Downtown was bustling after dark on the first Monday after Thanksgiving. The H-E-B Christmas Tree in Alamo Plaza was draped in red, white a blue, a more contemporary decoration than the traditional oversized tree ornaments. The River Walk was aglow with more lights and bustling with locals and visitors.
I was working that night as an Ambassador Amigo for Centro San Antonio, walking the downtown streets as part of this city’s 13-year-old “clean and safe” program.
I only lasted one shift and didn’t earn a cent. What I did take home was a reaffirmation of my faith in San Antonio and the people that make this city special. It’s a great experience to work alongside someone to gain an appreciation of the work they do in the city.
Rivard Report readers might remember my night working in a food truck at Alamo Eat-Bar with owner/artist Ana Fernandez.
Looking ahead, Bexar County Sheriff Susan Parmeleau has agreed to let me take a shift at the county jail, although we are still discussing whether I’ll go in as a guard or detainee.
I don’t want to be mayor for a day, a stand-in as CEO of Rackspace, or coach the Spurs through a close fourth quarter.
I prefer working alongside the people that go unnoticed.
So for one night I walked the downtown streets and River Walk with veteran Ambassador Amigo Stefanie Toliver, who emigrated to the United States and San Antonio from Frankfurt, Germany in 1999 with her husband, a now-retired U.S. Army communications specialist.
When the Amigos program launched in 2000, her husband turned down a job offer, telling the interviewer he didn’t particularly like to talk to people.
But his wife certainly did, he told the interviewer, and she just happened to be waiting outdoors in their car. Stefanie was invited inside, won the job, and is now an Amigo supervisor and one of the program’s longest-serving workers.
We met at the program’s East Travis Street offices next to Jefferson State Bank. You might notice the big yellow cow in the window, a stray leftover from the herd seen downtown in the 2002 CowParade public art exhibition.
After parking my bike inside, I was invited by Stefanie to visit a back room dubbed the Amigos Gap Store.
Tall shelves were stacked with new khaki trousers of every size, and nearby racks held canary yellow shirts with the Centro Amigos Ambassador logo embroidered on the pocket, and purple zip-up jackets for colder weather.
Straw hats with a tourist-friendly “Information” hatband complete the standard uniform.
I arrived in my own running shoes and khakis, but donned a yellow shirt and a one-size-fits-all straw hat and was ready to hit the streets. The only equipment I was missing was the pedometer every Ambassador Amigo wears to record his or her daily on-foot travels (the average shift covers a very healthy 10-15,000 steps), and the two-way radio Amigos carry to connect them to the office and San Antonio police officers downtown.
Stefanie and I visited with James “Jimmy” Martin Richards Jr., the director of Centro’s downtown Public Improvement District. The so-called PID, established in 2000, was expanded in October. The new boundaries are visible on the map below.
District workers supplement the work done by city staff. These services include the Ambassador Amigos, Streetscaping Amigos and Maintenance Amigos. Together they keep downtown San Antonio, clean, safer and a lot friendlier. A number of U.S. cities have so-called “Clean and Safe” programs, including Philadelphia, Denver, Portland and San Diego.
Martin’s email address is printed on the cards that Amigos hand out to visitors they assist, so he gets a lot of uplifting email from people once they return home. I read a few of those effusive emails about Rose Daniels, a 62-year-old Amigo who is celebrating her 10th anniversary in the program, a date that would have come sooner, she emphasized, had the bosses hired her the first time she applied. Now she’s a San Antonio standout.
Before Stefanie and I were out the door to start our work at 6 p.m., I visited with Rose and a few of her colleagues coming off the day shift, explaining that I was there to do a story, expecting encouragement and a little appreciation. “Those running shoes aren’t regulation,” Amigo Robert Mead grumbled, looking down. “Black shoes, like mine, are regulation. Same with your brown belt. We wear black belts.”
Rose jumped in. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but your shirt isn’t as crisp as it should be. Those sleeves need ironing.” Stefanie came to my defense. “He just got the shirt from our Centro Gap store,” she said. “We wanted bright colors that would really stand out,” Martin said, “but some of the employees were none too happy with what they said were Lakers colors.”
When you walk the street with an Amigo, you better have a strong back. We didn’t go a half block before Stefanie started bending low to pick up litter. I watched her a a few times, then guiltily followed suit.
“The bus stops are the worst, we have people dedicated just to cleaning up the big bus stops,” she said. “People sit right next to a bin and just toss things on the ground.”
She then pulled out a pair of latex gloves from her pocket and waved them at me. “Anything that has someone else’s DNA on it, I use these,” she said.
Gloveless, I started scrutinizing litter more carefully before I reached down.
We made it 1.5 blocks to Travis Park before some out-of-town visitors, a family with children, stopped us on the sidewalk.
