information please

In at least one respect, I am a born librarian. Friends have said there should be a sign over my head: INFORMATION. Everywhere I go, people ask me for directions.

In New York City, 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?" In Toronto, it's "Is this the way to the Eaton Centre?" and "Where is the Rogers Centre?" It happens just as frequently when I travel. We were in San Francisco less than an hour when I car pulled up beside me, passenger window rolled down, inquiring face at the window. In Italy, France and Ireland, 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 in Mexico City. They pick me out of crowds, cross the street, flag me down. They want directions, and they want them from me.

When I talk about this phenomenon, people think I'm exaggerating - until they spend time with me. Not long before I left New York, my friend NN 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."

I've thought about why this might be. I suppose, as a short woman, I don't appear threatening or intimidating. And perhaps a lifetime of urban living has given me an alert, confident look. The very first time I can remember being asked for directions may provide a clue. This was in university, on the first day of classes, freshman year. I was nervously rushing to class, wondering where on earth I was going and what on earth I was doing, when 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, impressed. "You really look like you know where you're going." Together, we held her map and tried to determine where we were. But it made my day. It made my month. Hey, I look like I know where I'm going.

It's a responsibility I take very seriously. If I don't have the requested information, 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 would always try to tailor my directions to their needs: Can they walk a long distance? Are they in a rush? Would they rather save the price of the subway, and see the city on foot? More than once, I told tourists that we were headed in the same direction, and took them myself. (I know this isn't that unusual. Many Canadian friends have told me New Yorkers did this for them. New Yorkers are great like that.)

Now, for the first time, I actually have that INFORMATION sign. I'm not yet authorized to match people with their information needs, the magic known as reference. But the questions pages are allowed to answer are called... directional. "Do you have any Geronimo Stilton?" "Where is Harry Potter?" "Where are the books about mummies?" Follow me.


Amy said...

I love these stories. You must project both your friendliness and your familiarity with wherever you are. And obviously these people are right! You are not only knowledgeable---you are willing to help.

I love maps, love figuring out routes to places, and especially love outsmarting a GPS. I tend to take on the stereotypical male role and refuse to ask directions because I'd prefer to figure it out myself. But if I ever have to ask for directions, I will look for you!

laura k said...

I also love maps. We actually don't use GPS. I see no reason for it. People sometimes tell me of the off-the-beaten-path places they go using GPS, but I've been doing that all my life with maps.

I also love figuring out the public transit in a new city. But I will ask for directions!

johngoldfine said...

Sometimes walking in England if I see someone with a dog, I feign ignorance and helplessness in hopes that they will walk with me a ways to get me on the right track. I've had some wonderful chats with dogowners and met some delightful dogs that way.

Amy said...

We got the first GPS for my direction-impaired husband. So now I play games with it, seeing if I can get us there faster than the GPS suggests.

I also find that when I am driving some place unfamiliar, which is almost never, having a map that is on the dashboard and not on a piece of paper makes a huge difference.

(BTW, I can't find a way to subscribe to the posts any more, as on JOS. Hence, the delay in my response to your comment.)

Lorraine said...

Great, now we know what MLS stands for.

laura k said...

Navigating on your own with a map is really tough. I usually write down directions and keep them on the passenger seat. For those times, I guess a GPS would come in handy.

Lorraine, was someone using the abbreviation? Lots of times it's Multiple Listing Service - real estate. But it is also the Mississauga Library System, as you have noted. :)

laura k said...

Amy, I know you don't like this comment format. (I addressed this in comments on an earlier post.) I guess the only way to subscribe to comments would be getting the "all comments" feed, on the sidebar. I just really didn't like the other format.

laura k said...

Sometimes walking in England if I see someone with a dog, I feign ignorance and helplessness in hopes that they will walk with me a ways to get me on the right track.

Now you've blown your cover.

deang said...

People don't ask me for directions on the street, but often when I'm in libraries or bookstores people will assume I work there and ask me where to find something. Luckily, I usually know. (I reposted this to correct a typo)

laura k said...

when I'm in libraries or bookstores people will assume I work there and ask me where to find something

Another born librarian. :)

juna said...

It does seem meant to be. I remember the invisible sign over your head very well!

tim said...

I agree with you both, L and Amy! Maps are great, I can't stand GPS and would much rather find my own way using directions/maps. I will not put my faith into a machine (other than google maps!)

When we did New York a couple years ago, it was great riding the rails to Brooklyn and around the city. We used a cab a couple of times, but walking and subway are a way better way to experience any city!

This story was amusing, now that I think about it, you do seem very approachable/knowledgeable for directions!

MLS = Magic Laura Service?

laura k said...

MLS = Magic Laura Service?

Hee hee. Ms Laura Says... take the D train!

And someone under 50 who also prefers maps to GPS, cool!

smellthecoffee said...

I recently visited Toronto and had to ask for directions from the clerk in the subway booth. He ended up speaking to me as if I was 5 years old. But his directions were great.