TAMPA - Their outdoorsy khaki hats have this sense of urban adventure. And their bright yellow shirts that say “guide” are hard to miss, even in a downtown crowd.
Still, visitors to Tampa often ask the on-the-street ambassadors: What exactly is it you do?
But get a blister, hanker for decent pizza, suffer a dead battery or forget where you parked your car in a city unfamiliar, and they might just be your new best friends.
CPR and First Aid-certified, the Tampa Downtown Partnership’s dozen (and they’re hiring) guides roam the city core armed with maps, sunscreen and advice. They check on businesses and report maintenance issues and code violations.
A conversation with longtime guide Alice Cullen, 56, on her workdays of greeting dogs on the Riverwalk, meeting people from faraway places, trying to answer questions about flora and fauna and reminding the homeless to stay hydrated.
What’s the question you get asked most?
Other than what we do, the next most popular question is: How long is the Riverwalk? (Answer: 2.6 miles.)
A lot of people also inquire about the (University of Tampa) building. They’re not familiar about what it is. The architecture on that is really different.
Restaurants, things to do. We get people from different countries: What is there to do here? They like the water taxi.
Do questions you get ever surprise you?
Not really. What kind of tree is that. What kind of bush is that?
I learned more about the palm tree and gave that out. As far as bushes, I have to look it up on Google. My two favorite things if I don’t know are Google and YouTube. I may not know, but I’ll try to find out for you.
Do you have a favorite territory to walk?
I love the Riverwalk because I love being on the water. I enjoy walking from the Armature Works to the district center. I enjoy seeing the people, the doggies, the kids. I get to interact with everybody.
What’s a typical day?
(It starts at) 7 a.m. Sometimes we have people with jury duty. Parking’s a big question. Sometimes they’re not sure which courthouse to go to because we have several downtown.
We normally do battery jumps, too. And sometimes people forget where they park.
I’ll call in to my team members: “Hey, I’m helping somebody with a lost car.” I can get a bunch of people on the team to help me out. Sometimes it can be a little challenging out here.
We do gas runs. (A motorist pays $5 cash for gas that guides bring from the nearest gas station.) There’s flat tires as well.
Which do you do most?
Are people surprised this is available?
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Can you talk about an encounter you’ve had on the job?
It was kind of busy, hot like today. I was walking toward the Amtrak (station). You know how you sometimes listen to intuition? That’s the kind of moment I was having.
The city buses were on a detour going by the courthouse. I ran into a lady just by chance and she was crying. I also noticed she was visually impaired. I introduced myself: “I’m Miss Alice, one of the downtown ambassadors.”
She said she’d been waiting for the bus for awhile. And I said “Well, the buses are on detour.” Her countenance changed from crying to being a lot happier. I can imagine that was a scary moment (for her).
I (walked with her and) put her on the bus myself.
Do you give directions a lot?
Directions, restaurant suggestions. Actually today I had a lot of just taking people’s pictures.
They have the Tampa sign down at Sparkman (Wharf). People were trying to take their picture and I just kind of offered: Would you guys like a family picture? Then over by the aquarium, I asked if they wanted me to take a picture by the stingray (at the entrance).
What’s your favorite restaurant to recommend?
I probably have to go with Eddie & Sam’s New York Pizza. It takes me back home.
How did you end up in Tampa?
I’m originally from Westchester County in New York. I moved down in 1990 just for a change of pace (and to get out of the cold).
I have five kids. My youngest is 15. Me and my kids, we take advantage of Busch Gardens, Adventure Island. Sometimes we go to Orlando and go exploring over there.
I also do ministry. I’ve been a kids’ church teacher for about 15 years.
How did you become a guide?
I was here for a little while (working) during the (Republican National Convention). Later, I was asked to come back as a regular with the Clean Team (which tidies downtown streets and sidewalks) because they enjoyed how I was working with everybody.
Within a year’s time, I was also helping people on the street, giving directions, just helping the city in any way I could. I was promoted to guide within a year.
Do you get to know homeless people downtown?
Yes. Some of them interact with us and are very familiar with all of us. I always enjoy chatting with them. Today it’s really hot. I say, “You guys okay, you cool?” They can get dehydrated like anybody else.
What do you do to stay cool out there?
I’ve learned to drink a lot of water. I had a little ice cream splurge when I was in Channelside (today). That made me feel good. Sometimes I go visit the merchants and get a little AC. It’s hot.
Do you have a translator app for when you meet people speaking different languages?
I have it on my phone. We have it on the iPad as well.
What languages do you hear?
Mostly Spanish. A lot of European accents.
Are people generally nice?
A lot of people are very nice out here.
Are there grumpy ones?
A few times. I had one gentleman ... We as a team were helping him find his car. He just had some words coming out of his mouth that were not very nice. He was very challenging. We did find his car. He was just like, “Whatever.” He was really lucky, too. He could have gotten a ticket.
Do you do First Aid?
Sometimes it’s something as simple as a Band-Aid. I carry a fanny pack with Band-Aids. I had a lady very appreciative because she was getting a blister from walking in her shoes. The kids in the fountains have a tendency to get a little rough playing in the water.
What else is in that fanny pack?
I put maps in there. Sanitizer. I try to remember to bring a pair of rubber gloves for anything First Aid-wise. Sometimes I have a few little granola bars for myself as a snack. Sunglasses. I have little suntan (lotion) samples. Sometimes people forget it.
Do you work with the Tampa Police?
If we see a situation that could be endangering, like with the homeless, we can call somebody. I had to call 911 on a Sunday. People were going to church and a gentleman was being destructive with a wine bottle.
Downtown is very different from when you started.
Definitely. There’s been so much beautiful development. Lots more people. We get a lot of compliments. Our city is so clean. It’s nice to hear that. People appreciate what we do, even in the 95-degree heat.
Sounds like you like your job.
I do. I enjoy meeting all kinds of people from all over the world. I enjoy meeting the doggies out there. They always make my day. I say hi to the kids, the babies, and try to make them smile.
What kind of personality does it take for this job?
You’ve got to like people.
How much ground do you cover?
(She checks her phone.) I walked 11 miles today.