It started sometime after college.
Living in New York City and spending the majority of one’s time in Manhattan it is nearly impossible to avoid running into the 53 million (actual number) tourists who pass through this town every year.
They are in every neighborhood, and for whatever reason, easy to spot even if they aren’t holding a 2-foot square map fully open at arms length.
Walking to and from work I’d see them on the street looking around every which way. Looking up for street signs that aren’t always so intuitively placed. Trying to find out where they are. Trying to figure out where they should go.
I knew the feeling. I had been that person, although, not as openly. My backpacking trips overseas had found me incredibly paranoid of looking like a tourist (even though I did) and getting lost (even though I did) and I would discreetly look at a sliver of map I had folded meticulously so that I could continue to blend into the populous (even though I never did) and go about my day.
I was so paranoid of being taken advantage of or hustled. Plus, I wanted to figure it out on my own. It’s a skill and an adventure that is rapidly becoming lost on people of all ages, that of learning how to read, interpret, and understand a map.
I derived such a joy from getting lost and finding myself again.
What can I say, I love metaphors.
As I watched these tourists deeply involved in trying to find themselves, literally, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. For as much I had tried to be a competent explorer on my journeys I had received help literally dozens of times from people kind enough to help the sweaty kid in the 30-pound backpack comprehend a map.
Like that time in Italy where a man in a suite on his way to work brought me into a coffee shop and looked through the yellow pages to try and find the address I had, that apparently didn’t exist.
Or that one time I sat down in my seat on the train in Munich. I was settling in for my 8 hour, overnight ride to Berlin. I had taken off my bag and was getting situated when something told me to verify I was on the correct train.
I turned to woman sitting on my left and said, “This is the train to Berlin right?”
As it turns out my train was across the platform.
And many, many more.
I took it upon myself to cross the discomfort divide and actually ask people if they needed help. Since I knew how scared I was asking people for help. Creating 3 second mental dossiers on everybody who passed. Does he look like he would know where the hostel is?
I started asking tourists if they needed help, if they knew where they were going.
About half the time, they didn’t.
Sometimes I’d be met with a “No no we’re fine thank you.” That came out almost a bit too rushed, reminding me in a kind of fond embarrassment of how on edge I used to be when I got lost.
It surprised me how many times people said yes, and asked for help finding a specific thing on the map.
Usually it was something easy; a specific train line, a museum, or a particular neighborhood.
Sometimes it was something more obscure.
And sometimes I gave the wrong instructions which I didn’t realize until after when embarrassment swelled out from my core, heating me up and making me feel so guilty for misleading people.
Then again, it wasn’t intentional, and it had definitely happened to me. Part of the experience I guess.
More often than not it was gratifying. It didn’t have to be people from Europe or South America. Many times, people from the mid-west stood on train platforms reading the fantastically misleading subway signs trying to figure out how to go three stops in the correct direction.
I’ve lived in this city 8 years and those signs still confuse me.
People tended to be very grateful and friendly. It made me feel good to help them, albeit in whatever small manner.
I am proud to say that this small behavior of mine started to rub off on my girlfriend, who several weeks ago observed a very lost looking individual.
The story she recounted to me:
I was standing in front of a Starbucks waiting for my friend when a guy walked by in one direction, stopped, looked around, then turned around and walked back where he came from, when he stopped again, looked around, and turned around again to walk back in his first direction where he stopped again. Three times he had passed in front of me looking really lost.
I thought to myself, Rich is always trying to help people out so I’ll give it a shot.
So I said to the man, “Can I help you find something?”
And he turned to me and screamed “NO!” and walked away.
I laughed when she told me the story, half with a feeling of sympathy for her and half with a feeling of “of course”. The time she goes out of her comfort zone to try and help somebody she get’s screamed at.
I encouraged her not to give up on tourists. We can be a skittish bunch.
That story was fresh in my mind last week as I observed a woman on the F train slowly descend into a quagmire of confusion about where she was, and where she was going.
I almost didn’t say anything… but I did. Naturally it turned into an extremely weird experience that lasted 35 minutes.
To be continued…