14 Secrets of U.S. Postal Carriers

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Yes, the post office lines can be long. Yes, your mail can occasionally arrive wet. But when you think about the fact that the United States Postal Service (USPS) processes well in excess of 154 billion pieces of mail annually, you might be impressed at just how much they get right.

At the core of the USPS are its postal carriers, the men and women who run up and down porch steps, dodge unfriendly animals, and brave inclement weather to make sure your personal correspondence arrives on time. We spoke to several to learn more about the job, from their biggest fears (aside from mean dogs) to hidden surprises in mail receptacles. Here’s what we found out.

1. YOUR MAILBOX IS HOME TO HIDDEN DANGER.

Cliches are clichés for a reason, and most postal workers will admit to having some concern over unfriendly dogs on their route. But a smaller, equally painful danger remains under-publicized. According to Kenny, a carrier in the Midwest, reaching into a mailbox to deposit your letters can sometimes be hazardous to his health. “Wasps like to get into mailboxes,” he says. “Especially if they have an outgoing mail slot. They build a nest in there. I’ve been stung quite a few times.”

2. THEIR SATCHEL HAS A HIDDEN PURPOSE.

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The shoulder-slung sack of mail on a carrier’s shoulder isn’t just to tote credit card offers. During carrier orientation, workers are taught that the satchel is their first line of defense against aggressive dogs. (They can also use parcels to parry attacks.) “There’s a whole training program on it,” Kenny says. “You try to keep it between you and the dog.” Carriers are also issued pepper spray. “I hate to use it, but sometimes you have to,” Kenny admits. He estimates he’s been bit nine or 10 times. “I’ve never needed stitches, but I’ve known carriers who have.”

3. THE JOB WILL GIVE YOU LEGS OF STEEL.

Those shorts don't just keep carriers cool: They allow room for the inevitable, Hulk-like lower-body growth that happens to new hires. When Adin, a carrier in the Northeast, started working his route over two years ago, the long-duration cardio had a highly beneficial effect on his frame. “I lost 15 to 20 pounds initially,” he says, “but gained it back in leg muscle. I can no longer fit into skinny jeans.” (Many carriers can walk in excess of 12 miles a day.)

4. THEY CAN MAKE SOME SERIOUS CASH WITH HOLIDAY TIPS.

The gift-giving season means a marked increase in the number of parcels delivered, and many postal customers acknowledge their carrier’s efforts by leaving money with the outgoing mail. Dan, a carrier in the Northeast, doesn’t work a regular holiday route, but says carriers who do can cash in. “Some carriers claim it comes to $1000 or $2000 in cash or gift cards,” he says.

Kenny estimates 5 to 10 percent of his 500 customers leave a tip or gift. “I’ve gotten hand warmers, cocoa, and popcorn,” he says. 

5. SUMMER CAN TURN THEIR ROUTE INTO AN OBSTACLE COURSE.

Postal carriers say they tend to get so used to “mapping” their route in their brain that they can navigate it while still looking down at the mail. But come summer, customers add decorations—like hanging plants on porches—that can result in collisions. “Hanging plants, wind chimes, new trees, and gardens are all new obstacles to get used to,” Adin says. “There's a house on my route which put a watering can on the last step before I go to the next house, I tripped over it at least three times before I ‘learned’ that house again.”

6. THEY MIGHT SAVE YOUR LIFE.

It doesn’t take long for carriers to get a sense of customers on their route: who works from home, who’s out of town a lot, and when an overstuffed mailbox might be cause for concern. Kenny has called 911 a few times when he noticed retirees on his route hadn’t been collecting their mail. “I knew one customer had health issues and dementia,” he says. “They got in and found out she had fallen and was severely dehydrated.”

