Thursday, November 20, 2014

Just Look For Polaris

My dad, in a truck when he worked for the state building the Stevenson Expressway. I'm sure he couldn't have given clear directions to it. It only got worse when he went to work for himself.

I like maps. Look in the glovebox of the Mighty Ford Tempo, and you'll see an assortment from neighbouring states and beyond. A GPS is nice until it leads you down some long-abandoned mining road, or into the far reaches of Death Valley. Me? I'll take a map, thanks very much.

My dad drove thousands upon thousands of miles a year making deliveries. He was self-employed and preferred to make the deliveries himself, partially out of a thrifty nature (why pay someone to do what you can do yourself?) but largely because he enjoyed the interaction. People that didn't live with him really enjoyed him, in a harmless gadfly sort of way. He liked to joke that he was like president Nixon-loved around the world, but hated at home. Well that was partly true, except for the, "loved around the world" part. My dad loved Nixon, and Pat and the girls probably loved Nixon, but I don't know anyone else that did, at home or abroad. The point is, dad drove that delivery truck six days a week from Chicago to Milwaukee leaving at 5 AM to get loaded, and coming home somewhere around 8 PM except on Tuesdays and Thursdays when he would do a longer route coming home after 10 PM. With that many miles being logged, you'd think the man could give accurate, easy to follow driving directions. You would think.

Part of dad's problem was his refusal to keep accurate records. A quick glance at his sales book and you'd see the name of a place, and what they bought, and someone's signature for the delivery/payment. It was largely a cash only business (save for the larger hotel chains and places with purchasing departments). He was a food distributor. Do you have any idea how many restaurants there are between Chicago and Milwaukee? It didn't help that the taverns and hot dog stands all had names like, "John's Place." He knew where he was going, which was fine as he only missed five days of work in over fifty years, and it was really only four and a half because he went immediately back to work following my mother's funeral. He made sure it was an early, graveside service.

What my dad gave in place of proper directions were landmarks. Some, were known to everyone, "Go North when you get to Nicky's Poo Palace" (The North Side Sanitation District waste-water plant where his childhood friend, Nicky was in charge of operations) or, "Keep going until you see the lake", or "Over where they had the Haymarket Riots." Those were landmarks I could work with, and more or less figure it out from there. I have a reasonably good sense of direction, and Chicago and Milwaukee are both on grids. Learn to work the numbers and diagonal streets, and everything is fine. It was a bit surreal when I moved to Boston which is, well, not a grid. Boston streets are like abstract art. Thankfully, I didn't require directions from my dad too often, but when it did arise it was like code breaking. I did eventually figure out that Crawford and Pulaski were the same street which was quite the Eureka moment. Those other four and a half days that he couldn't work when he was in hospital, I flew in from Boston to run his route for him. It was, in hindsight quite a lot to ask of me, but I did it and twenty years later it hardly matters. What I do remember being outrageous was being expected to make deliveries across two states with such cryptic directions.

"You know where it is. Right next to Hans' garage."
"You know, Hans. The guy that came out to tow me in the snowstorm that time I got the frostbitten ear."
The frostbitten ear he got trying to change a flat on a fully loaded truck in a blizzard, in 1973!

Sometimes he'd be more specific, indicating it was by a gas station that sold lottery tickets and cheap cigarettes (all gas stations in Wisconsin sell lottery tickets and cheap cigarettes) or near a church ("I don't know what sort of has a steeple!"). Somehow everyone got their deliveries  (if they didn't, or received the wrong ones they didn't complain) and every place I brought merchandise to had to spend several minutes telling me what a great fellow my dad was, and to send him their best for a speedy recovery. Why wouldn't they, it wasn't like they needed to rely on him for driving directions.

This was before mobile phones were common, but dad had adopted that bit of technology early. I took the rather large phone (compared to today's models) with on the truck, and he'd regularly call to make sure I hadn't gone the opposite direction and ended up in Indiana. He was ill, so it would have been wrong to mention he would, without fail take the wrong exit on his bi- monthly delivery run to Lansing. Michigan, and end up on his way to Grand Rapids. Every. Single. Time. But he was in hospital, so I just told him where I'd been, and tried to extract more detail about where the "Tavern near the ballpark that sold hamburgers" might be located. I'd get something helpful like, "Oh you know the cook there used to work in the deli at the cheese place." In Wisconsin. "Cheese Place" is not a helpful description. If he was being particularly helpful I might get some detail to jog my memory like, "Remember LaDonna, who used to send you home different flavours of loose tea?" I remembered LaDonna, and I remembered the tea (when I was six) but I was damned if I could remember where she worked, or how to get there. I do remember the tea though, dad had nice customers.

