Sidetracked by directions


GIVING directions to a motorist who's lost seems like such a simple task, yet it's apparently too much for the legions of vacant-eyed individuals who routinely walk our streets.

Certainly there is nothing more disheartening than pulling up to a stranger on the sidewalk in Washington, D.C., and asking for directions to, say, the Lincoln Memorial, only to receive a blank expression and this snappy reply: "Huh? Well, I don't . . . wait a minute! Are you saying something happened to Lincoln?!"

Good Lord. The thing to do in this situation is to quickly roll up the window and lock the doors.

Then I'd stomp on the accelerator and go screeching down the street until I found someone who is not a practicing member of the Hare Krishna movement and has some idea of the geographic layout of the city -- and perhaps a better grasp of U.S. history as well.

The sad fact is that, if I'm not asking directions from dim-witted pedestrians with too much time on their hands, I'm receiving directions from people who insist on editorializing.

For instance, if I ask someone how to get to, oh, Bayonne, N.J., I don't want to hear: "Bayonne? Gee, why would anyone want to go to a dump like that?"

Look, let's get something straight here. If I want to go to Bayonne, that's my business.

Now, I might agree that Bayonne is not exactly the garden spot of the Northeast.

Like many others, when I summon a mental image of Bayonne, it includes industrial smokestacks spewing black gook into the air, children playing on the edge of a marshland and stumbling upon the shallow grave of a missing Columbo family member, and a 10-mile backup on the Jersey Turnpike when a propane tanker collides with a prison van and shotgun-toting police conduct a car-by-car search for the missing cons.

But none of that should matter to the person of whom I'm asking directions. His or her role seems clearly delineated. Just tell me how to get there, OK?

If I wanted a full-blown commentary, I would have said: "Pardon me, but what can you tell me about this rat-hole Bayonne?"

Which, if memory serves, I have never uttered in my life.

So much for asking for directions in an urban setting. Equally annoying is when one pulls up to a gas station in a more rural environment to inquire how far it is to such-and-such a town, and the answer is: "Oh, 'bout 20 miles as the crow flies."

Listen, Farmer Brown, I don't care how far it is as the crow flies, OK?

So take that piece of straw out of your mouth and tell me how far it is if the crow is driving a Subaru with three screaming kids and one of those donut-sized spare tires that feels like it's going to blow 200 feet in the air any second now.

The key to giving good directions is to not make them too complicated, as a certain well-meaning but obviously disturbed young fellow did to me recently.

I was looking for a certain store and became lost (it happens) while concentrating on the many weighty matters which routinely occupy my day. Which, unfortunately, was when I spotted young Kit Carson, and asked him for directions.

"Go down here two blocks to Elm," he said, "then hang your first left at Spruce, make the next right at Pine, and another quick right on Maple. Go eight blocks up, veer left at the monument and it's your second right. Oak, I think it is."

Well, two problems emerged from this soliloquy right away.

In the first place, the young man had apparently misunderstood and was giving me directions to Sherwood Forest.

But even more alarming, he must have thought I had a tiny computer surgically implanted in my brain, with this computer hooked up to an IBM mainframe.

Otherwise, how the hell could anyone process the dizzying amount of information he'd just thrown my way?

"Mind if I write this down?" I asked.

"Oh, it's easy to find," he said.

Oh, it was easy to find, all right. So easy, in fact, that 20 minutes later, I found myself parked beside a Dumpster to one side of a Dairy Queen, miles and miles from where I wanted to be.

For a brief moment, I toyed with the idea of doubling back, finding the young fellow who had directed me and running him down with my car.

But $1.99 for a burger, fries and a milk shake, I didn't see how you could beat that.

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