Last Friday, I wandered down to the Mall to see how our Tea Party friends were making out taking in all Washington has to offer. As I exited the Smithsonian Metro, I, like so many visitors before and to come, was immediately accosted by a gentleman offering to help me out.
Repeat visitors to DC are no doubt familiar with what I'm talking about. These guys hang out at the top of the Smithsonian Metro, sell maps, and offer directions. After they give their pitch, they give you a song and dance about trying to raise money for their shelter or some such nonsense, and you're on your way.
Now, I should note that these guys were not here for the Tea Party rally, on the remote chance you might have thought so. Perhaps they were just more visible Friday, as they are uniformly African-American and the Tea Partiers were uniformly not. But these gentlemen appear whenever a large gathering is expected, or for that matter, busy Saturday afternoons. I've walked by them so many times I don't notice them.
Traditionally, I've warned people off. After all, the maps they give out are given away free elsewhere, any Museum has an information desk you can ask for help at, and the chance of your money making it to the homeless shelter it's putatively donated to is, I would assume, slim. But Friday, I decided to test it out.
As I stared at the map right outside the exit of the Metro, a gentleman approached me, handed me the map, and asked me where I was going. Playing along, I asked him where the space stuff was. Without missing a beat, he pointed me towards the Air and Space Museum. I then asked if that's where the ruby slippers were, and he pointed me (correctly) to the American History Museum. Continuing to play along, I then said, "so, are the dinosaurs there too?", to which he patiently corrected me and directed me to the Natural History Museum.
Having passed the basic tourist exam, I decided to ramp it up a bit. I then asked if that was where the new evolution exhibit was. "Sure is", was the response and I futher inquired floor it's on. Confidence wavered a bit, finally, and he responded with first floor (which is correct), but I could see we were getting a little shaky. Fair enough, I thought, and repaid his patience by showing a bit of my own by listening through his spiel about the homeless shelter and giving him a dollar.
I left with a certain admiration for this guy. He's fulfilling a basic need for information of hordes of people who just want to be pointed in the right direction. Furthermore, he's doing it at the exact location people need it. Quite frankly, this is someone else's job and he's doing it. Worth a buck to me.
This particular location nicely illustrates the stovepiped nature of tourism to DC. You get off the Metro, which is at best hit or miss with helping clueless visitors out. You emerge, blinking in the light, and you're on the Mall, which is National Park Service territory and whose quest for better signage has blocked in the past. They do have a sign and map there, but it's innadequate to the need. They also have an information booth to your right as you exit, but it's somewhat forbidding and often unmanned. And then you're here to see the Smithsonians, but they don't help you out until you go in one of the buildings. Tourists get lost in the gap between a regional transit authority, a Federal agency, and whatever the hell the Smithsonian is. No wonder our enterprising capitalists fill the niche. Good for them!
So if you know where you're going, by all means politely decline their offer of assistance and walk on by. If your question is in depth or detailed, use the NPS kiosk or go into the Smithsonian Castle. But if you just need a map and to be pointed in the right direction, I bet a guy will be happy to help you out for a buck or two. My take, pay him for the service he's rendered and if you really want to help the homeless (and I hope you do), there are better ways.