“Where’s the River Walk? Can you tell us how to get there?” a mother with young children asked. Stefanie quickly gave them two different walking routes and afterwards made a note of the encounter in her shift diary before we proceeded to Alamo Plaza. I didn’t think we’d get much action on a Monday night, but I was wrong.
Being an Amigo means you start, stop, chat, start, stop, and help people all evening long. An Amigo has to have a wealth of reliable information at hand. Amigos are required to radio in if they don’t know the answer to a question. Stefanie proved to be a walking encyclopedia. I listened as she deftly handled questions about VIA bus routes and numbers, local history, current arts and entertainment events, the Spurs schedule, the downtown street grid, the location of all retail businesses, restaurants and bars, places that are kid-friendly, pet-friendly, affordable, with big screens for sports fans, and more. And they are not supposed to favor anyone.
“If someone asks me for a restaurant suggestion, I give them two or three choices,” she said, later shooting me a disproving look when I suggested a favorite restaurant to a group of seniors.
“Excuse me,” asked another woman with kids as we stood in front of Ripley’s. “Where can I find a store that sells those orange Longhorn t-shirts?”
I turned to Stefanie, finally ready to hear her admit she didn’t know. She directed the family to a nearby retail outlet and off they went. We made a brief stop to check in with Lorenzo Dominguez at Centro’s Mobile Information Cart, which is located Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays on South Alamo and Market Streets next to the elevator that takes people down to the river level. The cart is moved to Market Square on Thursdays, and to the Spanish Governor’s Palace on Sundays. Dominguez was busy showing a visitor how to catch a VIA bus to his destination deep on the Westside.
“When I started this job, the River Walk and downtown was not very friendly for people with disabilities,” Stefanie said. “Now there are four public elevators, one private one that the Hard Rock Cafe let’s everyone use, and ramps everywhere. That and the improvements to the river landscaping are the big changes the city has made.”
We take the stairs down to the River Walk and suddenly descend into a fantasy land, the trees adorned with strands of colored lights, a few trees still displaying foliage in different shades of orange and rust. Barges filled with customers plied the narrow waters, most with sightseers, a few with dining patrons.
There aren’t as many convention or group meetings in December, but after Thanksgiving the River Walk caters to people who come down for dinner, shopping and just strolling amid the lights. It’s a world many of us live near yet seldom experience. Tourists love the San Antonio experience, as I heard again and again that evening. People enjoy themselves immensely, attracted by the city’s open congeniality, its cleanliness, history and affordability. We are stopped a dozen times to direct people to buy barge tickets.
“$8.75, that’s all?” a woman asks Stefanie as she looks at her husband. “Wow.”
“It costs even less for locals if you show ID,” Stefanie confides as we walk on. We pause while she tells a group of seniors interested in dessert where they can go for gelato, somewhere else for ice cream, and a third place for the “best cheesecake on the River Walk.”
We stand on a bridge gazing at the lights in the South Bend and I compliment her on the knowledge she displays just as a barge approaches.
“And that is Stefanie with the Amigos, she knows everything,” the barge guide informs tourists over the barge sound system. “I don’t know the name of the new guy.”
“This might be a big city, but downtown, it’s just a little village, everyone knows everyone,” Stefanie says, waving back at the barge driver.
We make our way back up to the street, help a guy catch his bus, and then get stopped by a drunk stumbling out of a College Street bar.
“Where’s that famous church, you guys know?” he asks. Stefanie gives him directions to San Fernando Cathedral, gently suggesting that he defer his visit until morning.
A couple approaches, quietly arguing. She is crying. They have no cash to catch the bus back to W.W. White Road deep on the Southwest side after coming downtown to donate plasma at a center on Lower Broadway. Her debit card that includes the plasma donation fee isn’t working. The husband walks away, frustrated, while we talk with his wife, who seems too upset and too sincere to be a con.
I reach for my wallet, but Stefanie is already counting dollar bills. She hands the woman $3, who makes no attempt to leave, and instead asks for Stefanie’s card so she can contact her about repayment. Stefanie has forgotten to bring Amigo cards with her and tells the women not to worry about it. The husband approaches to thank Stefanie. We move on.
“No big deal, I think she was telling the truth,” Stefanie says. I agree with her. “She will have to face her maker if she wasn’t telling the truth.”
We walk back to the office, and pause so Stefanie can radio for a Maintenance Amigo to come clean an embedded sidewalk light that’s been defaced by graffiti. I would have never noticed. The Ambassador Amigos stop working at 9 p.m. and the Streetscaping Amigos take over later in the night.
Back at the East Travis Street office I tell a few returning Amigos about Stefanie’s act of generosity I witnessed. Two Amigos tease Stefanie, telling her they don’t have money to take the bus home. I change back into civilian garb and say good night and ride home through the dark, reminded that we are city of locals and visitors, and one needs the other.
Monday night I got a glimpse of just the right balance.