Signs of the Times

Do you know the way in San Jose? You’d better.

According to Reuters, the Puerto Rican city of 1.4 million is just now installing its first street signs. It’s a $1 million project meant to head off a recurring $720 million problem: undelivered mail.

“My current home address is 200 meters north of the Pizza Hut then 400 meters west, but in a few months, I will be able to give a proper street name and a number,” Mayor Johnny Araya told the news service.

Trust me, Mr. Mayor. They’ll help a lot. But I suspect you’ll be giving directions a long time yet.

I speak from experience.

I have, it may reliably be said, one of the worst senses of direction in the continental United States. Where some people have an internal compass, I have a metronome. (“It’s this way – no, that way – no, this way …”) The one direction I can reliably find is down.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time getting directions from people. Nothing against Google Maps, mind you. It’s been a lifesaver, as well as a source of semi-harmless amusement when it sends me half a county away from my real destination. But hey, what’s a couple dozen miles between friends?

But for a true education, there’s nothing like getting directions the way God intended: half-understood over the phone while scribbling madly to get it all down before your pen runs out of ink. Just what those scribbles add up to, of course, depend on the school of thought your erstwhile guide subscribes to.

Historic – I ran into this method a lot in Kansas, where a small town can have a lot of communal experience. The outsider, lacking this background, is probably doomed. “OK, now keep goin’ until you get to where the church burned down in ’07 – no wait, it was ’06 – then hang a left. You’ll want to go three houses past where Jimmy used to have his bike shop ….”

Artistic – My Aunt Carolyn is the living master of this technique, which involves describing every building, cross-street and minor landmark along the chosen route, regardless of whether they indicate a turning point or not. The good news is that if you get lost, a good set of watercolors will let you paint the description and sell it for enough money to hire a cab.

Orienteering – This one seems to be the dominant method in the Colorado communities I’ve known. “So you’ll want to go three-quarters of a mile past 17th, turn right, then after about 200 yards, you’ll want to turn left again …” Alas, for years, I had a Chevy with no “tenths” position on the odometer, reducing all this careful military science to hasty guesswork. “Oh, crap, is it that … no, wait, it’s here … no wait, it was back there …”

Zen – For some people, all directions seem to be one, because they’re either new, clueless, or traumatized from being off the Google. The one constant beyond a shrug is the ability to point inerrantly to the road you just left, refer vaguely to a turn, and give you the Four Most Dangerous Words: “You can’t miss it.”

I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Just like losing your script forces you to learn lines, a directional fog can force you to learn the route. And you can make some interesting discoveries when you go along the road less traveled. Mine include the limits of my patience, the resilience of my blood pressure, and the depth of my religious convictions. (Praying for guidance takes on a very literal meaning when gas and time are low.)

And oh, yes, one thing more: a sense of humor about my limitations. The author Spider Robinson once said there are two kinds of people in this world: those who step on a rake in the dark and swear, and those who do so and laugh. The second tends to make for nicer people and a more comfortable world.

So good luck, San Jose. Enjoy the new signs.

And if you see a driver making random turns in 4/4 time … come on over and say hi, will you?

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