10.07.2006

direct

Hello, my name is Laura and I give directions.

Everywhere I go, people ask me for directions. No matter where I am - my own town, someplace I've never been before, or even if I'm lost myself - people find me. This week I was wandering around a mall, trying to locate the exit nearest my car. (I have a great sense of direction outside, but inside buildings I wander hopelessly in circles.) A woman approached me with that oh-so-familiar look on her face... "Which way is The Bay?" I smiled to myself.

In New York, it was a rare subway trip that I wasn't approached. "Does this train go to Grand Central?" "How do I get to Columbus Circle?" It happened every time we visited Toronto; it happens every time I walk in Port Credit. It happens just as frequently when I travel. We were in San Francisco less than an hour when a car pulled up beside us, passenger window rolled down, inquiring face at the window. In Italy and France, Britain and Ireland, Mexico and Alaska, natives and tourists alike asked me the way. On a deserted highway in rural Mississippi, in a tiny village upstate New York, in the middle of rush hour Chicago. They pick me out of crowds, cross the street, flag me down. They want directions, and they want them from me.

You might think I'm exaggerating. You wouldn't if you spent time with me. My dear friend NN and I were doing errands on the Upper West Side when a woman stopped me: "Is there a crosstown bus on this street?" NN said, "I see you're still in demand." NN and I have traveled together. She knows.

I've thought a lot about why this happens. My first memory of being asked for directions might provide a clue. It was my freshman year of university, on the very first day of classes. I was dashing in between classes, wondering where I was and what I was doing, feeling very lost and a bit anxious.

A young woman tapped my arm: "How do you get to College Hall?" I burst out laughing. "I have no idea! I'm a freshman!" "Wow!" she said. "You really look like you know where you're going." Together, we held her little campus map and tried to determine our location. But it made my day. No, it made my week: hey, I look like I know where I'm going. I think I must appear to be some combination of non-threatening and approachable, yet alert and confident. That's my theory, anyway.

Giving directions is a responsibility I take very seriously. If I don't have the answer, I feel like I've let someone down. Even worse is the occasional realization that I've given someone wrong directions. I wait while people search for pens. If the person is interested, I'll give several alternatives. In New York, I could tailor my directions to their needs: Can you walk a long distance? Are you in a rush? Would you rather save the price of the subway, and see the city on foot? More than once, I've told tourists that we were headed in the same direction, and took them myself. (This is not so unusual in New York, as many tourists can attest.)

Because for many years I worked on weekends, I'd be on my way to work when the sidewalks were relatively empty but for tourists. So, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, between the subway and the office, I'd almost always be approached.

One time, as I stepped off the subway at Columbus Circle, a couple asked, "Is this where we catch the train to Yankee Stadium?" They were covered head-to-toe in blindingly white, brand-new Yankees gear. I answered, "Yes, but you need to be over there, on the uptown side." "No no no," they said, "it's downtown." I sighed. Tourists are arguing with me about the location of Yankee Stadium. I was sorely tempted to let them to take the downtown train. "Please. You must trust me on this. The Stadium is uptown." "No, no..." After I had convinced them and walked away, I realized that they were heading up to the Bronx a good four hours before anyone would be there for the game. Serves them right.

Now this same thing happens in Toronto. On my short walk from Union Station to the office on Sunday mornings, I direct at least two tourists, often more.

Only once was I ever tempted to purposely give wrong directions: when the Republican National Convention invaded New York City. Was ever a group of tourists more unwelcome, anywhere? They were coming to a city they would normally disdain, that they had no wish to explore, only to exploit the tragedy that we lived through. We detested their presence, and I had no intentions of helping them get anywhere. I pinned my anti-W button to my t-shirt, and it worked, like garlic for vampires.

33 comments:

West End Bound said...

like garlic for vampires

How appropriate for the repuGlicans!

deang said...

Very funny! Me, I'm horrible with directions generally and luckily people rarely ask. But when I'm in a bookstore or library I'm almost always taken for an employee who knows what's where, so I get book questions and give bookstore directions often. "Oh, but you look like you work here!" they say.

L-girl said...

How appropriate for the repuGlicans!

:-)

And apologies to vampires everywhere.

But when I'm in a bookstore or library I'm almost always taken for an employee who knows what's where

That's so funny. You have that bookstore look about you.

