Then I moved with my husband to Boston, land of big S’s and vengeful car-smashers. But between Google, Garmin, and smartphones, I figured everything would be fine this time.
If this were a movie, here’s where something by the Dropkick Murphys would play over a montage of me standing at intersections, staring down at my phone, and then looking around in confusion. (There are obvious reasons why Boston lacks the ruler-straight streets of my former hometown: It’s old; it never burned to the ground and had to be rebuilt from scratch; it’s hilly. But the area’s casual attitude toward street signage is harder to explain.)
At those perplexing corners I sometimes wish I were a pigeon or a sea turtle, or even a dung beetle—any of the animals that are so much better than humans at finding their way. Humans aren’t totally hopeless though, according to a strange 1980 study that asserted humans have some homing ability too. The researcher blindfolded subjects, put them in a bus, and drove them on a “tortuous route” around England. Once released but still blindfolded, the subjects were asked which direction they’d come from. To their own surprise, they were somewhat successful. The author claimed that strapping a magnet to people’s heads canceled out this ability. But compared to our more wild companions who migrate for thousands of miles or remember the exact place they were born, we’re pretty directionally challenged.
After 14 months in Boston, I can find my way around some neighborhoods without trouble. Taking unplanned side streets is risky, though, because roads here have a tendency to bend and drop you someplace you’re not expecting. I never take a new running route without first memorizing the turns on a map. Ever since my husband left for a three-mile run and came back an hour later having visited a new town, we’re both cautious.
Even GPS doesn’t always help. If you’re driving, it may tell you to take your next left without mentioning that the road you’re on first turns 90 degrees right. If you’re walking, Google Maps will blithely send you down “streets” that are really alleyways or sidewalks bisecting college quads. Downtown, phones sometimes struggle to reach the GPS satellites, leaving you on your own. Street names are recycled in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and the other small cities packed around here—so if you don’t double-check the address your device suggests, you might end up like the Thai delivery guy who took our food to the wrong city.
Unlike in Chicago, I can no longer easily place myself on a city map. I almost never know what direction I’m facing. My new mental map is, in its most vivid form, a collection of remembered mistakes. Its landmarks are places I was when I meant to be someplace else: Here are the train tracks where I realized I was walking the wrong way to an interview. Here’s where I took an unexpected tour of the Harvard Divinity School campus. Here’s the restaurant that didn’t appear until a friend and I had walked across the square from every direction, as if it needed a magic spell to materialize. (The Boston area is full of “squares,” seemingly none of which are square in the geometric sense.)