Putting a compass to good use

My name is Anthony, and I am without direction. That doesn’t mean that I have no burning quest that propels my life and fires my soul, maybe sending Wally Herger to Mars or achieving democracy in the United States. I no longer have such an overriding objective, because I’ve achieved it and now I’m taking it easy. My goal was to change the world, and your reading this reconfirms my success.

In this context, without direction means that I have no sense of direction in a cardinal sense—not the bird, which California could use a lot more of by the way—north, south, east, and west, the cardinal directions.

As a young man, I always knew where I was, because I was in Chicago, where west is west and a compass points smack down the middle of State Street. Not only that, all street numbers start at the same place and proceed in all directions at the same pace, 800 numbers per mile. Twenty-four hundred west was as far from State Street as twenty-four hundred east, namely three miles. Nowhere else I’ve been is as easy to get around in as Chicago, and that early experience spoiled me.

Saint Paul and Minneapolis exist because of the Mississippi River, which doesn’t know from cardinal directions, and streets tend to dash off in unexpected directions from the river or in a mad rush to get to it and abruptly disappear.

Chico’s orientation to Highway 99—lying beside it licking its lips and trying to be alluring, or some other unpleasant simile—has made its grid align with the highway’s northwestern rush to get the hell away from Sacramento, a common sentiment in Northern California. Some intrepid neighborhoods have managed cardinal alignment, but they are few and obscure.

Chico’s planners, or the naming contingent anyway, also apparently loved nothing more than randomly renaming a street, whether it required it or not. I know of no other place where a person can travel on streets with five different names—Fair, Mulberry, Cypress, Mangrove, and Cohasset, for instance—and never need a turn signal. It’s quite an achievement.

Most of the time I carry a compass. Not many people carry a compass, it seems. Everyone who’s seen me consult one of mine has been amazed and amused that I have such a thing on me. They’re probably amused at other prostheses, too. I don’t mind being confused, but I don’t have the energy for much wandering around, and a compass keeps me from veering far off my optimum heading.

So in any new place, I first imagine it on Chicago’s grid, like comparing women to my mother, but without the therapy.