By the way, if our baseball friends are reading, what prompted this post was something James and Lori said at the game - that everywhere Lori goes, she runs into people she knows. (At the game, a friend of James's mother was sitting in the row in front of us.) It reminded me of this.

James said...

I get this too, though not so much. These days, what I get most is questions about my bike, to the point that I have a stock sales pitch I recite. :)

Woti-woti said...

Amazing! I thought this stuff only happened to me! I used to get asked by Chinese people (I'm caucasian) when I lived in Singapore (surprising how pointing, nodding, smiling, common grunts work in any language). Silliest were when I lived in London in the 70's at the height of the IRA nonsense. Because I pronounce my "R's", the asker would think I was Irish and quickly scurry away (I guess all "R's" sound alike when you're expecting a "W"). The car that rolls up and stops traffic is a challenge--I actually feel the responsibility is on me to get the directions sorted and get traffic moving again. Just last month, a guy with Michigan plates asked me where the nearest pawn shop was. I proudly provided him with 3 options (he was tourist, sod the traffic). I've also wondered why I'm approached. I put it down to walking someplace whenever I can, therefore I don't meander--I 'motor'. I guess people figure I know where I'm going. The ones that really catch me are when I'm downtown here. I know it so well, that the name of the street I'm on is not even in my brain. Somebody asks where whatever street is, and I have to think of where I am before I can start. Or maybe it's old age. Alas, I can truly say it has nothing to do with being a chick magnet. I've never been approached by the proverbial gaggle of lost au pairs. Next life, maybe.

L-girl said...

I knew I couldn't be the only one! I knew this was bound to resonate with someone. (Ain't blogging great?)

Somebody asks where whatever street is, and I have to think of where I am before I can start.

I do this, too!! I get asked for directions, I look around to see where I am and what direction I'm facing, then begin.

I used to get asked by Chinese people (I'm caucasian) when I lived in Singapore

The sign of a true pro. :) Like when people speaking beautiful French asked me for directions in Avignon.

L-girl said...

These days, what I get most is questions about my bike, to the point that I have a stock sales pitch I recite. :)

You should get a commission.

L-girl said...

I put it down to walking someplace whenever I can, therefore I don't meander--I 'motor'.

Ah yes, this must factor in for me, too. Purposeful walking.

impudent strumpet said...

That always happens to me too! I've also always assumed it's because I look both harmless and competent. The problem is when people in cars ask me for directions - the directions always include asking about where they can park, and I have no idea because I don't drive any more and I've never driven in Toronto. I once even had a guy in a car get mad at me for not knowing where he could park.

The other thing that happens is people with baby strollers in the subway always ask me for help getting the strollers up and down stairs. After years of this, I'm better at carrying a baby stroller than I am at carrying a baby.

L-girl said...

The other thing that happens is people with baby strollers in the subway always ask me for help getting the strollers up and down stairs.

I used to do this a lot in New York, but it's very hard on my hands (arthritis). If I was with Allan, I would just volunteer him.

L-girl said...

I once even had a guy in a car get mad at me for not knowing where he could park.

This made me laugh. :)

Jenjenjigglepants said...

I get directions often too, and here in Ottawa they can be in either french or english. Luckily, despite my horribly inadequate french one thing I can do well(ish) in french are directions(i.e.: I know all the nouns, linking them up is hard). It helps too that in Ottawa bridges, the canal, and parliament are often involved so that makes direction giving easy.

I also always run into people I know. Less so now that we've moved east, but the moment I transformed into "being from Ottawa" as opposed to having "just moved to Ottawa" happened about 10 mos after moving here. We were outside our fave pub and I saw this woman and uttered words that usually only cross my lips in Alberta: "I know her from somewhere" Turns out I knew her from Calgary, we went to the same school, our families went to the same church, but she's about 7 years older then me so the "mutual recognition" conversation was probably the first words she and I had ever uttered to each other in our lives.

I freaked out another woman (in Vancouver about 3 years ago) with a recognition conversation, but I was just so happy that I had figured out who she was and how I recognised her I had to know if I was right (I was). Anyways, hot tip: people get a bit freaked if you say "are you Erin who was in the St. Peter's 76th brownie troop in Calgary in 1979 when we were 5?"