7. THE MAIL TRUCKS ARE REALLY OLD.

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Driving a truck with a right-mounted steering wheel might seem like it takes quite a bit of getting used to. It does, but the USPS largely lets carriers fend for themselves. “There’s one day of training on the right-hand drive truck,” Dan says. “Actually, about half a day of actual training. You have to become accustomed to limited visibility [and] learn to drive using the mirrors.” The truck fleet, he says, is actually made up of vehicles that might be older than most everything else on the road. “The standard boxy mail truck people are accustomed to seeing is called a Grumman LLV, a Long Life Vehicle. It's basically an aluminum box on a modified Chevy S-10 Blazer chassis and drive train. They're all 25 to 30 years old at this point.”

8. THEY WISH YOU’D SPARE THEM THE JOKES.

All of the carriers we spoke with stressed how much they enjoy interacting with customers, but sometimes the jokes can wear a little thin. “I get a lot of, ‘Oh, you can keep the bills,’” Kenny says. “Everyone thinks they’re the first person who’s said it to you.”

Dan says he often has customers asking if they have a check for them, which he finds puzzling. “As a rule, we don’t know what’s in the mail.”

9. THEY ALSO WISH PEOPLE WOULD STOP USING BOXES AS TRASH CANS.

Those nice blue mail collection depositories? They’re for mail, not wadded-up trash. Adin has found garbage when picking up mail from the drop-offs.

And as a rule, only mail should go into the mailboxes at people's homes, though residents don’t always oblige. “People sometimes use them for storage. I’ve found tennis balls and house or car keys.” (Adin cautions you shouldn’t put keys in the box; it’s kind of an obvious place for burglars to look.)

10. THERE MAY BE A SYSTEM TO HOW YOUR MAIL IS ARRANGED. 

The next time you empty your mailbox, you may want to check how the correspondence has been arranged. Many carriers have a system for organizing your batch. Adin puts cards and personalized letters (typically good news) on top, with social security checks next. “Then it’s other First Class mail, [like] bills and insurance information,” he says, “and then bulk mail and then in order of size I sort the flats, magazines, and catalogs, so the largest is on bottom.”

And yes, carriers can typically tell when it’s your birthday, although they might refrain from congratulating you just in case they’re wrong. “I thought it was someone’s birthday one time,” Kenny says. “I said, ‘Hey, is it your birthday?’ But they were sympathy cards. Her husband had just passed away.”

11. CATS AREN’T BIG FANS.

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On one of Adin’s previous routes, trying to put mail through a door-mounted slot was a delicate operation. “Cats can sometimes be aggressive,” he says. “On my previous route, there was a cat which would strike through the mail slot. I had to be careful putting anything into it. My current route has a cat which purrs and meows playfully through a screened-in porch window until you get close, then attacks.”

12. NO, THEY PROBABLY CAN’T DRINK WITH YOU.

In the heat of summer, Kenny gets frequent offers for bottled water or iced tea. Some customers who happen to be grilling outdoors might extend the courtesy further. “I’ve had people offer me a cold beer,” he says. “If they’re cooking out, they might offer me a burger." Most carriers keep themselves hydrated by carrying water in their trucks—and while beer might sound good, the government prefers their workers remain sober.

13. THEY ACTUALLY DON’T HAVE TO DELIVER YOUR MAIL.

Neither snow nor rain will prevent a carrier from doing his or her duty, but you being inconsiderate might. “There are a number of reasons why we can refuse to deliver to a given address,” Dan says. “Primarily it comes down to the safety of the carrier. If I can't safely get to your mailbox, I can bring the mail back. Reasons might include a dog which is loose or able to get to me when I try to get to the box, unsafe steps to the porch, icy conditions.” (The snow mandate doesn’t apply when you deposit a bunch of white stuff in front of the mailbox.)

In extreme cases, the post office can actually require customers to get a post office box and pick up mail themselves. “Anything which presents a hazard to the carrier, the carrier is within his rights to not deliver the mail. That would also apply to a customer who was harassing a carrier. But in that case we'd call the police. It's a fairly serious crime to interfere with a mail carrier doing their duties.”

14. THEY DON’T MIND JUNK MAIL.

“We don’t call it junk mail,” Kenny says. “We call it job security mail.”

