One experience that I dread when walking is the moment when a car pulls up alongside me and the window is rolled down. Inevitably this means that someone is about to ask for directions.
I’m pretty hopeless at giving directions under the best of circumstances: I have my own personal landmarks and often forget the names of streets. With preparation, I can provide pretty sensible directions, but when I’m caught off guard, I tend to draw a blank.
When I’m walking, it’s even worse. Although I know exactly how to get to many places from my home, when I’m away from home I have to first figure out where I am in relation to the destination, which can be quite disorienting. And all the while I’m uncomfortably conscious of the seconds ticking away on my stopwatch. If the encounter becomes involved, I’ll stop it, but I don’t like to have to do that. Despite my best efforts, though, I almost always realize after the car has pulled away that there was a much more efficient route I could have provided given a little more time to think.
So when I see (or hear or sense) a car slowing down, I’m often tempted to keep walking and ignore it or to say, “I’m sorry. I don’t live around here” (technically true, in a way, once I get several streets away) or even “Sorry. No English.” But that would be unfriendly and unhelpful, and our town is so well known for being friendly, I don’t want to spoil its reputation.
Anyway, I had one of those heart-sinking moments this morning. I was not far from home but was already deeply preoccupied with trying to figure out how best to tackle a particularly troublesome book manuscript I’m currently working on, and I resented the interruption, but the car was coming toward me, so I couldn’t very well pretend not to see it. It was the first in a line of three cars, and at first I worried that it was holding up traffic, but I later realized that all three cars were together. They were filled with women of the sort I was brought up to call “ladies,” though they probably think of themselves as “girls.” The passenger behind the open window asked, “I wonder if you could tell me how to get to where the restaurants are.”
“Where the restaurants are”? I could probably give passable directions to a specific restaurant, but “where the restaurants are”? I tried to envision the area as a vast food court, without much success. There are plenty of restaurants in town; did she just need directions back to town? Or did she mean restaurants out on “the four-lane” (Greeno Road/U.S. Highway 98)? Although she was deep in a residential neighborhood with no restaurants in sight, she was only a few blocks from town, which has practically nothing but restaurants (and gift shops and antique stores). How in the world did she get where she was without passing at least a few of these? Where did she come from? (I later realized that most likely the ladies were in town for the Coastal Birdfest, which is held on the Fairhope campus of Faulkner State Community College; they would absolutely have had to pass at least half a dozen restaurants to get from Faulkner to where I encountered them.)
Needless to say, I became a gibbering idiot. “Restaurants? There aren’t any restaurants around here [meaning the immediate neighborhood, which we call the Bluff District]. There are restaurants in town”—waving vaguely in the direction of town. At this point I could see that this was going to take time, so I stopped my watch, in the process noticing that it seemed not to be running in the first place, which further rattled me. This was not going well.
If I’d had good sense, I could have asked what sort of restaurant they were looking for and suggested a specific one, but really all I wanted to do was get rid of them. Unfortunately, I seem to have given the impression that there was no food to be had in Fairhope.
“Well, then, could you tell us how to get back to the interstate?”
The interstate? That seemed pretty drastic! I10 is a good ten miles away. They’d pass dozens of restaurants on the way, so presumably that could work. They were already headed toward town, so I gave them directions to get back on the main drag that would take them to “the four-lane.” Let them figure it out from there. Or perhaps they would inadvertently discover town as they drove through it.