Get to Know NYC Guide Ben Wagenberg

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For a truly in-depth, culturally-rich tour of New York City’s Lower East Side, sightseeing guide Ben Wagenberg‘s your man. As a native New Yorker who is passionate about everything from local Jewish history to the Subway system, there’s not much Ben can’t teach you about his hometown. Plus, having been a classic New York City cab driver in his younger years, Ben knows the city’s streets like the back of his hand. Read on to learn how this fountain of New-York-City knowledge went from taxi driving to leading some of the best guided tours around.

You’re a native New Yorker who has decided to stick around into adulthood, so you must really like the city! Would you mind telling us more about why you’re so passionate about New York and how guiding came into the picture? We’d love to learn more about what it was like to start off as a taxi driver in The Big Apple!

New York’s the financial center of the world, so, like most New Yorkers, I settled into a job in the finance industry. In fact, I still do some corporate, human resources work; I just enjoy working with people. My first job, however, was the most fun: During the summers while I was a college student, I worked as a taxi driver in the city. Little did I know that my knowledge of New York’s streets would one day come in so handy as a tour guide. Overall, being a New York City taxi driver ended up complementing my guiding profession because it taught me how to interact with people — I was a social taxi driver who liked to strike up conversations with my passengers — and it also taught me the ins and outs of the city. With my taxi-driving-knowledge, I can show visitors to New York gems not many people know about.

What has been the biggest highlight of being a professional guide?

I love meeting new people, and I love that I never know where they’re coming from, be it Eastern Europe, Asia, Australia, you name it. There’s never a dull day in the guiding business because you’re always getting to know new people from all walks of life. To me, that’s priceless; the unique, the unexpected: it’s all amazing and eye-opening.

You run a trip called “The Lower East Side Everything Bagel Tour.” Would you mind explaining the story behind this fun name? Are there a lot of “everything” bagels in New York’s Lower East Side?

This is a fun trip because, as you can tell from the “bagels” part of the name, it entails food, and since everyone loves food, it makes for a happy time. In truth, however, the trip is so-called because there are so many bagel institutions in the Lower East Side. Why? Because it’s the business Eastern European Jews got into when they settled in the area in the 1880s. More on that fascinating history if you attend my tour!

What does a typical workday look like for you?

Despite knowing I’ll be traipsing around New York, showing eager-to-learn visitors the likes of the Lower East Side’s fabulous Jewish food scene, no day is the same; different group sizes, different cultures, different ages all call for different itineraries. That said, I so always start my day off on social media, Twitter in particular. Social Media Marketing is invaluable in this day and age, and as a man of Human Resources, I feel it important to be heavily involved in it. Between managing my social media accounts, guiding (and everything that comes with it, like planning, and preparing, etc.), and working in Human Resources, I keep extremely busy, but that’s why I thrive here in NYC: If you live in the city, you’ve got to embrace busyness!

What is the best trip you have ever lead?

Rather than “best,” I can recall the most interesting; it entailed girls…65 of them…from India! What made this tour so special was getting to know a new culture – I have never been to India – while showing a gaggle of very excited girls around such a thrilling-for-teens city. While I did my best to educate the group on New York’s heritage and history, as can only be expected, the girls just wanted to, well, go shopping! To each his (or, rather, her) own.

Have you ever had a bad guided trip?

Fortunately, nothing tragic has ever happened on one of my tours. The only bummers are when certain visitors aren’t interested in the matters-at-hand – typically, this is a generational issue – and when babies cry…nonstop.

What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve ever had on a guided tour? Ever had any odd requests from clients?

Well, here’s the not-so-pleasant part: on several occasions, people have thrown up on my tours. Sometimes, it’s owing to a flu-like illness, other times, whatever they’ve eaten simply doesn’t agree with their stomachs, but most of the time, it’s because the food I lead them to is just so good they can’t stop eating. And I say with a sudo-wink wink.

Since we all know that no job is perfect, would you mind sharing some of the downfalls of being a tour guide in New York?

Being a guide doesn’t pay terribly well, which is hard on quality of living if you choose to work and live in as expensive a city as New York. Then again, one doesn’t guide for the money; one guides because it’s rewarding and enriching. Oh, and don’t even get me started on those irksome double decker tour buses; those are the bane of a guide’s existence.

I’m a sucker for New York at Christmas; nothing beats the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. What are your three favorite things about New York?

Oof, this is a toughie. Well, for one, I love the community, the different people. Two, I just feel comfortable here with the rich history, the eye-catching architecture, the superior food…the list goes on. And three, one’s never bored in New York: there’s always something to explore and something new to learn.

As an experienced guide, can you think of any tips people should know before going on a guided tour?

Plan ahead! Make sure you have time to explore freely, but also make sure you hire a professional local guide who can take you to secret spots you’d otherwise miss. Also, although I’m not a fan of those big tourist buses, I’d say take one, but also get off the beaten track alongside an in-the-know person like me. A big one for New York is to remember not to just look up the whole time; you must also physically go up in skyscrapers to truly get the best views of the city. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions! New Yorkers have a reputation of being intimidating and on-a-mission-like, but I cannot stress enough that we do like to help tourists here, and thus it’s important you speak up whenever you may need help. A good New Yorker loves to help, and 99% of us are good!

Finally, if you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Another toughie! I have three places in mind: The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall in England, and France to see the Daily Tapestry. I’m all about learning new things, especially things that are historically significant.

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Comments

  • Dan Barth
    Reply

    We can stay in touch with each other for one Sunday.

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