13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

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Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

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If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

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O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

11 Secrets of Tour Directors

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Tour directors get paid to travel the world, dine at incredible restaurants, and sleep in comfy hotel beds. Of course, there’s a lot more to the job than merely hoisting a brightly colored flag and rattling off pertinent facts. Some would even describe the work as exhausting, both physically and mentally. Unlike tour guides—who provide local expertise about a city or attraction and generally don't have to travel far—tour directors book gigs across the country or abroad via tour operation companies, handle the pre-trip planning, and conduct the tour, all while fixing the problems that pop up along the way. To find out what their day-to-day work is really like, Mental Floss spoke with three tour directors (or managers, as they're also known). Here’s what they had to say about an occupation that many label a “dream job.”

1. FORMAL TRAINING IN TOURISM ISN’T REQUIRED.

While some tour directors hold certificates in tourism and hospitality management, this isn’t a strict requirement, and professional directors come from a range of educational backgrounds. Kimberly Fields-McArthur, an American tour director based in Australia, has a degree in biblical studies and archaeology, and Anne Marie Brooks, a former tour director turned cruise ship worker in Orlando, has a background in musical theater.

More important than education or training: their skills. Tour directors must be highly organized, adept at speaking in front of large groups, and people-oriented. "A lot of it is a personality thing versus a training thing," Brooks says. "You can’t train someone to have a personality to work with people.”

2. WHEN THEY’RE ON A TOUR, THEY’RE ON CALL 24/7.

While they might get to spend the night in a nice hotel, the sleep of a tour director is often interrupted. Brooks, who used to lead city tours for high school performance groups, recalled a time when a large group of rowdy, drunk men stayed on the same floor of a hotel as the girls in her group. Although she was staying on a different floor, she received word around 3 a.m. that the boozed-up bros were making some of the girls—and adult chaperones—uncomfortable, so she went down to the front desk to sort it out. No other rooms were available, but the hotel agreed to hire a security guard to sit in the hallway for the duration of their stay.

Similarly, Fields-McArthur says she’s been forced to respond to issues in the middle of the night quite a few times. “One of them was a gentleman who made a very bad decision about what height he could jump into the pool from and ended up breaking his foot,” she says. “That was 2 o’clock in the morning.”

3. THEY HATE IT WHEN YOU CALL THEIR JOB A “FREE VACATION.”

“There’s nothing about what I’m doing right now that is me on vacation,” Fields-McArthur says. “If I am on vacation, it means I am not doing my job and you are probably not having a good time.”

Kathi Thompson Cullin, a tour director based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, adds: "I was up at 6 o’clock this morning and didn’t go to bed until midnight doing my paperwork.” When they're not traveling, they're handling all the pre-trip arrangements: crafting the itinerary, ordering tickets for activities, taking care of transportation and lodging, and following up with venues to make sure they haven't forgotten about their reservations (a common problem). Plus, there's the added challenge of shepherding dozens of people around a city that's unfamiliar to them, which isn't exactly a walk in the park, either.

4. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF SHOES ... AND LUGGAGE.

If you’re looking for a job that forces you to stay active, tour directing might be the profession for you. Thompson Cullin and Brooks say they walk so much they burn through three or four pairs of sneakers per year. (Pro tip: If you’re looking for comfy travel shoes, they both swear by their Skechers.) Suitcases tend to be another casualty of the job. Thompson Cullin says she stopped buying expensive luggage because it would just end up “beat up and broken with the wheels off” by the end of the year.

5. THEY’RE TRAINED TO ANTICIPATE THE WORST ...

People get lost. Accidents happen. Natural disasters strike. Tour directors have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. “If I’m leading a trip to Indonesia, I need to know volcanoes might be part of the process of being there, and earthquakes might be part of the process,” Fields-McArthur says. So educating herself about potential disasters—and how to deal with them—is part of her pre-trip research.

Things can go wrong with the guests, too. "I’ve had trips where people have gotten very sick," she says. "I had one trip where I had seven people end up in the hospital at different times for completely different reasons. I’ve seen broken bones and illnesses and hospital stays for days on end, where we ended up having the trip continue on to a different country and we had to leave them behind.” (In those instances, the tour director notifies the tour company, which follows up with anyone injured and left behind to ensure they have travel arrangements once they recover.)

