First Person

Booth Camp: A Day in the Life of a Plaza Info Booth Volunteer

Polly Summar details her new gig as a Plaza yenta

Date May 22, 2012 at 11:12 AM

Author Polly Summar

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Community Culture Education Lectures & Workshops

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Seems like everybody has a bucket list these day, an inventory of everything you wanna do before you “step on a rainbow,” as Kinky Friedman once called it. You know, those gotta-do items like jumping out of an airplane or sailing the South Seas.

Mine is just a little different. It tends to include things like learning to ride a unicycle or going to Wavy Gravy’s circus camp in northern California. But right up there at the top is working inside the information booth down on west side of the Santa Fe Plaza.

Huh? (That’s what my husband wanted to know, too. As in, “Who in their right mind would want to sit inside a little booth and answer questions?”) 

Well, I don’t know … it’s something about tapping into my inner yenta, my busybody, meddlesome side. I envisioned myself as a local wise woman with a sense of humor: “Come on over here, honey, and let me tell you how to see Santa Fe.” After 31 years in New Mexico, I figured I knew a thing or two.

So when I saw a notice that volunteers were needed for the information booth, I had to call. Turns out the booth is staffed by a group called Bienvenidos, the volunteer division of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce. Bienvenidos has staffed the booth since 1961 and estimates it helps some 35,000 tourists each year from mid-May to mid-October, when the window is open.

To join Bienvenidos and work at the booth, you have to pay a small fee, $20, then buy a snappy little badge for $12, as well as go to a morning of training. The volunteers meet once a month for lunch at The Lodge (except for a couple months during the summer), which costs $20 and features informational programs so the booth volunteers know what’s going on in Santa Fe.

Hmmm. I wasn’t really looking for all that companionship, but then again, I really did want to climb into that windowed booth on the Plaza and spew forth nuggets of wisdom.

So I took the bait. What I found at the training was a roomful of mostly, ahem, older ladies. Oh, kind of like myself. There were a few men, including one who still had brown pigment in his hair and looked to be in his 40s. (Note to self: Corner him and find out why he’s here.) Lots of folks were retired, but not everyone. In general, though, it was a friendly group, like the kind of people you could borrow some hedge clippers from, if they were your neighbors.

I ended up liking the training. They shared some of the funnier questions they’d been asked over the years, almost urban folk-tale kind of stuff, like: “At what elevation do deer turn into elk?” and “How high is the mountain after the snow?”

Surprisingly, many of the questions we were told we’d have to deal with were about the nearby money machine. A longtime volunteer explained that we’d be asked, “It ate my card – what do I do?” Um, “We are not the bank?” But that would not be the appropriate reply, of course. The polite answer would include empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. Still, if the bank is closed, there isn’t much we can do to help.

The happiest thing I learned at the training – as in, the thing that made me the happiest – was that once upon a time the City of Santa Fe paid $250,000 when the History Museum was being built in order for ordinary folks to be able to use the bathrooms. (I know from attending a wedding reception there that the bathrooms are real nice.)

Aside from the urban folk-tale kind of questions, and the bathroom ones, we moved into the shopping questions we might be asked, like this one that was actually asked: “I remember seeing a burro 10 years ago that was bronze – I’m building a new house and I need that burro.” Wow. What do you say to that?

But let’s get on out to the window. That’s the real test, no? It’s gotta be the cutest darn window you’ve ever seen. First, you unlock the split doors. Then you lift up the middle part of the wooden counter, and open an 18-inch-tall partition at the bottom (or you could step over it), and you’re in.

So there I was one recent week day: Yenta for a morning. I could hardly wait for my first customer – I mean, tourist. What tidbit of wisdom would I be able to share?

There he was, striding briskly toward the window. Tension mounting.

“Where’s the closest place to get coffee beans?”

Wow. Coffee beans? Tourists want coffee beans? “Not Starbucks,” he said.

I can do this, I thought. Coffee beans … yes! Ohori’s! I got out the street map, outlined the route in yellow. Then the moment came, which I now realize plagues all information booth yentas. How much information does the visitor really want? Does he want to know why it’s called Ohori’s? Does he want to know that Susan Ohori grew up drinking Peet’s coffee in northern California and then opened her shop here in the ‘80s? Does he want to know she sold it? I decided not to share most of these. However, I did throw in, “It’s a Japanese name, named for the woman who started it back in the ‘80s.” Short, succinct, but with a bit of local flair.

I was paired with the very lovely Eleanor Riser, who’s been volunteering for a good five or six years. She’s lived in Santa Fe for 40 years, so I figured anything I didn’t know, she would. Eleanor, a former nurse at the old St. Vincent Hospital, and a former nursing instructor at the old College of Santa Fe (that’s when you know you’ve “arrived,” when you can say you used to work at the old “whatever”), had the tour bus scene down to a T, pointing here and there out the window, directing the visitors to where they wanted to go: the open-air tour bus, the shuttle back to the Railyard, etc.

There was only one question that really stumped me. A visitor came by and said he’d been here a few years before and had gone to the Daily News Café, right next to a bookstore. Hmmm, I thought. There was the old Galisteo News back in the ‘80s, across the street from what is now Collected Works. But Collected Works wasn’t there when Galisteo News was there. I thought and thought. And then I had it.

“You mean Downtown Subscription! It’s right next to Garcia Street Books!” Yes! Score 1 for the yenta and the home team. Victory was sweet! It wasn’t quite as good as knowing where that bronze burro had first been sited, but close.

If you’re interested in joining Bienvendos and volunteering at the information booth, check out the booth first, on the west side of the Plaza and chat with the volunteers to see what you think. The shifts are about 3 ½ hours long, except on Sundays, when it’s 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The perks? You get a free beverage from Haagen-Dazs every time you work, as long as you show your ID badge and leave a tip. Also, you get free parking at the convention center during your shift, no tips required.

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