We can do it... with flip charts!

The City of Savannah hosted a tourism workshop a couple days ago, so that's where I was Tuesday evening. They had a couple others in the Spring as well. I only caught about half an hour of the first two because I had tours on my book, so it was exciting for me to finally discover what goes on at these workshops after I leave. Turns out, not a whole lot. The evening began with a slide show reviewing some of the gripes tour guides had expressed at the previous meetings. Or something. It was kind of like sitting in class in middle school again. Just as I used to do in school, I paid minimal attention to what was happening up front because I was reading something else. Back in the day, it would have been a book discreetly held just below the desk. In this case, I was looking over some handouts that detailed pretty much what the slideshow went over. After that, us tour company owners had to get to work! We sat at our tables, wrote down our individual "vision statements" for Savannah, then from that the table worked out a single "vision statement" which we wrote on a large flip chart. Why do bureaucrats love flip charts so much? Each table next had to share their "vision statement" with the rest of the room. I had convinced my table to throw the word "stewardship" into ours, which went over very well with the moderators of the workshop. That was enough to earn me the Microphone of Command, so I had to stand up all official-like and read our statement for everyone. I decided to lighten things up because, you know, we were a bunch of grownups who had been provided crummy snacks (seriously, there wasn't even any coffee!) and forced to sit down with our competitors and whip up lame flip chart projects like a classroom full of fifth-graders. So, I began with "Well, we here at Table Awesome...". As intended, it got a laugh out of every one. What I did not anticipate was everyone after that turning it into a competition and trying to out-awesome Table Awesome. Also, subtly insulting every other previously stated "vision statement". This is what happens any time you assemble a diverse group of people all in one place for official reasons: they actually regress back to being snide little teenagers. I guess that's an inherent flaw in the democratic process.

This quest for tour guide input is a noble effort on the part of the City and the Tourism Advisory Council, but what will it actually lead to? There's supposed to be a follow-up workshop on the 17th. Will it involve another slide-show and yet more scintillating flip chart action? Will all this information-gathering lead to tangible changes in Savannah's approach to tourism? My guess is not anytime soon. As far as I'm concerned, nothing counts until the City has established, staffed, and funded an actual Tourism Office. Even if such a thing did not immediately remedy any of the problems we've been experiencing, it would provide a mechanism for solving those problems far more nimbly than the disconnected, lumbering bureaucracy that handles things now. Tourism has become huge and we really must have a centralized department that keeps tabs on the numbers and promotes a more controlled type of growth. Stewardship, if you will. It's a billion dollar industry. You'd think the City would have done that already.

Alas, I doubt the Tourism Advisory Council will unwrap a shiny new Tourism Department for us at the October 17th meeting. There are a lot of things to distract the City right now, chief among them being the firing of our City Manager, the complete mess she made of the Purchasing Department, and the inevitable search for a new City Manager. Also, it's an election year. I'm not sure what that has to do at all with tour guides in Savannah, but apparently "It's an election year" is a good excuse to put any real work on hold until after the first week of November. Hmmm. Maybe that means we can expect to find a Tourism Department under our tree at Christmas then? I suppose it's time for me to get started on that letter to Santa....


Berrien the past

When I got back into town from Florida on September 9th, I was thrilled to read this column by Bill Dawers in the Savannah Morning News: Important unrestored Savannah building finds perfect buyer. It's about the Berrien house, which has sat crumbling on the corner of Broughton and Habersham for years and years and years. Seriously, the last tenant in there was Pete's Shoe Repair on the ground floor and that closed up over two decades ago. The Berriens were a very prominent local family in the 18th and 19th centuries. John Berrien was a great patriot and served under George Washington. Andrew Jackson appointed his son, John Macpherson Berrien, Attorney General. I've seen their gravestones in Colonial Park Cemetery. The house was probably under construction in the 1790s and George Washington himself may have taken a gander at the site while he was in town in 1791. I picture these two southern gentlemen standing placidly next to the foundation and framing, beers in hand à la King of the Hill, and pontificating thusly: "Sure is a nice house you're building there, John."

"Thanks, George."

"Yep," as Washington takes a sip of his beer.