6. ... BUT IF SOMETHING LESS SERIOUS GOES WRONG, YOU PROBABLY WON’T KNOW ABOUT IT.

Problems arise more often than you’d expect. A misspelled name could result in the hotel not having any record of a 50-plus person reservation—this once happened to Thompson Cullin—and businesses often forget that large groups are scheduled to come in on any given day. “So many things go wrong on a day-to-day basis that our guests will never know about,” Brooks says. One time, a restaurant she took her group to was understaffed, so she stepped in, grabbed a pitcher of soda and plates of food, and started refilling their glasses and serving them—all while playing it off like she was merely mingling with the group.

The job is hard work, but tour directors never let it show. Fortunately, Thompson Cullin was able to fix the hotel reservation error before her guests ever found out about it. “Think of me as a duck floating on the water,” she says. “To the human eye I’m looking very peaceful floating along, not a care in the world, but underneath my feet are paddling like crazy just to stay afloat.”

7. THEY REALLY LIKE TALL PEOPLE.

While guests do get separated from the group from time to time, tour directors do their best to avoid it. In addition to holding a flag or umbrella at the front of the line to help guests find their way, they have another trick up their sleeve: “What I usually do is try to make friends with somebody who’s very tall in the group,” Fields-McArthur says. She'll ask if they'd mind being the last person in line; that way, when she looks back and sees their head bobbing above the others, she knows that the group didn’t get split up. (Of course, this doesn’t stop the occasional straggler from ditching the group any time they get distracted by a gelato shop or chic boutique.)

8. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BREAK UP FIGHTS.

When you take a big group of strangers from diverse backgrounds and send them on a trip together, it doesn’t always end well. Thompson Cullin said part of her job involves playing mediator and preventing disagreements from escalating. The most extreme example of this is the time when she had to physically break up a fight in the hotel lobby between two women who weren't getting along on her tour. When tensions reached a boiling point, one woman raised her arm to hit the other, but Thompson Cullin arrived in the nick of time. “I grabbed both of their arms and said, ‘Come with me now,’” she says. They did cooperate, but only after they received a warning that they’d be kicked off the tour if they continued to quibble.

9. THEY OFTEN DEPEND ON TIPS.

The median wage for travel guides—those who "plan, organize, and conduct long distance travel, tours, and expeditions for individuals and groups"—is $25,770 annually or $12.39 hourly, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. However, Fields-McArthur says many U.S. tour companies pay directors by the day, and wages range from $100 to $300 per day (on the lower end of the scale) to roughly $400 per day for higher-paying jobs. For directors in the former camp, tips are essential. “On some of the older adult tours, sometimes they give you $5 in an envelope and say, ‘That was the best trip of my life,’ and you’re like, ‘Great, I can’t pay my bills now,’” Fields-McArthur says with a laugh. If you’re on a tour and you're unsure how much to tip, check the information packet provided by the company. They usually include tipping guidelines.

10. THEY MEET SOME INTERESTING CHARACTERS.

Tour directors see a steady stream of fascinating people from around the world. One of the most memorable characters that Thompson Cullin ever encountered was a “sweet little old man” from New Jersey on a tour of Sedona, Arizona, who happened to be an ex-con and “retired” member of the Mafia. “He said to me at lunch, ‘You know what Kathi, I like you. You got moxie. Here’s my card. Anybody ever gives you trouble, you call me and I’ll take care of them,'” she says. She thought he was joking at first. He wasn’t.

11. THEY NEVER GET TIRED OF THE AMAZING SIGHTS.

Sure, they may get sick of certain activities—Brooks, for example, has had her fill of Radio City Music Hall—but awe-inspiring sights like the Grand Canyon become no less impressive with repeated viewings. “I never get tired of it. That’s probably the one question I get asked all the time,” Thompson Cullin says. She also enjoys witnessing how her guests react to the sights they’re seeing. “My biggest perk is to see people’s faces transform into childlike wonder when they see things for the very first time—things that they have always wanted to see.”

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