I’m a big fan of maps and compasses and aerial photos and Google Earth and GPS, and I will probably never stop marveling that I carry a constantly updating map of the entire world in my back pocket (is that the definition of being old? Being unendingly astonished at everyday technology? Probably it is, and I am!), but despite all these tools for orientation, one of my favorite things is getting lost.
When being lost is combined with being scared or late or in a car, I don’t like it at all. But being lost on foot when I have nowhere I particularly need to be, is great. I especially enjoy the tiny moments of disorientation that happen in the midst of otherwise well-known places, because they reveal the idiosyncratic glitches we all carry in our mental maps.
Lately as an antidote to my Upper East Side day job, I’ve been spending more of my free time at downtown cafes. Irving Farms, for one, on the corner of Broome and Orchard Streets in the Lower East Side. Only, it’s not on the northwest corner where I think it is — it’s on the southeast. No matter how many times I go there, and no matter how many times I think before I get there that it will not be on the corner I think it’s going to be on, it still surprises me. How does it move like that? After a leisurely interlude reading and drinking coffee, I inevitably emerge to head in the wrong direction. Counteracting this requires pulling out my compass and squinting at it for a few minutes, unconvinced, before following its advice, or simply heading off in a random direction until I escape the gravitational pull of the Irving Farms bubble and can reorient myself correctly.
I know the first time I went there I was distracted, and misremembered which direction Orchard runs, but knowing how the glitch got engraved in my mind-map doesn’t mean I can undo it. I assume that it will eventually wear off if I go there enough, but then again, it may not. And that’s OK with me.
Despite the fact that I generally have a pretty good sense of direction, there are many similar examples of surprisingly durable malfunctions in my mapping, including the street I live on. In my head it runs north–south while in reality it runs east–west (more or less). No amount of seeing which directions the sun rises and sets, studying maps, or walking out to see where I end up has changed it. My intellectual brain can draw a proper map of it, but it hasn’t stopped feeling north-south, to the extent that I just had to double check it on a map to make sure I was saying the right directions just now. As soon as I get a couple of blocks from my house, there’s a subtle moment (easy to miss if I’m preoccupied) of things shifting, and the cardinal points sort themselves back into place.
I’m not entirely sure why this is so pleasing to me. In general, I like being in control, and knowing where I stand (literally). I think the pleasure comes partly from the surprise of it, partly from being able to see a familiar place in a new way, and partly from the fact that it all sorts itself out on its own pretty quickly (usually within two blocks or less). I also like that these glitches are very personal. There’s generally only one way to be right, but we’re all wrong in our own ways (to loosely paraphrase Tolstoy), and each disorientation reveals something about the person it belongs to, something about the first time they were there or about the texture of their mental map. And, much as I love the physical and digital tools of orientation, mental maps are more interesting than Google maps any day.
[FYI, I'll be back to talking about objects in the next post!]