What John Berrien could never know is that 221 years later, the blighted husk of his once glamorous home would be rescued from decay by his own descendent, Andrew Berrien Jones of New York. Andrew Jones is also a scion of the even more locally resplendent Jones family. We should all be impressed as hell by that pedigree, but this isn't Charleston, so probably no one will care. According to Bill Dawers, Jones is an artist and businessman whose family visited Savannah regularly throughout his life. He didn't know about the old homestead, though, until about 10 years ago. I guess all the grandparents and stuff had forgotten they used to own it. So, I imagine the wheels have been turning in Jones' head for the last decade. Has he spent all this time marshaling his resources until he had enough to buy the place? Artists are famous for not having money, so where did he get his? What type of business does he run? Business better be good because it's going to take obscene amounts of money to spiff that place up. I've been telling my tourists for years if they knew any eccentric millionaires who needed a project, they should send them our way and point them toward that house.

I do not have a photo of the house, but you can take a look at this other article from 2008 to get an idea what kind of shape it's in. Scroll down to the bottom and there's even a video walk-through of the place. I have often used the Berrien on my tours to show people what the Historic District used to look like decades ago. For someone who has never been to Savannah or who didn't grow up here, they simply cannot conceive what a wreck the place was throughout most of the 20th century. It's so good-looking now. I'm pretty sure the dilapidated state of that particular house drives it home. The Berrien has been insensitively altered, it's wooden siding stuccoed over (honestly, who does that?), it's ground floor raised, its levels cut up into tenements. For years it has loomed on that corner, looking as if someone cleaned up a crime scene in a splendid home, put everything back in perfect order, then simply left the brutalized corpse lying in the front parlor.

The house is one of few surviving artifacts connected to Savannah's late 18th and early 19th century history. For that, it needs to be saved and fully restored and I am very glad it will be. But the Berrien house is also an artifact and survivor of Savannah's uglier days, it's decades of decline and neglect and crime. Nothing is for free and the restoration of yet another old building sanitizes our history just a little bit more and costs us a tiny amount of truth. Progress doesn't mean anything if you don't know how far you've come. How will I ever be able to show people what made Downtown "the bad part of town" for an entire generation? I'm losing a little connection even to my own personal history. The Historic District was still "the bad part of town" when I was a kid and I know people who are still afraid to go there, especially after dark. I will no longer be able to share that experience with my clients as fully as I've been able to the past few years. For that, I am a little bit sad. But only a little bit.

A visit to Frederica

So, I finally accomplished one of my goals recently: I visited Fort Frederica National Monument. Now that my boyfriend has a job with a regular schedule, that frees up the car for me to use on the weekends. I made plans to visit my grandma September 7th-9th, since I hadn't seen her in months. The drive is a straight 300 miles south on I-95 and takes me right past Brunswick. I realized that since I had to get up at the butt-crack of dawn to drop Don, my boyfriend, off at work, I would be out of the house early enough to turn the drive into an adventure and check Fort Frederica off my to-do list. In spite of my early reveille, I still did not manage to hit the road until about 11:30. Maybe some people can just pack a bag and walk out, but I am a victim of my own compulsions. I spent a couple of hours taking care of chores and putting the apartment in good order before I left. I know it doesn't really make any sense- I'm not going to be there and Don, being a guy, is insensible to dirt, dust, and disorder. But there are certain old-fashioned impulses I cannot shake. One of them is the 'ole whirlwind clean-up when I have guests coming over, even if they're good friends I know I don't have to impress. You just don't invite people to your place, then make them sit on a cat-hair-covered couch. Even sillier is my inability to leave a dirty house behind me when I go out of town. I can trace that to a little streak of morbid paranoia: if I should die before I return, I don't want whoever empties out my home to think I was a slob. Even dumber, I would like them to be impressed by how organized and tidy I was, maybe even to the point of feeling like inadequate housekeepers themselves. Yep, that's me, manipulating other people's insecurities from beyond the grave! We all need something to aspire to, I guess.

I made it to Brunswick in very good time, probably because  I didn't pass any construction at all on the road between here and there. I don't think that's ever happened before. Can it be a day is coming when I-95 isn't constantly being resurfaced or widened? Quick, someone light up a barbecue and grab the pigs before they fly away! I had some lunch in town since I had skipped breakfast at home, then headed toward St. Simons Island. I got lost a little bit on the way there and discovered that multi-lane roundabouts are dangerous things. But, I made it to the historic site eventually with no damage and only minimal chaos in my wake. Admission to Frederica is only $3, but I still have the receipt and get to write that off as a business expense. Big money, right? By the way, national monuments and historic sites are often the best deal in town. I know all the ones around here are super-cheap to visit. So, next time the kids whine about being bored, throw them in the car, whip out $5, and treat (torture?) them to an afternoon of HISTORY. If they learn nothing else, they may at least learn to keep their little mouths shut.

