Halting to Help: My Experience as a New York Tourists’ Savior

How Stopping to Give Directions Can Boost Self Esteem, Lighten Your Mood and Improve Your Italian Accent


It may be hard for those who live nearby to relate, but many tourists get completely lost in Columbus Circle. Reward yourself by helping out. (Jonathan Armenti/The Observer)

Published: October 30, 2008

Picture it: You’re walking down Columbus Avenue. You see a group of people who are clearly tourists—they are wearing fanny packs, I [heart] NY tees and socks pulled tight three-quarters up their shorts-donning legs. They are holding onto their giant maps for dear life, continuously rotating them, trying to figure out which way is up. You think, “Wow, sucks to be them.” And maybe, “I remember when I was new to the city and didn’t know where I was going. I wish someone had helped me.” And then you walk on.

This summer I noticed an incredible influx of tourists to the city, more than I ever remember from previous years. So, knowing I’d spend the rest of my life imagining that the group I passed that day may have met a fate that inspired a “Law & Order: SVU” episode that I could have prevented, I began what I like to call “halting to help.” It began quite innocently. I would see a confused person, stop and ask: “Do you need help?” I couldn’t believe the reactions I would get. It’s amazing how human non-Tri-Staters are, so open and expressive and warm. It was quite rewarding to know that not only was I helping someone, but they actually appreciated it. This was quite a jolting contrast to when you hold the door for a New Yorker and don’t even get a “thanks.”

With time, my one-sentence answers of “take the A to 14th” turned into longer conversations. I once met a group of Midwestern ladies in front of the Church of St. Paul. They needed to go to Columbus Circle, so I offered to walk them. They asked me questions about life in New York. I made them laugh with my over-the-top hand gestures and “New York accent,” and I was brought back to my days doing stand-up comedy. This was even better though, because there was no pressure and no script. My “set” concluded with a round of very cheery “bye”s and “thank you”s—making me incredibly sad, as I actually wanted keep in touch with these middle-aged women and exchange annual Christmas cards. I walked away with the euphoria that came with helping someone else and knowing that they were grateful. It was a far greater reward than obligatory applause.

On a separate occasion, I was sitting on the A train diagonally across from a group that turned out to be from Michigan.

“OK, so we’ll take this to 96th street and transfer to the B train…”

I spread my legs out like a spider bracing for attack and slid over from my side of the plastic bench to be directly across from them.

“Hey, you guys are on the wrong train,” I said, as if leaking top-secret information. “You have to get off at the next stop with me and transfer to the C train.”

Their eyes swelled wide. You’d think I just told Fabio that no, it in fact is not butter.

“Wow, really?”

“Yep. Check it out.” I jumped up and proceeded to explain the subway map to them, waving over all those intertwined color-coded lines like Al Roker giving his morning weather report. Once again, I had created my own makeshift comedy club…in a subway car.

And with that I saved Detectives Stabler and Benson another case.

It didn’t take long before I made a conscious effort to look out for tourists; they somehow managed to find me, so why not start looking for them? I would keep an eye out for those tell-tale signs or listen for their accents. I was met with a pleasant surprise when, instead of accents, I found that many groups were speaking an entirely different language: Italian.

So I upgraded. Sure, it was fun helping American tourists, but I really needed to practice my Italian.

“Signore, vorrebbe una foto?” I asked one man who was taking a picture of his family and therefore could not be in it himself. He was reluctant at first, but his wife, perched atop a fountain ledge on 6th Avenue with their two young children, almost started clapping from excitement that someone had offered to take the photo, as if it would make or break the future of her family.

Another time, two older Italian men in the subway went crazy over me. I overheard their confusion over the subway map and will never forget the stunned look on their faces when I initiated conversation. I don’t know what struck them more—the fact that I had offered my guidance or that I did so in their language, all these miles from home. When I told them my mom was from Sicily, they raved about the island’s ruins and said I looked like the statues from the era during which the original structures were built. I made a note-to-self: when having a feeling-ugly day, hop an Alitalia flight.

This past Columbus Day I was invited to read part of the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Italian and English. Afterwards, a high-ranking member of the NYPD approached me and asked, was I born in the United States or in Italy? My perfect accents in both languages had thrown him off. I guess all that practice paid off after all.


Many New Yorkers often choose to ignore tourists in need because they feel they do not have the time to be selfless, as every moment of their day must somehow advance their own interests.

For those of you who do not abide by this mode of life, “halting to help” is another way to give back to your fellow man, aside from obvious activities like volunteering for a charity group.

“Halting to help” can be practiced simply and daily, even on your way to your charity’s meetings. For those who are more on the self-feeding road, I ask you: after seeing how I got raves on my looks, almost-applause and confirmation of my witty sense of humor, why would you not “halt to help?”