Do You Know the Way to San Jose? by
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I do not have a good sense of direction. I never have. From seventh through twelfth grade I went to a school in another town about twenty minutes away. (My mother always said that every place we needed to go was twenty minutes away. Looking at Google maps now, using city streets to get from my house to the campus, which is how we always went, confirms that it actually would take twenty minutes. In those days going into Manhattan also took twenty minutes.) Anyway, at some point my mother decided I should learn the route, so that if anyone else ever offered to drive me, I could give them directions. It took me months to learn the whole route, but I finally did it. There was nothing instinctive about it, it was all rote memorization. And it was all “turn left here, turn right there,” I never had a sense that this is just the general direction we need to go. Occasionally it was “turn left at the Esso station” or “turn right at the ice cream parlor,” which worked better for me than just street names.

I do not have a good sense of direction. I'm usually good with maps, unless I have them upside down. And grateful now to have GPS.

The one place I could actually do pretty well finding my way around as a teenager was Manhattan, because all the numbered streets and avenues made sense. If I was on 48th Street, for example, and I knew I needed to go uptown, I could walk one block and know if I was going the right way or not. If I got to 49th, I could keep going. If I got to 47th, I had to turn around and go back the other way. Most of the time I picked the wrong way, but at least I knew my mistake quickly! I also knew that the pattern on the one-way streets was Even-East, so I could orient myself that way. If it was an even-numbered street, the traffic was going east, and if it was an odd-numbered street, the traffic was going west. Of course that didn’t help me on the two-way streets. And down in the Village, where the streets had names instead of numbers, I was hopeless.

The New York subway, however, was another matter. You would think that would be easy too, if the signs say Uptown on one platform and Downtown on the other. But I do remember one time when I was going to or from my friend Amy’s house, and I got confused. I took a train in the wrong direction, and didn’t realize it until I was in the middle of Harlem. I had to get off that train and cross to the other platform to get a train in the opposite direction. Standing on the platform I couldn’t help noticing that I was the only white person in the entire station. I don’t remember if I was nervous or not – I might have been too clueless to recognize the potential danger. However, later when I told people what station I had been waiting in, they definitely freaked out. Oh well, I got where I was going, so it all turned out okay.

I could generally do pretty well if I had a map, once I figured out which way to hold it. That’s where it helps to know where north, south, east, and west are in real life, not just on the map. I remember being in Amsterdam by myself when I was nineteen, and looking on a map for wherever it was that I wanted to go. It appeared to be only about three blocks away from where I was standing. I started walking in exactly the opposite direction from what I should have done. Once I had gone the three blocks and didn’t see what I was looking for, I figured I must have been mistaken about the distance and I should walk another block. And another. And another. It never occurred to me to turn around. I finally got to where the street ended, having walked a mile or more. At that point I was exhausted, and I think I just took a taxi back to the hostel where I was staying. I don’t remember what I was trying to find, but I do remember the frustration of realizing I had walked so incredibly far in the wrong direction!

Nowadays there is GPS in cars and on phones. I use it for walking as well as for driving. Sometimes I have qualms about where the GPS is taking me, but I know I just have to trust it, because it has a much better sense of direction than I do.

And if you’re wondering about the song title title, I never got lost trying to get to San Jose, but for an amusing story about driving from Palo Alto (which is near San Jose) to Oakland, please check out Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

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Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Thanx for this story and fun re-reading Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!

    Navigating Manhattan is a cinch but even I have thoughtlessly taken a bus or subway in the wrong direction!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, Suzy. And I, too, originally learned directions by rote, without thinking much about directions. In fact, I was thinking about that recently when I re-connected with an old friend of mine — actually a classmate of my brother’s in elementary and highschool — whom I used to sometimes drive back to Harvard from our hometown after vacations. He was much wiser about such things than I was and (nicely) suggested that the route I always took to get on the Parkway that led north towards Boston was actually much longer than the one he suggested. Finally, I listened to him and we saved about twenty minutes. Only later did I look at a map and see he was exactly right: my route headed south for about five miles before essentially doubling back and heading north. Who knew?