Fort Frederica National Monument is the town and fort of Frederica, which James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, established in 1736 as a defense against the Spanish in Florida. Oglethorpe himself had a little house there, and spent much more time in Frederica than in the city of Savannah. The fort had its guns pointed at the Frederica River to keep the Spanish out and was connected to Fort St. Simons on the other end of St. Simons Island via a military road. It was really only a rough, sometimes swampy path cut out of the wilderness and probably didn't look much better then than it does now. The town itself was very orderly and compact and fortified with a moat, palisades, earthen walls around its edges and two bastions on the outer corners. Frederica grew into a bustling hamlet, full of families and soldiers and houses and shops, numbering about 500 people at its height.

However much Oglethorpe liked Frederica, he doomed the place when he won the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742, which eliminated the Spanish threat from that point onward. I'm sure all the English colonists were jubilant at the time. Six miles down the military road, Oglethorpe had managed to turn away a force of 2,000 Spaniards with only about 600 English  and Scottish soldiers. He pulled a ballsy trick and confused his enemies into thinking his army was much larger. The Spanish left and just kind of gave up on Georgia from that point on. Then, they signed a treaty with the English in 1748 that set the boundary of Florida at the St. Mary's River and ended the War of Jenkin's Ear. Which, once again, I'm sure the English colonists were very happy about, but it rendered Frederica completely useless, a vestigial outpost. Oglethorpe left Georgia, his little colonial village declined, the population dwindled, and then there was a fire in 1758 that chased out the last few die-hard residents. Frederica sat alone and neglected until archaeological interest revived it as a historic monument in the 20th century.

There were no other visitors when I got there, though a few people turned up before I left. The place isn't all that distant from civilization, but remote enough to give you an idea what Georgia felt like generations ago. I could not hear or see any traffic or people. There was no whirring of air conditioning units and no electrical wires emitting their constant hum. It was the middle of the afternoon and the light was just a little too bright, the air just a little to warm, and the flies, as usual, far too abundant. I could hear the slosh of the river and the rustle of the trees and a few birds, but that was about it. Frederica, overall, feels very still. It's as if the town itself is so stunned and frozen by its own ruined state that it doesn't dare make a move and risk drawing attention.

Where once was a place full of people and potential and seeming permanence, now almost nothing remains. The only vertical structures left standing are the left half of the fort's powder magazine and the tower at the back of the barracks. Paths mown through the grass denote where the main streets used to be. There is an orange tree planted alongside Broad Street (the central street), I suppose in remembrance of the orange trees the settlers planted there 276 years ago. They thought to provide themselves with nice shade and delicious fruit. As for the colonists' houses, many of them were built of wood and have left no trace. Several were built of sturdier stuff, though, and their tabby walls jut here and there from under the dirt like broken teeth in the gums of a neglected mouth.

There are signs to tell visitors about the people who lived there, their trades, and sometimes their scandals. John Wesley spent a little time in Frederica and fell afoul of a woman named Beatre. She was the regimental surgeon's wife and had a reputation for being, well, kind of nuts. The sign in front of her home (just its foundations, really) told the story of how she tried to kill Wesley with a pistol in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. I had read that story before and it was good to make a physical connection with where it happened. In the version I read, Beatre was in love with Wesley and demanded that she would have his heart, I guess with a bullet hole in it, or his hair. There are some rumors that both of the Wesley brothers were feckless playboys, but considering they weren't very popular ministers, we'll just treat that as gossip.

I had to get moving, as I had spent more time in Brunswick than I meant to and didn't want to lose too much time with Grandma. I got lost again trying to leave, but all roads lead to I-95, so I found my way eventually. I gassed up, then hit the road and didn't stop until I was in Satellite Beach. The ride was smooth until somewhere a little bit north of Cocoa Beach. Road construction reappeared and I was nearly smothered to death by the most hellacious thunderstorm the world has known since Noah crammed his menagerie into the ark. It was dark, those construction barrel thingies were all over the road, the asphalt was uneven, and the rain came down so torrentially I could hardly see anything except when the lightning flashed. Thankfully, there was plenty of that. It made me extremely glad I had washed my car a few days beforehand and put Rain-X on the windshield. It got so bad, people were doing 35 miles per hour on I-95! An aside for my fellow motorists: I know the scary storms are scary and you want to make sure other drivers can see you. But it does not help for you to turn on your emergency flashers and leave them on while driving. That is just confusing and makes it hard to tell when your actual brake lights are on. You have taillights that communicate your position just as well. Stop being silly. Anyway, I finally made it safe and sound to Grandma's house, where the rain was barely pitter-pattering, and found the storm had blasted all the love bug carcasses off my car and left it sparkling clean! See? What doesn't kill you cleans your car.

