I was more lost than a sinner on Sunday morning the first two months I lived in New York City. I didn’t have a smartphone or a clue during that time because I dropped my phone outside a flower shop on a hectic Valentine’s Day morning back in Wilmington, N.C. before we moved here a little over a year ago. The phone’s super hard glass screen cracked like a mirror, and I knew I was in for hard luck and tough economic times trying to get it fixed. There’s a clever app you can get to make it appear as if your screen is cracked, but I had the real deal. The phone died a long painful death for months after that, giving me everything it had. Not having it those first weeks in Manhattan was a curse that turned out to be a great blessing. That’s because only when you are truly and completely lost will you find anything worth discovering. For instance, America or the Land of Oz.
During my time without a smartphone, I employed about six maps of varying detail and size I stuffed in every pocket. I had a phone, but it was a Dumb Phone that required twenty minutes of manipulations to send a simple text such as, “Hi. I will be there soon, honey. Don’t make me walk and text because that is too hard for me, and I will surely die in traffic.” During those days, my lovely wife would send me a text, and I could almost hear her chewing gum and tapping her feet while she waited for my response.
I stumbled on the Wall Street Bull one day while I was supposed to be going to an ATM on Broad Street to get cash. Tourists were lying down underneath it and scratching its balls. Which I found odd and amusing and sad. Maybe they were the victims of some odd hazing ritual, I thought. I learned later this is supposed to make you rich. Sure it does! If any of my family members posed like that for a photo, I would take about half a day to compose a caption biting enough to do it justice and put it on Facebook for everyone to appreciate.
When someone was dumb enough to ask me for directions to someplace, I came clean. “Do you know how to get to the Stock Exchange?” asked a Japanese tourist one time. “God, I wish I knew,” I’d reply. “I’ve been here two weeks, and I’m lucky to make it back to my own apartment if I go more than two blocks. I’d love to help you, but I can’t.” My natural Southern instinct to help fought with my own lack of any landmarks or street names to guide them. I fought an impulse to pretend to more than I knew. The last thing I wanted was to give bad directions to good people. One time, I actually gave bad directions to a couple from Germany. A horrible moment of realization passed before I chased them down almost two blocks later and corrected myself, panting for breath and apologizing profusely.
My Great Uncle Frank back in Asheville, North Carolina often gave great and complicated directions straight out of a Faulkner novel involving ancient cemeteries and relations I never knew I had, including cousins five times removed. He was a mailman in a former life. I knew him as a professional contrarian and colorful Braves fan who never took the same way home twice if he could help it, owned a Honus Wagner baseball card, had a pool table in his basement and knew my complete family history from memory though he had married into the family by wedding my wonderful and talented Great Aunt JoAnne who taught piano and is a church organist. I used to sit around with her and my Great Aunt Dixie watching the Braves struggle to win games even though they had the most brilliant pitching staff in creation. A few times another great aunt, Aunt Sis, came over and watched a bit. Her name was Sis (short for sister) because she had six other siblings. So, everyone called her Sis and not Mildred, her real name. Even if she was not their sister. So, she was my Aunt Sis, which doesn’t even sound believable, but is true.
Frank and I palled around quite a bit back when I lived in the house on Spooks Hollow Branch that had been my Great Grandmother Nix’s home. By the time I lived there, the modest establishment kept neat as a pin by my great grandmother had lapsed into a derelict edifice with a permanently musty smell and a back bedroom with a caved-in floor. The foundation was giving way. It should have been condemned, but it made a perfect home for me as I struggled along in my early twenties. There was no central heat. Just a wood stove in the living room. It was great fun living there while I worked as freelance writer feeding a small, determined left-leaning Mountain Express (then known as Green Line) complicated, well-intentioned stories about zoning and environmental law infractions as it was a little like camping indoors.
Frank was like a father away from my father to me. He drove me all around the city, showing me the sights and giving me detailed histories of streetcar stops he had known while rolling slowly through every stop sign and red stoplight we passed while openly violating a recently established seat belt law. He brought me miniature ice cold bottles of Coke from his private collection when I was sick as a dog one winter. He started my car when the battery died twice. He towed my car out of a field of snow where I had landed after I left his driveway one afternoon and attempted to make a slight right onto the main road and found no traction and kept going straight across a field and nearly into a creek with a short and dubious footbridge I used to skip across on my way to my grandfather’s bottom land where I picked corn, dug up potatoes and harvested strawberries.
So, as I was saying before my Uncle Frank entered the scene, I got quite lost many times in those early days in Manhattan. My wife would want me to meet her at work. I would try to remember the one path she led me down to get there. All the streets north of a certain point in Manhattan are laid out in a grid pattern. If you like finding your way around, grid patterns are wonderful things. But they lack character and personality. The Financial District in Lower Manhattan has the complicated persona of my Great Uncle Frank – full of odd and strong opinions, a little crusty and surprising all the time. Roads wind around. They change names seemingly for no good reason. It’s a little bit like a cornfield maze made of alleys and tall buildings.
One day, lost in Chinatown, I stumbled onto a park with musicians practicing. A man playing a strange bowed instrument that produced high and haunting notes. Another man played an odd looking set of drums that looked like the fourth cousins to a set of bongos. Another banged on something like cymbals. A man and a woman sang in an exotic tongue. I could make no sense of it, but I wanted to sit and listen for hours. This is New York City, I thought. This is how the city sounds on a Sunday morning. Confusing and wonderful at once. Notes from a distant land wafting through the air.
Eventually I got a smartphone with an app that led me straight to my destination. I arrive on time. I find my way. But that’s boring. I recommend getting lost early and often if you can in Manhattan. Take the cornfield maze below Fulton Street that is the Financial District and wander around. Never take the same way home twice. Another wonder is just around the corner.