“A quiet oasis in the middle of New York City” is how Eric Mathern, a tour guide with ExperienceFirst, describes Bryant Park, an 1847 public park in Midtown. It’s one of two “can’t miss” stops in New York City, according to Mathern. The other is nearby New York Public Library, the flagship building in the New York Public Library system. Its Beaux-Arts architecture is a sight to see.
New York City’s architecture keeps Mathern in the city. “It has always been a hobby of mine. Walk down any street and it’s like being in a gallery,” he says about New York City’s architecture. “A walk down any street in New York City is fascinating.”
Architecture, roots, and social connections are three reasons why Mathern has stayed in New York City for decades. Born in nearby New Jersey, Mathern moved to the city to attend New York University for his undergraduate degree. Roughly ten years elapsed before Mathern took the next step in his academic studies. After leaving for two years to attend graduate school at University of Florida, he returned to New York City. Even as a child, he sensed the city was for him. His instincts are still true. “I sensed that New York City was a good fit for me, and I was correct in my instinct,” he says.
Social connections also keep him grounded in New York City. An avid bird watcher, Central Park is one of his favorite places. “It’s a place in the city to connect with nature,” Mathern tells tourists on his tours. But for Mathern, Central Park is much more. It’s the place where he joined a community of bird watchers. They are among his closest friends. Another friend of Mathern’s is “Mimi,” his foster parakeet.
Becoming a Tour Guide
Join one of Mathern’s tours and you’ll get dad jokes mixed in with facts about New York City. He sees himself as much an entertainer as a guide, but he wasn’t always a tour guide. He was a teacher. As an adjunct English professor at Seton Hall University, he taught students about writing and literature. He even tutored online during the pandemic.
Mathern doesn’t see being a tour guide as a departure from teaching. Both fields are similar. “Just like holding students’ attention, you have to hold your guests’ attention with the information you’re conveying. Sometimes you do that with facts, sometimes with humor,” says Mathern. He continues, “As a teacher, you have to read the faces of your students to check understanding. In a similar way, you read the faces of your guests.”
As a former teacher, Mathern is in the minority. Many of the guides at ExperienceFirst are actors too. As the guide, they entertain. To keep up, Mathern has an arsenal of jokes he sprinkles into his tours of New York City. Unexpected moments turn into comedy. On a recent tour of the Statue of Liberty, a ship blocked the view of the famous landmark upon approach. “We really have to work on our timing,” joked Mathern.
His jokes spill over into his hobby. In his spare time, he’s writing and illustrating a book of bird jokes. Inspired by the oven bird, which builds nests in the shape of a Dutch oven, Mathern asks, “When is the best day of the year to spot an oven bird?” Answering his own question, he grins, “On Thanksgiving.”
Eric Mathern’s Top Tips for Visiting New York
Showing tourists his city isn’t all about the jokes. “I am passionate about New York, and as a guide, I feel that it is my role to inspire that passion in a visitor as much as I can,” Mathern says. As a long-time resident, he possesses a local’s awareness to answer both common and more nuanced questions from tourists.
His advice to tourists visiting New York City? “Consider how much time you have in a city that offers so much and prioritize your interests,” suggests Mathern. If you love walking, wander the streets. If you don’t want to wear down your shoes, spend time riding the subway. Love art? Visit the museums. Need nature? Go to Central Park.
Of course, there are a few “first-timer” sites, according to Mathern. The list includes Central Park, Grand Central Station, and iconic sites like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.
First arriving in the city in the 1970s, Mathern is witness to a changing New York City. “It’s safer and cleaner,” he says about New York City today.
Decades in the city, Mathern cherishes many memories. He’s completed the New York Marathon three times and each time enjoyed the views of the city from the course as locals and visitors cheered him on.
Another memory is a regular occurrence. A favorite hangout spot for Mathern is Mimi’s Restaurant and Piano Bar in the East Fifties. First opened in 1956, Mathern comments, “The piano players are entertaining, and occasionally customers will step up to the mic and sing—– a really fun place.”
Inviting tourists to see New York City from a local’s perspective is part of being a tour guide. It’s a job Mathern loves, but some days are challenging. Hot and wet days prevent visitors from getting the full experience at Liberty Island, home to the Statue of Liberty. When the weather cooperates, he says, “Each time I go out to Liberty Island with a group of visitors I feel fortunate.”
Tour Guide and Poet
Giving tours allows Mathern the time and resources to write. While in university and editing New York University’s literary magazine, Mathern became a poet. While a student, he was given the advice from other writers to find a parallel career—- work to help fund writing. It’s advice that led him to become a teacher and now a tour guide. And he still writes.
“Read a great deal and be diverse in your choice of reading material,” advises Mathern to aspiring writers. He continues, “By reading poets and writers who differ from yourself you will, ultimately, find your own ‘voice.’ Be interested in as many fields as you can (history, botany, architecture, etc.). By knowing about the world outside of your own sphere, you’ll increase your chances of finding inspiration, not just in terms of subject matter, but also in the ways you relate [to] the nuances of that subject.” An example of this is William Shakespeare, notes Mathern.
“I love the New York City buzz,” says Mathern. From writing to teaching to showing tourists his city, Mathern is still proud to call New York City his home.
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