August 24th, 2005
My friend Gail likes to straighten things up. When we have lunch out she’ll neatly arrange the napkins and cutlery on the table, and bring any other stray items into line. "Don’t mind this," she said once, years ago, "It’s my cosmic job. Nature’s Little Pruner."
I loved the idea of a cosmic job, a clear, simple task to which one was cosmically assigned, that makes use of one’s natural bent. I wanted a cosmic job. As it turns out, I have one. I am the Direction Giver.
It started when I went to London to study in my junior year of college. I loved London, and went everywhere with my friends in the program. I often wandered around on my own as well, walking and walking, all the back streets, in my tan trenchcoat, and it was then I was approached for directions. The British, other Europeans, fellow Americans, folks from far and wide: all stopped to ask me for directions. I was chuffed of course, because it meant I blended in, and didn’t look like a tourist myself.
I had just turned 21. I didn’t realize I had a new job.
Years later, there is no doubt. I am the Direction Giver. Land me in any city in the world and within days, sometimes within hours, sometimes within minutes, people are stopping me on the street and asking for directions.
The record so far is 30 seconds, in Madrid. I was meeting Gail there, but arrived a few hours before her. I checked into my hotel, then went immediately out to wander the streets. I’d never been to Madrid before. At the end of the first block, a chic woman stopped me and, although I don’t speak much Spanish, it was clear she was asking for directions. "Um, no vivo en Madrid," I responded, with that slightly guilty feeling I get when I can’t fulfill my job requirements. 30 seconds. It was a new record.
In Paris it took a day. I myself was lost when approached for directions somewhere in Barcelona. In a French village with my friend Ger a car stopped and the driver asked me for directions on our first walk into town. In Helsinki I had to learn the Finnish for "I’m sorry, I don’t speak Finnish. Do you speak English?" to fulfill my directionary responsibilities.
This isnt’ strictly a city phenomenon, though. In West Kerry I’d be asked for directions to Dingle (this on the far side of the peninsula, to which there is no way to get without passing through Dingle) or, perhaps my all-time favorite, "Where is the sea?" Once my partner Fred was late picking me up from the garage where I’d dropped my car to be fixed. It was a gorgeous day, and I started walking. When he arrived, he found me in the middle of the road, giving directions to people in a passing car (How do we get to Ceann Sibeal golf club?). It was the second car that had stopped in the 5 minutes I’d been walking up the road.
In Dublin, the moving van was parked outside the house and movers were carrying furniture in when a man chose me, the woman on the sidewalk talking to the movers, to ask for directions. I gently pointed him to my neighbor two doors down, standing in the doorway of her house, a house without a moving van in front of it. He hung about for a bit nonetheless, not quite believing I had no information for him.
You see, this job, while gentle, is somewhat unforgiving. New to the neighborhood, the city, the country? No excuse. I need to know my way around so that others may know their way around.
There may be a bit of a warmup period, however. I’ve been asked some fairly softball direction questions in the early days in Dublin. Where can I get a photocopy made in Ranelagh? (stopped while I was out on a run) Which way to the city center? (also stopped during a run) Where is the French Embassy? (stopped by a young Frenchman while crossing the canal at Leeson Street and damn, I didn’t know that one).
Fred and my scientifically-minded friend Mel have tried to analyze the phenomenon. "It must be the way you carry yourself, or do you make eye contact? You must have some combination of looking knowledgeable and looking approachable that makes people always choose you."
Sure, they can analyze all they want, but Gail knew what she was talking about. It’s my cosmic job. When you have one, you know.