Getting Lost for a Living

Highfalutin’ – December 2010

by Ben Alford

Ben Alford Gallup JourneyThe last couple of months, I’ve been employed as a writer/photographer/data-collector by a ‘hyper-local’ news company that’s preparing to launch a website dedicated solely to Bed-Stuy, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where we live.  The company hopes to tap into latent demand on the part of area residents for current, reliable and (most importantly) relevant community information.  If all goes according to plan, the new site will draw a high volume of traffic, which, in turn, should pique the interest of potential advertisers looking to gain increased exposure for their goods, services, PSAs, propaganda or whatever.  As with the publication you’re now holding, selling ads is how the journalistic venture I work for aims to remain solvent.

My function – admittedly rather small in the grand scheme of things – has been to create profiles for Bed-Stuy businesses that will ultimately become a part of an exhaustive, searchable directory.  With several hundred businesses scattered over a densely populated area of three-and-a-half square miles, this has meant a lot of good, old-fashioned legwork.  Fun, yes, but not the easiest for someone still far more comfortable in small-town America than in the world’s great urban, cosmopolitan habitats.

For me, the process of internalizing new maps has always been arduous and strange.  Only after months of consistent and disciplined bicycle exploration during my junior year of college did I really orient myself in Grand Rapids.  In my mind, Albuquerque’s still pretty much just a smoggy blob with nice mountains and a couple of freeways slicing through it.  Los Angeles?  Detroit?  Forget it.  You’d be better off with that infinite monkey pointing at random; at least that way you’d know you’d get there sometime.  A million years late is better than never.

I think Gallup’s configuration, with its very dominant east-west axis and salient natural landmarks spoiled me growing up.  Navigating successfully required not so much rote memorization and map-reading competency as the simple familiarization of myself with a few rules of thumb.  In Gallup, getting to your destination just kind of happens the way conclusions follow premises in logic.  Sure, you may not always find the most direct route, but you always end up in the right place.  Certainly, you are never lost.  If asked, you can always lip-point correctly.

So imagine me here in New York City, consigned to wander the grid with a gigantic, veterinary-cone-of-directional-ignorance sticking out of the neck of my coat keeping me from ever really getting my bearings.  It would be one thing if the gridlines were labeled alpha-numerically in a logical fashion.  Frankie’s Barber Shop would be at 1-A and Cynthia’s Party Supplies at 8-G.  No problem; Battleship wasn’t that hard last time I played in 5th grade.  Unfortunately for me, though, the streets in Bed-Stuy have been (as far as I’m concerned) assigned names arbitrarily – names like Stuyvesant, Myrtle and Kosciuszko, no less.  Some avenues are even called different things depending on where you are: Marcus Garvey Boulevard is Sumner Avenue above a certain line of latitude.  All in all, there were some fifty, crisscrossing names in my jurisdiction.  Add to all this a complete dearth of external reference points from which to derive my position relative to the cardinal directions, and what you get is a guy who felt pretty dizzy for a few weeks there.  As you might imagine, lip-pointing is useless here.  These are the canyons on the outside of the Death Star, only the ghost of Obi Wan cannot help you.

But it’s fall and beautiful here, so I haven’t really minded the hours of extra walking.  You wonder sometimes if you haven’t been sucked into a cinematic cliché walking tree-lined streets, ambling past brownstone after brownstone in the alchemical light of late afternoon.  You can learn a lot about your awareness of space and time when lost in this celluloid wonderland.  To ameliorate panic and frustration, I often imagined the structures around me turning transparent: just frames.  Better: just the surveying stakes before anything was built at all.  I can’t imagine the skeletal scene transplanted in the desert of New Mexico.

The Lightening Field is an earthwork masterminded by the artist Walter De Maria.  It’s a 1-mile x 1-kilometer grid marked out by 400 evenly spaced stainless steel poles driven into in the ground outside of Quemado.  (The actor, banjo virtuoso and art fanatic, Steve Martin loves the place, if you needed more convincing to make the trip next time you’re headed down to Pie Town.)  The work might very well be the most pristine intersection of Gallup’s spatial sensibility with New York City’s, of the waning-but-still-vast emptiness of the American frontier with the waxing piles of urban accumulation, of the organic with the structured, of eternity with ticking time, of the desire to know with the desire to be, of being lost and knowing right where you are.

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