SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 13, 2009

Headmaps

 

I freely admit that I have my share of anxieties when it comes to this class I’m supposed to start teaching in a few days. What if these little screwheads don’t respond at all, and just stare at me like dazed oxen? I’m not equipped to talk for three hours straight. The class runs until six, so how do I hold off the shakes that usually kick in around four? Do I bring a hip flask with me? And so forth.

At the top of the list of concerns is a very simple one—how will I get to the classroom and back without getting lost or killed?

            I’ve spent far too many afternoons walking around in circles in some alien neighborhood looking for an address I know I’ll never find. Already half an hour late for an appointment and ornery as all get out, I’ve just given up and gone home. Caused me an awful lot of trouble over the years. In the case of this teaching gig, giving up and going home ain’t exactly an option. So this time I had a plan.

In recent years, I have fallen into an annoying and time consuming habit. This is due in part to increasing incompetence, combined with occasionally having way too much time on my hands.

            It goes something like this: If I need to go someplace I’ve never been before—if I’m asked to meet someone at a bar in another neighborhood, say—and I have a few days before I need to take that trip, I like to make a test run. If I really need to be someplace at a particular time, I want to make sure I know how to get there.

            More often than not, written directions are useless to me (words like “walk north” and “turn east” hold very little meaning). I keep trying to look at maps, but they’re no use either. I’m fully aware that convenient and portable GPS technology is readily available to the consumer nowadays, but I’d rather cling to what scraps of humanity I have left. Besides, with my luck the fucking thing would direct me off a long pier into the East River.

            No, the only way to do it is to get out there and tap it out. It’s more than just a matter of knowing what the cross streets are—I need to know where the place is along the block, and where I should exit the subway, and how the front door is configured. Are there any construction sites I need to avoid? I need to note some landmarks and figure out how to get the right train afterward. If possible, I like to figure out where I need to go once I step inside the place I’m looking for. Are there stairs or revolving doors? Is the bar to the left or the right? There’s no end of stupid details—but they’re stupid details I prefer to figure out beforehand to prevent crashing through any plate glass doors, or wandering endlessly in the wrong direction. Once I get all this figured out, I go home and type up my own excruciatingly detailed directions as quickly as possible. It’s through all this that I solidify a map in my head, and one that won’t go away for a good long time.

            With a bar, a single advance reconnaissance tap usually does the trick. Likewise, with most new jobs a single trip is usually enough. But this teaching gig I was about to start, hoo-boy. The classroom was in one building, the department offices were in another, and the administrative offices were in yet another. My mailbox was over here and the library was over there. Each place had stairs, elevators, ramps, security guards and multiple turns to contend with. All were different, and all had to be memorized beforehand or I was screwed.

            Fortunately I knew about the job long in advance, so there was time. About six months ago the instructor I’d be replacing took me over there for the first time to meet some people and fill out some forms. Unfortunately, instead of taking a subway the way I normally would, we took a cab to save time. So that part of the trip was blown. I learned how to get up to the department though, which was no easy task. It was an old building that had been chopped up all crazy, leaving the hallways a confounding maze. Complicating things further, the ceiling, walls and floor of these halls had all been painted the same intense, flat white, effectively erasing all corners, shadows, and perspective.

            It was too early to look for classrooms, stop by any admin offices, or find out where my mailbox would be, but it was a start. When I got home, I jotted down what I could.

            Two months ago, the same man brought me up to the school again to get me my ID card and arrange for access to the university computer system. Afterwards, we went to find the classroom.

            This time we took the train all the way (including the stupid and inconvenient transfer I would normally make), but after exiting the station we had to head in a direction opposite the way I’d normally be heading, since the admin offices were further uptown. And after leaving there, we took a baffling and roundabout route to the building that housed my classroom. Plus I was hung over, and it was one of those miserably humid days. So by the time we reached the building with the classroom I was not only lost, I was close to delirious. Met the security guard (whose name I promptly forgot) and took the elevator up to the third floor. I was lucky in that after stepping off the elevator, the classroom was the first door to my right (after the line of ten lockers).

            By the end of that day, I knew how to get up to the department offices (once I found my way to the building), and knew how to get up to my classroom (once I found my way to the building), and how to get back to the subway afterwards. Things were coming together. A little piecemeal, maybe, but they were coming together.

            A few weeks later, we went back a third time. This time we left the train the right way and went straight to the department, where I found my mailbox (two up, two over on the wall of mailboxes). Then, since I would normally be stopping by the department before heading to class, we left that building and walked over to the classroom again. Then from there back to the train.

            After each trip I made notes and put them in a growing file. Number of blocks I needed to walk, what direction I needed to turn, where to avoid the dumpsters on the sidewalk, everything.

            I was feeling so confident about my navigational skills that one dreary and wet afternoon about a week after that last trip, I headed out alone and made the trip myself, timing it so I knew how much time I had to give myself. Everything went smooth as can be. And with a week and a half before classes started, not a minute too soon.

            Then I got a phone call informing me that my classroom had been moved, and someone had commandeered my mailbox. I think Morgan’s right—I should bring a six-pack with me.

 

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