This is the unedited, original version of my Washington Post Style section piece from March 2001. It was originally written as part of a tour guide’s memoir/guidebook I was working on at the time! :)

 

UMBRELLA LADIES

by Beth Homicz

Sometime in the early 1960s, when John F. Kennedy was president and his lovely wife set fashion standards with a wave of her hand, a company started up to provide tour guide services to groups visiting the nation’s capital. The guides were ladies, and showed it by wearing white gloves as Mrs. Kennedy was wont to do (the company advertised “white-glove service”), and by each carrying an open umbrella for use as a sort of standard ‘round which the group would rally.

Follow the umbrella,” these ladies would chirp to their charges. Group leaders who returned annually would ask for their favorite “umbrella lady” and gush about how the group had enjoyed the tour the previous year.

Over time, the umbrella became a tradition among guides in the capital, even those who worked for other agencies, and in other cities as well – Montreal, for instance. The original company is still going strong as the oldest and largest guide agency in D.C., although male guides are now common (they don’t wear the white gloves).

I worked for this agency for a time and acquired the umbrella habit. What a way to go. Find a couple of standout parasols, and I’m all set for rain, sleet, snow and sun. And the occasional pigeon or Canada goose flying over. (You laugh? I’ve seen a couple of those buggers drop unwanted cargo on folks in my groups. I carry wet-wipes all the time just in case.)

Many’s the time some yahoo trying to be funny has watched me lead forty eighth-graders down the Mall with my umbrella on a glorious clear day, and bellowed, “Hey, sweetheart, expectin’ rain today?”

Nope,” I answer, “but you never know what might fly over.”

I’ve owned all sorts of umbrellas in my seven years of guiding, from Tweety Bird (I had a tweety whistle to go with it, which I used to get the group’s attention outdoors) to pink-and-yellow plaid, to stars ‘n’ stripes, to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” We guides are quite jealous of our signature umbrellas (or “brollies,” as my English colleague Suzanne Pell calls them). We love to show off some rare and stunning find.

My friend Mona Royer, who is a renowned artist with a wonderful sense of drama, as well as a guide, has several brightly colored fringed satin parasols she’s actually named. People love it. I know another guide, Jane Junghans, who says she has a different umbrella for every outfit she owns. Sigh. Accessorizing can be such a headache.

For the past few years, many guides have also found creative ways to guide tours after dark. One of the most popular tours in Washington is of the monuments by night, what we call an “illuminated tour”. There’s no better way to marvel at D.C.’s beauty.

Well, the guide has to be illuminated too, so colleagues have used everything from Luke Skywalker light-sabers (collapsible), to strobe lights, to those lamps a miner straps to his helmet. Most common, though, is a simple flashlight held facing up along the umbrella shaft, creating a sort of glowing dome over the guide’s head. Makes your hand ache after a bit, but it works well.

The umbrella is a great tool to have in inclement weather, or when it’s beastly broiling hot (at such times, you gain many new foul-weather friends). We tour a lot in late winter and early spring, too, when sleet likes to put in an appearance. But on a windy day, an open umbrella means trouble. And, naturally, that’s when we get the greatest number of references to Mary Poppins. (I’ll bet you were wondering about that.)

I often tell my groups that if they have trouble remembering my name, I will answer to “Mary Poppins”. (I prefer it to “Tour Guide Lady.”) Of course, they test me repeatedly on this, young people especially: “Hey, Mary!” “Oh, Ms. POPpins!” So I add a caveat: If you call me Mary too often, I’ll start singing like Julie Andrews. “Just a spoonful of sugar…” With my voice, this usually does the trick.

But, the way I figure it, Mary Poppins isn’t too bad a role model to be associated with. She used her creativity and sense of wonder and fun to brighten the lives of two lonely children who didn’t get to see much of their rich, busy father, and didn’t much care to learn about anything. She gave them affection, opened their imaginations, made it a great experience for them, and did what she set out to do.

So, when my groups call me by her name, I don’t worry too much. I can see that they, too, are enjoying their learning, getting involved in it. What a great opportunity for a guide. At least they’re paying attention. It’s a shot in the arm when teens listen to you.

A tour guide can also work as a tour manager/director. In such a case, I greet the group upon arrival at the hotel or the airport. I’m hired to be there around the clock to see that all the various elements of the tour run smoothly and according to plan: we get to dinner on time, the student with the birthday gets a cake, the Holocaust Museum tickets don’t get lost, the hotel check-ins go smoothly, the security guard shows up each night in the hotel…that kind of thing. Detail work. Actually, I really like this kind of job. I get to know the people much better, and so we have more fun together.

The tour director usually stays in the hotel with the group, to be on-call if anything should go wrong. I’ve often wondered, shuddering, what that might entail. Once, a group of girls got frightened after they secretly dyed their hair (a dark shade) in the hotel room shower, then found they couldn’t wash away all the evidence. Well brought up as these girls were, their consciences smote them, and they called their teacher at 2 a.m. to confess.

The teacher then called my room, asking me what should be done. I answered that I thought we should all get some sleep.

Next morning, all was solved with the aid of some Soft Scrub cleanser, and we checked out of that hotel with a sigh of relief.

Things certainly can and do go wrong on tour. Someone gets ill (often in the motorcoach, unfortunately), or injured, or taunts a security guard, or keeps up serious noise all night long. Or an overnight power failure prevents the wake-up call at 4:30 a.m. on the morning we’re scheduled to go obtain White House tour tickets. That’s a biggie.

If you’re not at the White House bus ticket line on Constitution Avenue by 6:30, and often earlier on the busier days, you might as well sleep in. Every minute counts, as buses and more buses pull up into place in the line. Knock wood, though, I’ve never had a group miss getting those tickets in seven years. [Author's note: This paragraph is now obsolete; much has changed, for the worse for tourists, in D.C. since 9/11/2001.]

Shown up in their jammies, yes. Routed out of their warm beds by chaperones on a mission – “Your parents didn’t pay all that money for you to come to Washington and not see the White House!” Dedicated people, most chaperones are.

I’ve often wondered, though, what would happen if a group of tired students decided to mutiny on that one morning and all sleep in! In fact, it never ceases to amaze me that the kids haven’t thought of it yet. At least, not that I know of.

When you’re the tour director, you have to exude confidence, capability, and authority. You have to be able to handle real emergencies as if you eat them daily and eagerly for breakfast: sprained ankles, heat exhaustion, sudden snowstorms, cancelled flights.

If you have people on the tour who don’t know each other, you have to find gentle ways to bring them together and to include someone from each group in the decision-making. And because you’re clearly so efficient, the group, even the leaders, come to rely on you to take much of the responsibility off their harried shoulders.

And then you really feel like you’ve earned the Mary Poppins designation.