I mean to go back to Frederica maybe a little later in the year when the light is softer (for better pictures) and the air is cooler and the bugs are deader. Overall, it felt good to be in a place that has a lot of connections with Savannah's history and to stand where Oglethorpe stood and think about what it was like to live there and travel back and forth between Frederica, Savannah, and London. Considering the number of deer flies that will descend upon you if you stand still too long, I'm not surprised the man kept moving around.

The perilous life of a local monument

Interesting headline in the Savannah Morning News yesterday: Terror plot targets Forsyth. Forsyth Park, that is and, more specifically, the antique cast iron fountain in the middle of it. A group of 3rd Infantry Division soldiers formed their own anarchist militia, stockpiled thousands of dollars worth of guns and ammo, and decided to overtake Fort Stewart and eventually topple the US government and assassinate the President. I'm sure taking over the world would have been the next logical step after that. And somewhere on that busy itinerary someone wrote this line: Step 3) blow up Forsyth Park fountain. The only response I can muster is "Why?" Why was blowing up this fountain-

Forsyth Park fountain, Savannah, GA

-that vital to the plan? Did one of these guys get arrested for playing in it when he was a teenager? Did one of them fall and conk his head on the fence? What did that fountain ever do to anyone? Was making everyone in Savannah real sad and angry for a while an indispensably important part of the overall scenario? Given the grandiosity of these soldiers' scheme, why would they waste time and resources on such a petty digression?

The Forsyth Park fountain is a local icon and losing it would hurt. Of all the beautiful buildings and churches and squares, this one mid-19th century cast-iron fountain has become the most identifiable landmark in town and the most enduring symbol of Savannah. It is to this city what the Hollywood sign is to Los Angeles. You know where you are as soon as you see it. And losing it would hurt a lot. But it would only hurt the people here. Destroying that fountain doesn't even approach the same caliber of terrorism as crashing planes into the Twin Towers because neither Savannah itself nor anything in it has a national symbolic status. What made the September 11th attacks so painful for the entire country was that Manhattan and every feature of its skyline are American icons. It's a legacy that belongs to all of us. Then, of course, there was the loss of human life. An explosion in the middle of Forsyth Park would not lead to an especially impressive body count. I'm sure fast-moving cast-iron shrapnel would do serious damage to any unfortunate bystanders, but we're only talking about maybe a dozen people here. How could a group of men ambitious enough to jump start an anarchist revolution be distractible enough to set their aim so low? What sort of idiot aspires to be a small-town terrorist?

You'd think the existence of a monument in a mid-sized Southern town would be simple and straightforward: stand still, look pretty. But it's amazing how frequently, just in my lifetime, Savannah's statues and fountains have been the victims either of targeted vandalism or of destructive carelessness. Sometimes it's just people being cute, like when Friday night drunkards scale the John Wesley monument for the hilarious joy of leaving a beer cup in his open right hand. Yep, that's real funny, guys. It'll be even funnier when one of you falls one night and busts your head open. Then there are your I'm-gonna-write-my-name-on-it-with-a-marker-because-I'm-that-cool type of taggers. These are not real graffiti artists who unsheathe their spray cans to colorize the black and white nocturnal world. These are just morons who stagger through Ellis Square and think it's the height of comedy to scribble all over the bronze Johnny Mercer statue. Lucky for us the statue's sculptor, Susie Chisholm, anticipated that and made it easy to clean off. Make no mistake, I don't have much respect for the higher class of graffiti artists either. It's pretty presumptuous to think you have any right to leave your mark all over something that's meant to be shared with everyone or on the wall of a building that someone else has bought and paid for.

For the most part, though, basic stupidity and alcohol have wrought the greatest havoc on the Downtown scene. I've read of drivers fecklessly zooming into Franklin Square and Greene Square. I remember one, and maybe two, instances when inebriated motorists rammed into the armillary sphere that adorns the center of Troup Square. It's taken some serious damage and had to be rebuilt at least once. The mother of all local monument murders, though, has to be the total and complete annihilation of the winged lion fountain in front of the Savannah Cotton Exchange in August of 2008.

