Age, occupation, where are you from, where do you live now, and how long have you lived in New York?
I'll be 28 in a month and 10 days. I was born in Washington, D.C. and moved to NYC 5 years ago this July, which according to some estimations, makes me a real NY-er now. I live in Brooklyn. I'm a student.
One of your previous jobs involved working at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, given the variety of museums in New York, how did you end up working there? Do you have any interesting experiences to share from the museum?
Actually, the LES TM was the first place I applied to work when I moved to NYC. I didn't end up working there at that time, but I did some research for them over the years and then started to do tours when I went back to school two years ago. I love the museum, love it, love it love it! The best story ever goes like this: In the regular introduction to the tour, I generally ask where people are from and sometimes, why they've come to the museum. So, everyone's like "California, England,...I heard the museum was great" and then this one woman says "I'm the great-great grand-daughter of Natalie Gumpertz (one of the apartment's at the museum highlights Natalie Gumpertz's story)." Turns out, she was her great-great granddaughter, but only recently found out (through a Google search of all things) because she grew up without knowing her father, her only connection to Natalie. Anyway, long story short, after she found out about the connection, and the museum's relationship to her family, she came to visit the museum. Her visit, my tour, was the first time she learned about that side of her family. How wierd, right, to learn of your family through a museum?! But what's cool is that through the museum, she's since been able to reunite with her long lost father. Ok, so maybe I just revealed a very nerdy side of myself, but really, we all reacted as if she were a bit of a celebrity for a few days. It's like the story came to life. I guess that's what we try to do on every tour--make these lives and experiences come to life, but this was an exceptional example where literally, people were comparing this picture of Natalie from the 1880s to this woman in 2005 and seeing the resemblance. And that's what's so great about the museum; it's history, but it's really a very organic history because the stories ARE alive. But, I digress...My second favorite story: Once, a couple visiting from L.A. asked me out on behalf of their son, a "shy Jewish boy." It took me aback, but actually, educators get asked out all the time!!
What's the typical visitor to the Tenement Museum like? It doesn't seem like it's on the "normal" list of sites for tourists, yet we hear it gets pretty packed. Is that because it's a tenement and those are naturally packed, the Lower East Side hipsters are yearning for historical knowledge, or that Americans have a genuine interest in the immigrant and migrant experience?
You wouldn't believe how busy it gets. The tours sell out all the time and people go nuts when they can't get in. I mean nuts. One woman asked if she could pay $250 dollars for a private tour with her family because they were only in town for the weekend and hadn't bothered to make reservations and couldn't get on a tour. But, no, it's not so much the hipsters that visit. There's a lot of visitors from Europe actually, from England in particular, and Germany. Then there are just a lot of older, mostly Jewish, visitors. They're the best. I love the old people who take the tour away with stories of their lives on the LES or their memories of the Depression. Their stories are better than anything I could tell the visitors. And usually, all it takes is one person to get the whole group reminiscing, which is like tour nirvana.
Actually, the best visitors are the students who are learning English as a Second Language (the museum offers free tours for ESL students). I almost cried when my students came to the museum (I taught ESL until May); it was so touching to hear one my students, a guy from Russia, says: "This is our history. Thank you." On many levels it's fantastic to see, say a Mexican immigrant in 2005, relating and sympathizing with Fannie Rogarshefsky's story, an orthodox Lithuanian Jew who lived in the building in the 1920s. What's sad is that while they do have so much in common, they'll probably only find that out in the museum; in real life they'll stay separated by a million divides. You know, often, the ESL students are struck by how bad things were for immigrants in the past, and how much better they have it now, which strikes me as fascinating. But, I digress again.
School groups are great, too, with the exception of eighth graders, who shouldn't be allowed to leave their homes period until puberty is over. Second through fourth graders are absolutely the cutest visitors ever.
What's your favorite thing about working there?
I actually love the stories. The ones we highlight and the ones people tell me. I learn all the time. Honestly, I went through a period where I wanted to just get through the tours. This past year, though, my tours run over by 10-20 minutes; I kind of feel like I'm cheating the visitors if I don't tell them everything. I mean, not everything, we could be in there for 3 hours to tell them everything, but all the good stuff. For the most part, people eat it up, and it fuels the whole tour. Maybe there's a tiny bit of an actress in me.
Besides the Tenement Museum, what are your favorite museums in New York? Why?
One of my favorite museum experiences is the Brooklyn Museum of Art's First Saturday. Now, it's been taken over by Target (really, now it's Target First Saturday at the BMA) and has gotten wildly popular, but it's still an amazingly diverse group of people having a great time in a fantastic space. I wish more museums were open to the public in that way.
As if working at the Tenement Museum wasn't interesting enough, you were also an intern in Bill Clinton's White House? What was that experience like and how did that come about? Do you have any interesting experiences to share about working in The White House?
My favorite part about the experience was the free M&M's. They were Bill's favorite candy and they were everywhere--peanut and regular. I took daily trips to the Mess to get mini-boxes of M&M's with the Presidential seal; my family couldn't get enough of them. I also recall with some delight the time where I accidentally hung up on Senator Trent Lott. Oops.
Did you have any contact with Monica? Bill? Cigars? When news of the scandal broke out, were you actually surprised, or was there suspicion all along?
Actually, I sat at Monica's desk for the later part of the summer. Personally, I suspected something all along. Actually, I had no clue. Outside of big staged events, I saw Bill only twice all summer. He said "good morning" to me once in the hall. A full-time staffer with access to his schedule, used to do errands with the interns, timed perfectly to run into the POTUS.
Describe that low-low moment where you thought you might leave NYC for good.
Honestly, I haven't had that thought ever.
Best/worst Brooklyn gentrification trend?
Williamsburg is pretty gross these days, and it'll only get worse with the highrises coming.
What place or thing would you declare a landmark?
I think I would give landmark status to the Carvels (ice cream) all over the city so that we will never be without those yummy crunchies. No, really, I think I'd preserve the Union Square Greenmarket. I love that place, if only it weren't so expensive.
What advice, if any, would you give Mayor Bloomberg?
Stop playing nice with the Republicans. We don't need them. This is NYC.
Also, just for our curiosity, any relation to Erskine Bowles?
No relation to Erskine, though, as you might imagine, I did meet him at the White House and the usual family jokes were traded. No relation to Paul Bowles either. Alas, no famous relatives.