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Giving Directions

Much has been made in recent years of the manner in which people ask for directions—women do, men don’t; women will admit to being lost, men generally won’t. Of much greater interest to me is the way people give directions. MapQuest and GPS notwithstanding, we all need to pull over and ask someone for help sometimes. The odd and overtly contradictory instructions that are then invariably offered charm me so thoroughly that I often end up glad to have gotten lost.

Providence, Rhode Island, is a city in which I am prone to wrong turns, and on my last trip there, I made the inevitable stop at a bodega to find out how I might find my way out of town and back to Route 6. The elderly man behind the counter gave me extensive instructions that included circling back the way I had come, taking a shortcut through an alley, and crossing two bridges. But as I left the store, a twentysomething customer followed me out to suggest a much simpler, quicker, and more direct route that involved reversing course, going straight, and making a single turn. The difference in these two offerings illustrates that how one gives directions tends to be a highly individual, personal, and sometimes even poetic enterprise.

The more I ask friends about this, the more I realize that virtually everyone has had a similar experience. The unpredictable alliances of memory and landscape can be especially perplexing when driving directions are based on the assumption that things are as they once were when all was right in this world. Architect James Biber tells me of the time he was in a small Connecticut town and asked for directions from an "old codger," and received the intriguing, if useless, advice to "turn left where the old schoolhouse used to be." I know, though, that I have given such impractical advice myself, not out of malice but from pure sentiment. I live in what was once a farming community in the Hudson River Valley. Now it is exurban, its silos and barns falling into ever-greater disrepair; long after one silo with a dangerous but captivating tilt had given way to the elements, there were times when, in spite of myself, I cited it as a landmark.

The sense of displacement that a lost traveler feels is sometimes shared by the locals—which is what the actor David Strathairn found some years ago when he was on location in Nebraska for a television production of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! Road names were being changed from family surnames to numbers, and the work was still in progress. "East of downtown Lincoln, the landscape rolls and rolls like a gigantic quilt with wind underneath it," he told me. "The roads cut at right angles heading off north and south, like seams between the huge sections of corn, soybeans, and fallow fields. The assistant director had listed the location as 256E, and I knew from the travel time allotted that it wasn’t far from my motel. After what was obviously too much driving, we asked a gentleman riding a tractor alongside the road if he knew where 256E was. He said, ’Yessir, it’s the first road on your right back at the bottom of the second swale. You can’t miss it. Used to be a sign telling whose road it is but they’re changing all of them to numbers now and taking their time putting up the new posts. And now nobody knows where they live anymore.’ "

Landmarks more permanent than road names and numbers can be cause for confusion, too—as often as not because the significance of the landmark resides in the teller’s mind alone. A helpful local may tell you of the village store, the cemetery, and the stone wall but fail to mention the competing large red barn, pond with the swans, and crossroad, making for an incomplete catalogue of visual aids. This, too, conforms to its own logic. If landmarks help us to derive meaning in a place, then, as with all the other guideposts we use to order our lives, we are discriminating in our choices.

Consider, too, the authoritative directive that tells you where you should go rather than where you want to go. While visiting Dublin a number of years ago, I stopped to ask for the quickest route to the Brazen Head, a centuries-old pub where I was meeting a friend. "But lambie," I was reprimanded in a lilting brogue, "surely you wouldn’t want to be going there," whereupon my affable adviser, exemplifying the celebrated congeniality of all his countrymen, made every effort to escort me personally to his brother-in-law’s pub instead, on the other, wrong side of the Liffey.

My friend Barbara Flanagan, a writer, was thrown off by cultural differences when she took a trip to Japan. Of the time she and a friend spent in Kyoto, she recalls, "We knew we had to be careful about asking for directions. People are so polite there. And they feel duty-bound to get you all the way to where you’re going. It’s almost a sacred obligation, even if they don’t really have any idea. Which can lead to your getting even more lost."

An excess of good manners isn’t the only motive for inventing information. Brenda Cullerton is a fiction writer in New York City who also feels an obligation to help tourists. "I love giving directions," she says, "especially if I know where a place is. It makes me feel as if I’m in control. I know something, I’m a local. And besides, once I’ve told them, people always look so relieved, so grateful." Her greatest directorial feat, reflecting her professional skills, may have been her devilish response to a "hopelessly jet-lagged and disoriented tourist" who asked her in downtown Manhattan, "Do you know how to get to Pennsylvania Avenue?" Cullerton couldn’t help herself. "No problem," she said, leaning in to look at his map. "Take a left at the next corner, walk three blocks north, pass the post office, and just keep going. You can’t miss it."

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