    And I, too, loved how logical the grid was in Manhattan for figuring directions out. However, it got a fair bit more complicated when I started my legal career in the Wall Street area, where nothing made sense and the streets were old and narrow and the buildings were so high it was impossible to get any perspective. However, I eventually mastered that non-grid (to put it mildly) and have retained my memory of it as I have re-visited the area over the years.

    As usual, a perfect song title title for this prompt and your story. But, as I am sure you, as a Californian, know even better than I, San Jose is hardly the quaint little burg it was when Dionne first sang that song. Anyone who doesn’t know the way there today ain’t gonna make it in Silicon Valley.

    • Suzy says:

      When the song came out in 1968, I had no idea where San Jose was! Funny to look at the lyrics now, contrasting LA as “a great big freeway” and San Jose where “you can really breathe” and “they’ve got lots of space.” Of course 50+ years later, San Jose is practically as much of a great big freeway as LA.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, what you say makes so much sense. Manhattan’s streets are logical, so fairly easy to navigate. Glad you didn’t have any trouble on that subway up in Harlem. Sometimes it’s best to be innocent.

    Your mother’s insistence on rote memorization of your route to school (including landmarks along the way) also makes sense to me. I, also, have no innate sense of direction and sometime even GPS doesn’t help me (as it takes me on long, out of the way routes, when I knew there are more direct ways to get there; I just don’t happen to know them).

    I entirely understand how you got into your predicament in Amsterdam. It sounds like something I might have done. But I give you big props for trying it on your own!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Another thing we have in common! I agree that GPS doesn’t always give directions that are the best route, but I just have to put my faith in it and follow unquestioningly if I’m in a place that I don’t know.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    I thought you might have picked “Lost in the Ozone Again” (Commander Cody) but love the San Jose song. You are right that often it is easiest to wayfind using visual clues like the ice cream parlor and memorizing turns (although when you get directions like “turn left where the ice cream parlor used to be” it may not be as helpful). I knew someone who could get anywhere in town but only by returning to the same starting place. GPS has been a godsend especially in unfamiliar or twisty-turny places.

    • Suzy says:

      Khati, I hate to admit it, but I don’t know that Commander Cody song. Just listened to it, and it’s pretty entertaining. “One drink of wine, two drinks of gin, and I’m lost in the ozone again.”

      I had to laugh at your “turn left where the ice cream parlor used to be.” I do know people who give directions like that, and of course it’s only helpful if it’s a place you used to live and you remember the ice cream parlor.

  5. This essay only reminded me all too well of times I too have walked and walked, stubbornly believing I was going in the right direction, resisting the loss of self-esteem that would arise if I admitted to myself that I had the whole thing ass-backwards. Oh, boy.
    A well written account and perhaps a bit of therapy for those of us who are navigationally challenged.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    When I was a kid my father always seemed to know how to get to anywhere; I never saw a map in the car. It was a long time before I realized that having been a truck driver for many years, he’d been to pretty much every town in a hundred mile radius of home.

    • Suzy says:

      In the old days, at least, I’m sure truck drivers would have had a lot of familiarity with everywhere in their territory. Now I imagine they probably rely on GPS just like everyone else.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, you are my challenged soul sister. I totally get where you are coming from (well, not literally). My husband has an excellent sense of direction. Me, none at all. One of my sons-in-law is so directionally challenged that my daughter often tells him, “Turn left. No, the other left.”

    • Suzy says:

      Laurie, you cracked me up with “I totally get where you are coming from (well, not literally).” That’s our directionally challenged fate, that we don’t have an innate sense of where we are coming from OR going to.

  8. Risa Nye says:

    As many times as I have been to NY, I can never figure out directions and I’m pretty good at it anywhere else. I see water, and this California girl thinks: West! But no… The most lost I ever got was during my first trip to Paris. I was 50–not a kid–and I got so far afield that I no longer recognized anything on the “vous êtes ici” maps. And then it started to rain and get dark. I finally asked a handsome young gendarme how to get back to my hotel!

    • Suzy says:

      Funny about you and NY and the water not being in the west! And wow, I can totally relate to your experience in Paris. Did the handsome young gendarme escort you to your hotel? Or does that only happen in the movies.

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