JJJp

Scott M. said...

When I used to take the GO train into Toronto, then transfer to the Subway, I would run into lost tourists everyday. The best place to look for them is in the TTC concourse between the Royal Bank Tower and GO concourse. You can't stand there for more than three minutes without seeing someone lost.

I always approach, ask nicely if I can help and give succinct directions.

The oddest thing I've found (and maybe you can explain why, Laura) is that people with Southern US accents tend to want to give me money for the "trouble" of telling them directions. Why is that? I always graciously decline, but wonder why it seems they are the only ones who feel obliged to.

I rarely get approached in the city, but will approach anyone who appears lost. In the country though, it's not unusual for people to stop their cars as I'm hiking across a street to ask directions. Then again, I'm the only one there!

L-girl said...

Anyways, hot tip: people get a bit freaked if you say "are you Erin who was in the St. Peter's 76th brownie troop in Calgary in 1979 when we were 5?"

Heh. Maybe it's better to start slowly. :)

I can't believe you recognized someone from Brownies!

Jenjenjigglepants said...

Yeah, she couldn't either. She could barely remember brownies. Anyways, we no longer have anything in common...

L-girl said...

I always approach, ask nicely if I can help and give succinct directions.

I will sometimes approach people, and say, Would you like help? or Can I help you with something? I often don't, however, because I don't like when people do it to me.

The oddest thing I've found (and maybe you can explain why, Laura) is that people with Southern US accents tend to want to give me money for the "trouble" of telling them directions. Why is that?

Wow! I have no idea. That's never happened to me anywhere. How bizarre.

This reminds me... In rural Mississippi, while driving around on a blues pilgrimage, we did have people *give* very bad directions. Either they were just plain wrong (a friendly couple said we could follow their car, then drove us halfway across the county in the wrong direction) or something like "go down a ways, you know, where the old Gribble farm useta be, before the fire, then hang a right at Joe Bob's place..." Mmm-hm, thank you so much for your hospitality...

Offering you money, that's a new one on me. Were you carrying a squeegee?

Jenjenjigglepants said...

she looked like she expected me to follow up with "I've been following your life ever since"

Jere said...

Token, ha!

I don't get asked a lot, but I LOVE giving directions. When I worked at Borders in Danbury, CT, I made it known to my fellow employees to give ME the phone when some called asking for directions. (I started working there before it even opened, so a lot of people would call, having no idea where we even were.) I think I loved it because I'd been in that area my whole life, 22 years at that point, so I was gooood.

Living in NYC, I'm kind of afraid people will ask, since I know there's a chance I might not know. In fact, my roomamte and I are currently on a streak of bad direction giving--always in the maze of downtown. We'll get asked, think about it, make the call, then go walking off in the other direction, only to come across the street they'd been looking for. So we'll just be walking and one of will say "Oh, crap..." at that moment it's verified we've sent the person the exact wrong way.

L-girl said...

Token, ha!

Should I change that to subway fare? I used a metrocard for many years, but still call the fare a token.

L-girl said...

We'll get asked, think about it, make the call, then go walking off in the other direction, only to come across the street they'd been looking for. So we'll just be walking and one of will say "Oh, crap..." at that moment it's verified we've sent the person the exact wrong way.

Oh man, I hate that. One time around Rockefeller Center, a Japanese man asked me about a bookstore. He spoke very little English, and I struggled to understand him, and I never got it. I apologized profusely and moved on.

Two blocks later, I passed the bookstore he was looking for, a famous Japanese-language store in the Rock Center area. When I saw the sign, I suddenly realized what he had been saying. I felt so bad!!

This was probably 6 years ago, but I still remember that I failed him.

L-girl said...

OK, I'm changing it.

Jere said...

Token : Skydome :: MetroCard : Rogers Centre

L-girl said...

Ah, very good!

But I changed it to "price of the subway", lest a reader think I'm talking about the Asian-American female lawyer at a New York City law firm.

Jere said...

Or the African-American in the cast of SNL....

doug said...

