By Samuel P.N. Cook
When I tell people that I own a tour company in New York City, the first question I get is, “So you are from New York?” I have to then explain to them that no, I actually just moved to New York a year and a half ago, and I started my business shortly after that. How is that someone who barely knows New York City can open a tour company dedicated to New York City tourism? Well, it is for the simple reason that I never liked New York City, until I actually spent some time with New Yorkers. So allow me to explain.
When I graduated from high school in 1996, I enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point, an hour north of New York City. As a cadet, we did not get a lot of free time – apparently the military thought that fun would corrupt our mortal souls. But when we did get a little bit of time off, many times we went down to “the city.” Why? It was exactly the opposite of our bucolic, picture perfect, and absolutely socially challenged existence at West Point. New York City was the big city, full of bustle, life, energy, and of course those ever elusive girls (At a ratio of 10 guys to 1 girl, we felt a bit deprived).
But in all of my trips to New York City, I never made the connection. Having traveled all over the country, I had a lot to compare it to. And what I remember about New York City was the street noise, the absolute bewilderment we felt walking around, and our inability to really connect with the culture. Invariably, we spent our time wandering around, trying to make a connection – a stray dorm party at NYU, or maybe a quaint little Irish bar – we always felt like outsiders looking in.
So in 2007 when I was deciding where to go to graduate school after I returned from my second tour in Iraq following year, I took a little vacation to visit some friends in Chicago – which is where I thought I wanted to go to school – because it was a big city, but it was a friendly city. My subsequent stop in new York City was bit an afterthought to visit some acquaintances of a mutual friend. When I left New York City, four days later, I realized that I absolutely had to live there. And although I have visited every major city in Europe, I came away thoroughly convinced that it was the greatest city in the world: Grander than Imperial London, more romantic than wonderful Paris, and more beautiful even than magical Prague.
So what happened? Was I just blind when I was younger? Perhaps. But reflecting on my transformation, I think it all had to do with the fact that I had matured a lot since then, and with my experience in life, I had finally learned how to be social and meet people. And when I stayed in New York City, I stayed with locals who showed me where to go, and how to really enjoy the city as all New Yorkers have learned to do. So really, it was just a combination of great local knowledge, and an advernturesome social spirit that allowed me to create some experiences that transformed my view of New York City. Because after all, it is emotion creates memories – both good and bad.
So when I returned from Iraq in the fall of 2008 and started graduate School at NYU, I realized that I had to start a new mission: I had to show visitors to New York City how to fall in love with the city, just as I had done the year before. And from there, I started on this crazy adventure that is a start-up business. Through the worst financial crisis in 80 years, I started this tour company in New York City because I believed that my experience as a frustrated traveler in New York City was not unique, but rather the norm. Most people come to New York City on vacation with grand dreams of living that magical sex in the city movie like experience, and instead, they end up returning home with too many clothes they don’t need and lots of credit card receipts from chain restaurants and overpriced hotel bars. All because they don’t know where to go and have nobody to share their experiences with.
So that is why I started Uncle Sam’s New York so we can experience the real New York, meet new people, and go home with a story.