On The (Same) Road Again in New York City

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Listen to Brenda tell the story

Medieval serfs didn’t need to have a sense of direction, since they never left their village. But now that I think of it, maybe that’s what kept them in place. If they didn’t know how to get around out there in the world, it was preferable to stay put before they inadvertently wound up in bandit country or a goblin-infested swamp.

When GPS appeared on the market, it took a while to catch on. What is now nearly universally used was at that time merely the latest technological curiosity. As for me, despite a lifetime of getting lost, I was determined to resist “cheating” and instead, finally master the art of navigation. My reasoning was that by outsourcing this skill, I would never learn it properly. Practice makes perfect, but if you never practice you’ll never improve at all, I thought to myself with determination as I turned a corner and walked straight into a dead end.

The fallacy in this approach was the assumption that I had any basic skill in the first place. It was the equivalent of thinking you could make a master perfumer out of a skunk. At some point I realized that while I may keep learning, the curve is so flat that I won’t be able to navigate at any reasonable skill level until I reach the age of approximately 150, at which point I’ll be able to float through walls anyway.

It took a few extreme GPS (Godawful and Pretty Stupid) incidents to push me to embrace the solution to my woes.

Incident 1: Grandma’s house

I was driving to my husband’s grandmother’s place for coffee and cake. The cake was sufficient to convince me to dare to drive straight through the middle of Munich on the dreaded Mittlerer Ring, the inner beltway of the city. Every 500 meters a lane disappears, an exit emerges suddenly on the side of a tunnel wall, the speed limit changes – or all three happen simultaneously. I’m guessing they just kind of rolled the dice on what would happen next when they were building it, sort of the adult version of an obstacle course at summer camp, except instead of winning a T-shirt, the stakes here run the gamut from just getting lost to getting killed. The actual name of the Mittlerer Ring also flip-flops between Frankfurter Ring, Bundesstrasse 2R, Innsbrucker Ring, etc., just to keep you on your toes – and your foot on the gas pedal as you careen your way through the city.

It goes without saying that I took the wrong exit.  Somehow I wound up in a kind of holding pattern, entering and exiting in different places. I could spot the apartment complex where I needed to go through the window at every pass; so close, and yet so far. I had been there many times as a passenger so everything looked familiar.

So vaguely, annoyingly familiar.

Incident 2: The birthday party

I was driving my daughter to a birthday party located off the A8 Autobahn to Salzburg. Somehow I missed the exit to the southern Munich suburb of Ottobrunn and nearly wound up in Salzburg, literally a different country. If I had continued just a few more kilometers, I was in acute danger of having to buy an Autobahn pass for the right to stay on the road. Far more important, I would have to alter the language I used to order coffee, a crucial part of my life.

The trauma of getting lost was compounded by the distress caused to my daughter for arriving an hour late. She arrived just in time for the present-opening.

Incident 3, New York, the (almost) foolproof city

Here I am in New York, not just the city that never sleeps but also the city where you almost cannot get lost. The streets are numbered, so if you can count and read signs, you should be able to find where you want to go. The only insider knowledge required is that Fifth Avenue separates West 35th Street from East 35th Street and all other east/west streets. If you’re going to make a city easy to navigate, it would be hard to improve on the New York grid system.

I find myself wandering around midtown Manhattan. Traveling alone, I can be spontaneous and change tack at any time. I’m just going to walk around randomly and read the restaurant menus in the window until one appears that looks appealing, I think.

New York is pricey, so I force myself to keep my budget expectations in check. I’m just a few blocks from Rockefeller Center in the heart of the business district, so it takes a strong constitution to scan menus and not buckle and opt to simply starve at the mere sight of the prices. This continues for a few blocks.

Eliminating restaurant choices is easy. This menu offers too much meat. The people inside this deli are too well-heeled for my stretch pants and sweatshirt get-up. These tablecloths are too starched – no need to even consult the menu. This one’s too little, that one’s too big, but finally, just like Goldilocks, I land on a bistro that looks ju-u-u-st right, minus the bears. Unless you count the hairy guy sitting at the table in the corner.

Entering the restaurant, it seems oddly familiar. Looking at the cakes in the display case, I recognize the red velvet cheesecake that I had two days ago. They must source their cakes from the same bakery, I tell myself, but even as I think this, a sense of foreboding and tired resignation settles upon me.  

I turn and look out the window and see Barclay’s Bank, the same one I had stared at absently two days earlier while having a phone call. New York consists of five separate boroughs and 300 square miles connected by 656 miles of subway: what are the odds of randomly landing in the same restaurant?

The only logical conclusion is that my feet have outstripped the navigational part in my brain, which consists of a single synapse known as the corpus gotlostagain. At least my feet have the ability to find their way and are gracious enough to take the rest of my body along. They seem to have their own navigational system and override my innate sense of senselessness. I suppose muscle memory is better than no memory, I think to myself while tucking into a piece of red velvet cheesecake.

Brenda Arnold

See also:
Karl Marx’s penguin and Richard Wagner’s design for Madonna’s corset
What’s that schmuck doing in the jewelry store?
The two dots that will make or break you

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