I remember getting that phone call: I was in Florida, visiting my grandma, when a friend of mine back home called to tell me about it. I was completely amazed and scoured the newspapers for all the details when I returned to Savannah. I had to go Downtown and take a look myself, of course. Sure enough, that lion was gone. It was a winged lion (not a griffin) that had been installed as a decorative fountain in front of the Cotton Exchange in 1889. Although it was originally nothing more than an expensive lawn ornament ordered from a catalog, by 2008 it had become a local treasure and there wasn't another like it to be found anywhere else in the country. All that was left when I got there were it's terracotta paws, as if the statue was still gripping its base in petrified terror upon seeing the headlights barreling toward it down Drayton Street at 70 miles per hour.

Oh yes, I forgot that detail. Was it terrorists or pyromaniacs or malevolent teenagers who blew up the lion and the antique fence around it? No. It was a drunk woman at 7 in the morning. She charged down Drayton Street, jumped the curb, crashed through the iron railing, demolished the lion, bounced off a lamp post, and slammed to a halt against the outer doors of the Cotton Exchange. She suffered only minimal injuries, though considering how incensed Savannahians were over the damage, she may have wished for death. So, to tally it all up, a beloved statue had been obliterated, a section of 19th century fencing was mangled, and a historic building had absorbed a full-frontal vehicular assault.

Thus we began the long road to recovery. The Cotton Exchange was able to replace the windows that had been broken by flying debris. They also had to replace their doors. The original outer pocket doors were red oak and weighed about 450 lbs. To the credit of their maker, those doors did their job and admirably withstood the impact of that woman's car- the inner doors were completely unharmed. The new doors are Spanish cedar and weigh 300 lbs. The damaged fencing was replaced thanks to a sharp-eyed local who realized the very same cast-iron pattern was at the back of the Philbrick-Eastman House and they could use that to make a replica. The lion, however, appeared to be a lost cause. It had been shattered to pieces, there was no other one like it from which they could cast a new mold, the original mold was long gone..... Then, Providence smiled upon our despondent city and bequeathed us Randy Nelson, restoration artist. This daring (or crazy) man pieced together what he could, used old photographs to recreate what he couldn't, magicked up a new mold, and cast us a fresh lion out of concrete. And so, when you come to Savannah and walk by the Cotton Exchange along Bay Street, remember this story and admire for a moment the pig-headed dedication of the people who would not let their beloved fountain go quietly into that good night.

Had the 3rd ID Idiot Brigade succeeded in their nefarious plot to obliterate our even more cherished fountain in Forsyth Park, I'm sure we would have reacted in much the same way: outrage followed by mulish determination to put everything right back where it belonged. And replacing that fountain would not be nearly as difficult as replacing the lion since there are ones just like it in Cuzco, Peru and in Poughkeepsie, NY. So, you know what? Explode whatever you like, morons! We are rednecks, we have duct tape, and we will fix it!



Local theatre and bicycle thieves

My boyfriend, Don, and I spent the evening out last night. I had gotten us tickets to see the Bay Street Theatre's production of Avenue Q. I've had the Broadway cast recording since the show won the Tony for best new musical in 2003 and I saw the national touring company here at the Johnny Mercer Theater last year on my birthday. It's such a funny show and I was looking forward to seeing it again with a cast full of people I know. Don and I ate dinner beforehand at Fire Street Food. We had watched the movie Rashomon earlier that afternoon while I was painting my nails, so I had a craving for Japanese. Then we walked down to Cafe Gelatohhh! and scarfed down servings of gelatoh that I'm pretty sure outweighed our chicken teriyaki. From there, we only had to stroll around the corner to the Bay Street Theatre. It's in the same building as Club One, on Jefferson Street. The actors perform in the cabaret space above the drag club. In fact, the show finished up at 9:45 and the crew had to strike the set and get everything out of the way so the usual cabaret show could crank up at 10:30. As seems to always be the case for community theatre in this town, the performance space is small, badly designed, woefully inadequate, and has to be shared. In spite of all this, local performers (including myself- yes, I do theatre) routinely overcome the difficulties and put up knock-out shows. Last night's performance was definitely a knock-out!

The Bay Street Theatre Company is only a few years old, but they have become very active. They've expanded from doing just The Rocky Horror Show Live every Halloween and Hedwig and the Angry Inch to including smaller non-musical comedies and dramas, shows focused on LGBTQ issues as well as shows with a broader appeal. A lot of their shows double as fundraisers for an organization called Stand Out Youth. In fact, audience members were invited to give actual cash to the puppets during "The Money Song" in the show last night. Yeah, Avenue Q involves puppets. Also puppet sex. It's... not a show for kids.

