Get Real with Carla Stockton
Tour master Matthew Baker has chosen Brookfield Place—The Winter Garden—and its newly completed “curated restaurant terrace” as our meeting place. It’s crowded there, but he stands out among the throng, wearing his characteristic warm good humor and an old-style golf cap tipped cinematically to the right. He is a bear of a man, a jovial dramatis persona, the quintessential embodiment of the Professional Tour Guide. Erudite, opinionated, pedantic, and funny, Matthew Baker has a rare intimacy with the city; tour guiding is his calling. He has a gift.
Tour guiding gave something priceless back to Matthew Baker. “It was a revelation,” Baker exclaims in the booming voice that recalls Orson Welles, as does his physical presence. “It woke me to the perspectives available to me out there, allowed me to indulge in all my many interests at once.”
Matthew Baker came to New York, as so many do, from the Midwest, specifically from Sarcoxie, Jasper County, Missouri, to become an actor and a director. He settled in quickly, attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and fell in love—first with New York City, which he studied and mastered, and then with Laurie, whom he married. “As I became ensconced in the city, I realized there’s so much more than theater and classic films here, and I can explore and learn all the things I’m drawn to. Let me give you an example…”
Then follows a rhapsody on the NYC Marathon. “I’m not athletic—can’t you tell just to look at me?—and I would never have thought I had any interest in sports at all, let alone running. …then I was hired to guide the Marathon Bus Tour, a double-decker trip to introduce marathoners from all over the world to the New York they would see if they weren’t focused on their run. … Getting to know the runners, learning about their sport and the diversity of the people who run, I became interested. I don’t run, but I do watch the marathon, and I care about the results.”
Baker is also fascinated with boxing. “It started as me just trying to find some way to get in shape,” Baker says. Blushing a bit, he gives his ample gut a self-deprecating pat. “You can tell that didn’t last.”
Diverse activities and occupations are Matthew Baker’s daily diet. As president of the Guides Association of New York (GANYC), he administers an organization that represents and advocates for the 2000+ licensed tour guides in the city of New York, who play a critical role in keeping the tourism industry solvent.
For Baker, the business is all about the people. “I do a few specialized tours,” Matt tells me proudly. “And I rarely make general statements about the people whose culture I am introducing. I talk about the individuals.” I ask him which of his customized tours is his favorite, and he beams. “My Irish Heritage Tour! On that one I get to talk about some of the most wonderful characters ever to grace this city. Did you know, for example, that A. T. Stewart was the inventor of the department store? He was! His place is still standing—Stewart’s Marble Palace—next to the NY Sun. There was no sign, but the store was so famous it didn’t need one. …And did you know that Ireland sent the largest number of single, unattached women seeking employment, careers, through Ellis Island? Stewart hired many of ‘em to work upstairs in his store as seamstresses. I never get tired of talking about my favorite Irishman, John Hughes, first NY Archbishop (and the only one never to make Cardinal), who was responsible for the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the founding of Fordham University.”
Everything about the city and its visitors fascinates Baker, but he also delights in running school kids tours, members of drama and music programs from all over the country, city-struck and stage-struck as he was years ago. “There’s nothing like having a drama class tour, having just completed their production of Little Shop of Horrors, spontaneously erupt into a chorus of ‘Suddenly Seymour.’”
“You know,” he says with his biggest smile of the day. “People often tell me they hate musicals because in real life no one just bursts out in song like that. But I am here to tell you that Yes. They. Fucking. DO.”
Carla Stockton, Nonfiction Editor of Issue #53, is a lifelong on-and-off New Yorker, who, after living for 13 years in exile in the southwest desert, brings a returnee’s perspective to the city. As a fully licensed sightseeing guide, she has a particular intimacy with the area and is never reluctant to share it with others. Carla’s semi-weekly column will discuss people, places and events in and around Manhattan. Follow her here.