaces like they own them, but I can choose to get my coffee elsewhere at every opportunity. You can make the finest coffee in the world, but I won’t have anything to do with it until I get the sense that the people on your “team” really care about their customers.

After resting for ten minutes or so, I watched a lone man in his 20s politely ask the couple if they were using the two empty chairs. Half an hour later, they still refused to share. So I offered him my seat, explained that the couple sitting at the table were truly lovely — and that I was about to head out the door.

I’d have enjoyed a bit more time off my feet and out of the rain, but it seemed a nice way to end the experience. I wanted to pay the couple’s kindness forward — and New Yorkers need to know that not all tourists are tyrants.

— Lynn

Coming up: The art and soul and New York Comic Con

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