Yea I get it all the time as well and it perplexes me, just a couple days ago I was walking downtown and I hear this woman yelling excuse me, well I just ignored it as there were a lot of people around so surely it wasn't directed at me, then again I hear this emphatic "excuse me", so I look around and see nothing, then out of the corner of my eye I see this woman in a car pulled over and leaning across the passenger seat calling out to me,(someone else had responded but she motioned to me), I go over she asks directions I give them then move on, like I said there were a lot of people it was sort of mystifying...I get asked 2,3 times a month..

a few years ago we were in Chicago went to Comiskey Park watched a game then we went out to this bar afterwards, were there awhile then I said I am walking back to the hotel (Palmer House)downtown...I start walking a cop pulls me over, for what I had no clue..he says where are you going I say Palmer House, he says get in the car..I get indignant and want to know what for..he says get in, you are walking in a area you shouldn't be walking in (as a white man at 2 in the morning I guessed)he lectures me on being careful, and use a cab next time and lets me off at the Palmer House...a nice guy as it turned out..

at Tigers game yesterday, what a fun time, what a atmosphere, Rogers was untouchable...

Jenjenjigglepants said...

Leah and I went for a run in the intervening hour between this post and my last one. Directions-giving tally in 40 minutes on a beautiful fall day: 2. And, despite my earlier assertion neither involved parliament, the canal or bridges...

One set was a car stopping, the other was a family looking for their b&b and looking increasingly frustrated as we approached, 2 maps and a guide book being juggled about. They were only one block away, the dissipation of the tension was palpable. Who says same-sex families are a threat to "traditional" ones! (no one here at wmtc I know). jjjp

Jenjenjigglepants said...

Oops, that wasn't very clear: they were only one block away from their destination and the tension dissipated as they realized they'd been walking in a cirles on the cross street...

L-girl said...

at Tigers game yesterday, what a fun time, what a atmosphere, Rogers was untouchable...

Ooo, lucky you! Real redemption for Rogers, too - surely the game of his life, even from a guy who's thrown a perfecto. Tonight I expect the Tigers to close the deal.

That Comiskey/Palmer House story is creepy - cop picking you up "for your own good" I assume, but yuck.

Directions-giving tally in 40 minutes on a beautiful fall day: 2.

Ha! Great. Glad you came back to tell us.

doug said...

well not so creepey as the next day at Wrigley I told the person who I met in Chicago and she said that in that area there was acrime wave going on, with 10 homicides in the last month...a turf war so actually cop was doing a good thing...plus we were talking Cubs, Bears he was impressed a Canadian knew so much about the Chicago teams...

Tigers will win it all, not a Tiger fan but they have that aura about them, that destiny thing...

mkk said...

I, too, really enjoyed this post!

I attended an all-girls public high school, established in 1848 and steeped in tradition. The oft-quoted Code of Honor [Honour] and Courtesy included the instructions to “walk with purposeful directness” between classes. I know it's ridiculous that I remember that, 34 years after graduating, but I suppose that it was repeated often enough to stick.

That's probably what you do, Laura. You walk with purposeful directness, leading people to believe that you know where you are going. You must also assume an air of confidence, instead of the perplexed look of many tourists. Yes, "harmless and competent," as impudent strumpet said.

Also, people tell me all the time that they know me, when I have absolutely no recollection of ever having met them. I'm sure I don't remember everyone I've ever met, but it's crazy how often I am told that. Marty says it's because there are just so many faces to go around. I seem to have a generic look about me, causing people to think they've seen me before.

L-girl said...

Doug: OK, that sounds better.

Championships are not won by destiny, and they're not my team either, but I do hope the Tigers go all the way. I like an old, original, AL team to win. It's a just a shame they tore down their beautiful old park. That was a great place.

Marcie: That's great, thanks for posting it. I don't think you look generic. But then, what does a generic person look like?

In summer camp, everyone used to mistake me for a girl named Rachel. When I finally met Rachel, she told me everyone always mistook her for me. There was some resemblance (short, blond), but not to the extent everyone confused us. Being 10 years old, we thought it was hilarious.

doug said...

old stadium still standing, we passed it last night...just fence around it...tearing it down and leaving one set of bleachers up...yea you need a good team to get you there but some years you can see a team is destined to win...

L-girl said...

old stadium still standing, we passed it last night...just fence around it...

Oh right, I forgot it was still there. They still use it to film movies in and such. I just think it's a terrible shame that they didn't value it - treasure it - maintain it, and keep it, like the Cubs and the Red Sox have done, much to their credit.