When I first moved to New York, I bought a pocket-sized guidebook with a map of the entire city split over 40 or so pages. I did the same thing when I studied abroad in London, and the smug satisfaction I felt in finding my way around a new city without holding an enormous map in front of my face was immense. I specifically chose a New York guidebook that was all black with few markings on its cover, so that I could surreptitiously pull it out of my jacket pocket and find the nearest subway station while it seemed as though I was merely perusing a book of poetry or looking up an address in my little black book.
Though I felt like a third-class citizen for not having a smartphone, I took pride in my paper method and bragged about using my brain while everyone else let the GPS on their phone lead them around on a virtual leash. “See, it fits perfectly in my jacket pocket,” I’d demonstrate to a friend after circling his address in my map, “and as long as I’m quick about peeking, I won’t look like a tourist.” My friends were kind not to burst my bubble. I thought my guidebook and I would be forever inseparable until one evening when I got lost for a half-hour in the Lower East Side looking for a subway stop. Until you move here, no one tells you that they stop numbering streets in Manhattan after a certain point. The next morning I told Q we were getting iPhones and now my formerly trusty guidebook sits on a shelf in my apartment gathering dust.
I assume my terrible sense of direction is genetic because most of my immediate family has been stricken with it. We’ve only avoided natural selection by pairing up with an accomplished navigator, as I’ve done with Q. When we finally bought our smartphones, I thought the little blue dot would be my panacea, but I can’t tell you how many times in Manhattan, even in the consecutively numbered part, I’ll walk nearly to the next avenue before I realize I’m headed in the wrong direction. Apparently the blue dot doesn’t refresh fast enough for the hopelessly lost.
My lack of spatial awareness has aggravated more people than me and Q, who loves to remind me of the time I swore we could get back on the highway by pulling into a totally enclosed grocery store parking lot. Some of Q’s family friends believe I lied about my hometown of ten years when I couldn’t describe where I lived in relation to several famous nearby landmarks. Then there was that time when I worked for the mall management office in Tysons Corner Center in Vienna, VA, and my boss asked me to stand in front of a directory map on Christmas Eve and send lost customers in the right direction. I think I was the reason Santa didn’t show up in some of their households that year.
I’m not sure it’s even possible to learn a sense of direction, but I’m going to try by embarking on a three-mile trail hike in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Those who are always able to pinpoint north might poo-poo this challenge for what it literally is – a walk in the park – but for someone like me who used the hand trick he learned in kindergarten to discern his left from his right for far too long of his post-adolescent life, this may prove to be my most daunting challenge yet.
The organization that wrote up the directions for my three-mile hike is the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, who coincidentally offer a free map and compass workshop in lower Manhattan that I have decided to attend, assuming I don’t get lost in that numberless neighborhood again. Their motto, displayed proudly on their website and materials, says they are “Connecting People With Nature Since 1920.” I’d be more relieved if it was followed with, “And Then Returning Them Safely To Their Loved Ones,” but I’m hoping it’s implied.
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