One of the best things about BST is they handle scripts, musical or not, that other troupes around here won't touch. Ever notice how all the local theatres in your area seem to do the same shows over and over again? Always Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, always Agatha Christie murder mysteries, always Neil Simon comedies. You know why they do that? Because they're safe choices. Those plays are crowd-pleasers, guaranteed to make money while offending only a minimal number of people. It's very hard to get butts in the seats and keep them coming back. Even at BST, the big musicals they do, like Rocky Horror, basically subsidize the smaller, less well-attended shows like Bug and The Laramie Project. Savannah theatre-goers are getting a little braver, though. The Bay Street Theatre Company picked up Chekhov's gun and fired the first bullets at our somnolent southern scene and the pandemonium has only increased with the addition of this town's first repertory theatre company, The Collective Face Theatre Ensemble. They are always edgy, often controversial, always high quality, and never musical- a daring arrangement financially and artistically. It saddens me to think that most visitors to Savannah have no clue what theatrical variety there is to choose from. They only know about the show at Savannah Theatre on Chippewa Square. It is a good show and all the performers are excellent. However, it's always kind of the same thing: family-friendliness, bouncy musical numbers, cheesy comedy, the same cast, and cheery, cheery, cheerfulness. How sad that so many tourists should miss out the rollicking, raunchy good time offered by What the Butler Saw, or the emotional intensity of 'Night, Mother. That's why I try so hard to promote local theatrical troupes and smaller venues to my walking tour clients.

Avenue Q was spectacular and woe to anyone who misses it! (It still has one more weekend.) Everyone was perfectly cast and sounded great and I'm glad to say the house was packed with a wildly appreciative audience. It helped lift me out of my personal funk for a little while. Some jerk stole my bicycle four days ago and that has completely ruined my week. Being naturally a little obsessive, I simply cannot let it go. Have you ever been homicidally angry for days on end? It really wears you out. I cannot stop glancing at every porch and through every gate and at every bike rack in the vain hope that I will see my bicycle there. Every person I see on the street is potentially the thief and becomes the object of my directionless hatred. Every time the phone rings, I hope it's the police calling to say they found my bike in some thug's house while conducting a drug raid or something.

I bought and paid for that bicycle, it was exactly the kind I wanted, I rode it to and from work for more than a year. I was cleaning and lubing the chain in the backyard and went upstairs for a minute to put some things away and wash my hands. Stupidly, I did not lock it down. My natural sense of paranoia normally prevents me from being so complacent. I came back downstairs and my bike was gone. Just gone. Some sweaty, caviar-brained troglodyte simply opened the gate, hauled his ugly carcass across the yard, and took what was mine. I called the police immediately and they already had my serial number on file, but I know the odds of retrieving my bike are slim. Still, I am on the hunt. I am looking for you, little man. And when I find you with my bicycle, I will rip out your teeth, grind them into a powder, spit in it, and make you brush your gums with the paste. There is a special circle of Hell for bicycle thieves and I will make sure you get there. Oh, yes, I am on the hunt. And now that you have compelled me to travel on foot, my view is that much more precise.

Urban wildlife

Sometimes you get a little bonus and a typical, everyday history tour turns into a history tour and wildlife safari. I had an 11am tour with a family of four today. We strolled into Oglethorpe Square and I pointed to the Owens-Thomas house, but stopped short before launching into my usual spiel about the place. There was a bird of prey perched on a parking sign right at the edge of the square. It looked too small and sleek to be a red-tailed hawk (which are quite common all over town), so I'm pretty sure it was some sort of falcon. Don't see those downtown very often! As we moved toward that side of the square to get a closer view of the house, the bird flapped across the street and made itself comfortable on the balustrade near the front gate for a little while before taking off on its own raptor business. It's funny the number of wild encounters you can have in the Historic District if you're there often enough and you pay attention. I was leading a tour group through Chippewa Square once when one of the regular homeless guys came up to us and pointed out a hoot owl sitting on the branch of an oak tree above our heads. I see red-tailed hawks with surprising regularity all over the place. There was even a pair who decided to nest on a ledge outside a window of the Hampton Inn and Suites last year. The paper ran a story about it. One day, in Monterey Square, I watched a red-tail weave and maneuver about two feet above the ground in a high-speed chase after a squirrel-flavored lunch. What surprised me most was the squirrel got away. I guess pure fear for your fluffy rodent life is like a nitro-boost for squirrels.

So, the exotic creatures like hawks and falcons and owls are undoubtedly cool. But even the more mundane denizens of downtown sometimes manage to be charming. I notice bats zipping around overhead every time I walk through City Market at night. I can hear their high-pitched chittering. I think it's one of those frequencies people lose the ability to hear past a certain age. Maybe that's why no one but me looks for them. Every bat I spot reminds me the number of mosquitoes will be that much smaller by the end of the night. There's a beehive I've been watching for two years in an oak tree in the median of Oglethorpe Avenue. It's directly across from the Ballastone Inn. Every bee makes me think there will be that many more flowers to enjoy year after year. I'm glad they made their home in the middle of the road and out of the way of pedestrians, otherwise I'm sure someone would have had them removed or exterminated by now. Considering the potentially disastrous consequences of Colony Collapse Disorder, every bee should basically be considered sacred.

Then there are the super-mundane animal inhabitants that roam from square to square: squirrels, pigeons, and other unglamorous birds. Even the fluff-rats and sky-rats manage to be amusing now and again. Well, I can't think of many stories involving pigeons, except this one I rescued on River Street once. It was several years ago. I was relaxing between tours and watching a bunch of pigeons splashing around in one of the fountains down there. One of them was really getting into it and completely soaked himself. I actually thought, "If something startles those birds and that one tries to take off, he's going to flop right into the fountain and drown." Sure enough, something sent the pigeons scattering into the air, all except the one who was sopping wet already. He went slap! right into the deep water around the base of the fountain. That bird was doomed. I walked over there to fish him out and the stupid squab kept splashing around and paddling out of my reach. I finally managed to scoop him up and dump him in some bushes to dry off. Stupid bird.

Squirrels are kind of prone to incidental cuteness. They're squirrels- they can hardly help it. Minding my own business while sauntering through Oglethorpe Square one day, I heard this loud rustling from one of the trashcans. I looked and up popped a squirrel's little grey head! He flew out of the trashcan with his freshly scavenged loot and up into the nearest tree. The squirrels around here have become just as expert trash-pickers as the homeless, I guess. Another day, I saw a squirrel in Reynolds Square munching on a Pringles potato chip that a person on a nearby bench had given him. I wonder if even rodents are destined to become part of the obesity statistics in the South? The funniest squirrel I ever saw, though, was the one doing nothing at all. I stretched out on a bench in Warren Square to relax between tours one day. It was on the south end where the oak branches swoop down very low. While lying there, I suddenly noticed a squirrel directly above my face doing exactly the same thing. He was snoozing belly-down on a branch with his little legs splayed on either side of it. Well, I guess he could have been dead, but I'm just going to tell myself he was asleep. A dead squirrel would have fallen off the branch, right?

Being a tour guide has made me realize that some critters I take for granted are still new and exciting to people who aren't from around here. Australians tend to get all loopy over the squirrels because they don't have those Down Under. I think every harmless critter that once lived in Australia was eaten long ago by all the deadly things that exclusively inhabit the place now. I even get upstaged by lizards, those common little green or brown lizards, whenever I have Yankees on the tour. Then I remember reptiles do not thrive in cold climates, so to see lizards casually climbing up every vine must seem so foreign and thrilling to Northerners. I think the real thrill comes later on, though, when they realize how big the roaches get down here....

So, look out for the six-legged wildlife, kiddos!

Turn off and tune in

I had a ghost tour tonight with 8 people on it. It wasn't one of my own, but for another company I've begun freelancing with a little bit. The last two people to show up, first of all, got there late, and secondly, the younger woman had her cell phone out and was texting several times during the tour. I do not text. Everyone keeps assuring me that text messaging is a useful function on a cell phone, but I do not see the point in typing words on a device that is meant to be spoken into. I guess I'm just old-fashioned that way. This also means I cannot relate to people who do regard access to their text messages as a vital necessity or even an inalienable human right. They also seem to think that because the process makes no noise it is therefore unobtrusive and there is nothing impolite about texting in any circumstance at all.

Allow me, if I may, to present the scenario from the tour guide's perspective: I show up at the designated starting point for the tour (on time), greet everyone cheerfully, and get down to the business of telling ghost stories. I stay on my feet, walking backwards, trying to entertain people for the next 90 minutes. I have to concentrate and work hard to create and maintain the right atmosphere for the entire group and deliver the details of each story in just the right order and in just the right manner for maximum impact. I've got to orchestrate an experience that appeals to a diverse (and sometimes large) group of people. I am already discreetly navigating around other tour groups, watching out for traffic, and trying to downplay distractions. It might look like I'm just walking and talking, but there is a lot of subtle work going on. I am doing all this for the benefit of the people on this tour, yet I am not supposed to be personally offended when someone casually ignores me to play with their cell phone? And why would anyone pay money for a tour, then not pay attention to it?

This segues into the issue of cell phone manners on tours generally. I have had many people pause or interrupt a tour so they can take a call. Sometimes they answer their cell just to tell the person on the other end of the line that they can't talk right now because they're on a tour. Do you know what else would have communicated the exact same thing? Hitting the IGNORE button and returning the call later! I know I don't get to complain about it when I'm conducting a private tour because it's the customer's tour and they can stop it for a phone call if they want, but it still irks me and derails my flow. I'm still working hard to create the experience they asked for and show them the things they are interested in. And, once again, I don't understand why anyone would pay good money for a tour, then not focus on what their guide has to show and tell! I simply do not understand the population's inability or unwillingness to simply turn off their cell phones for a couple of hours. Do they think something really, really important might happen during that time? Are they expecting to win the lottery? Are they waiting for a rich uncle to die? What could possibly be so important?

My feeling is: if you are not a surgeon or a secret agent, you are not on call 24/7. You can turn that cell phone off for a little while and no one will mind. People come up with all kinds of reasons for taking calls during a tour (usually explained with an apologetic tone), some of which make sense to me. "I run my own business," "We're selling our house," "I have to give my relatives directions to the hotel." I mean, all of these things still irritate me and I still think they are not so important they couldn't wait a while, but I do understand the impulse. One I've heard a few times that baffles me, though, is "The kids are calling," or "I have to check on the kids." You do? Why? Did you leave them with a chimpanzee? Will being unable to talk to mommy right now cause them to have night terrors and wake up in a cold sweat later tonight? I do not have kids, but I assume that parents leave their children with caretakers they consider qualified and capable (aka: grandparents) when they vacation on their own. If so, why is it so hard to go 2 or 3 hours without checking in? Or is there some kind of parental guilt at work that prevents people from ignoring a phone call whenever they see it's from their own children?

However crass it may be of me to point this out, you came on vacation without your children, without your business partners, and without your realtor for a reason. Your escape is brief and you will miss an awful lot of it if you haul around all these distractions in the palm of your hand. The best friend any tourist can have is the OFF button.

Come to Savannah! We have rain!

I woke up this morning to a Niagra-esque rainstorm outside. Very similar to the one we had yesterday and the day before that and the day before that and the day before that.... The forecast has been for scattered thunderstorms throughout the area for, I think, the last three weeks- so long now I can't remember when we didn't have at least one storm every day. The bright side to having hardly any tours on my book is that I have no tours to get rained out. I've been doing mostly ghost tours here and there, thanks to the promotion I ran on LivingSocial, and those have been fortunate enough to escape the soggy, soggy clutches of whatever weather phenomenon is continually dousing our city. I'm not really complaining. Half of the country is being throttled to death by the one of the worst droughts in American history (and that's not even an exaggeration, sadly), while Savannahians get summertime showers once every day. The storms for the most part haven't even been the knocking-out-the-power, toppling-trees, flooding-the-streets variety. Not in my neighborhood, anyway. Just hard rain for a little while, then it stops. I had kind of a cynical stroke of genius this morning, though, while listening to the rain fall: that should be Savannah's current advertising campaign. "Come to Savannah! We have rain!" "Want to remember what falling rain sounds like? Come to Savannah!" "Want to see green grass and flowing fountains again? Come to Savannah!" One of these should be the slogan for 2012.

That's terrible of me, but you can't really stop yourself when it's 8 in the morning and you're barely awake. I can't fix the drought anyway, but I can tell you to come to Savannah and do a tour with me and bring your umbrella because... we have rain.

Now with BLOG!

Well, every business has a blog these days, so I finally decided to jump on the bandwagon. I'm not going to lie: 2012 has been such a dismal year so far, the only reason I have time for blogging at all is because I have nothing else to do. There is research, but one can only read so many books about local history before one's brain starts to glaze over like a doughnut. A Krispy Kreme doughnut, sure, but still a doughnut. So, the Bonnie Blue Blog will be a welcome distraction for all of us, hopefully.