Bad as this was, it was so much better than driving with dad in the passenger seat. Though he was discharged, it was clear he couldn't quite take the wheel yet, so I continued to drive him on his route for the next week or so. My dad had a habit of punching people to get their attention. Not terribly hard, mind you, but enough to get your attention. We'd be driving along, suddenly I'd feel a slap or a fist on my shoulder accompanied by the shouted instruction to, "Turn here!" This was typically delivered far too late to take the requested turn which would result in another shoulder punch to tell me to "turn around in that lot over there!" The first time Mr. ETB was in the car with my father for any length of time he was horrified. I'm sure it looked close to the Three Stooges in violence to an outsider, but to me it was just my dad's inability to give directions. "Go here." was about the best he could do, especially if he was talking and not really paying attention-and he was always, always, talking.

I had a friend in college that would tell you to turn left and at the same time, be pointing right. It was maddening, but I soon learned to listen rather than look when she was navigating us somewhere.  She never punched me, and she understood how the numbering system of the Chicago streets worked, so I cut her some slack. Mr. ETB is dreadful with directions, rarely taking the same path to a place more than once, but as with my college friend, he keeps his hands to himself, and no one is shouted at, so if I'm in doubt about somewhere I need to go I either consult a map, or my son. He's the only member of this family besides myself that could find their way out of a parking lot, and explain how it was done.

I like to think I give excellent directions. When we lived on the farm, I could describe the route to the house all the way from Omaha with street names, route numbers, and where to take the appropriate turns. This was not by any means, common. Most people's directions would indicate you should "Turn by the grain elevator, but if you got to the feed lot you went too far." Not terribly helpful, but at least no one dared to punch me in the shoulder!  When we first moved there, in 2001 the locals were still not using street addresses as the postman lived in town, and knew where everyone lived. Every so often we'd get letters sent from the central post office telling us that we were now required to use proper street addresses, but I'm sure people are still sending mail to people in town with little more than their name and city. We might not have had a Haymarket or a Poo Palace, but we had barns full of hay, and plenty of manure. My dad would have felt right at home.

What about you? Can you give good directions, or do you resort to strangely nicknamed landmarks and punches? Do you use GPS, or prefer the feel of a well-creased old map?


Mim said...

I can't drive - it's probably related to my prosopagnosia, but I have absolutely NO road sense. I struggle to cross them safely - but I do the navigating for my husband. We're pretty good at working together now. I rely on maps, backed up with my iPhone.

Curtise said...

You know I love your family stories, so I really enjoyed reading this. So true, the difference between our view of our parents/family members, and that of outsiders.
I have a terrible sense of direction, have to concentrate to identify left and right correctly, am mystified and terrified in equal measure by maps, and any directions I give are all about landmarks, never road names or numbers. Don't ever ask me to navigate, I'd drive you mad! xxx

Goody said...

Driving is overrated, you're not missing much. Might be better if people would look at the road instead of their phones, but I know that's asking too much. It sounds like you've worked it out with your husband, but that's marriage isn't it? We all have our strengths.

Now don't go getting the impression I *liked* them or anything! Time and distance permits me to be generous. Besides, a blog hardly seems like the place to be airing your simmering anger of many decades...that's for when you get a book deal! When I read Alexandra Fuller's childhood memoir I kept wondering what was so awful? Our mothers would have been fast friends, if they had/and could keep, friends.

Bibi Maizoon said...

No road/street signs, street addresses, or postal service to speak of here in Nepal. We have to go to the local airstrip to pick up our mail once a week.
Maps are merely a vague suggestion here, a compass is much more useful.
Even GPS is a bit sporadic depending on what side of the mountain you're on- some of these gorges are pretty darned deep.
Heck, all of south Asia is a 'poo palace'! We have the endemic illnesses to prove it from hookworms to hepatitis A through Z!
I've found several folks to be airing their 'simmering rage' on Facebook, I wonder if they realize all the $ they're missing out a book deal?
Anyhow, hope you're still on the road to recovery. I had what looked like an innocuous little 'contact dermatitis' rash on my leg, unfortunately it festered into a nasty case of cellulitis requiring IV antibiotics. At least it is as 'cheap as chips' to go to the hospital here. But then there's nothing quite like a 3rd world hospital to make you feel like you've died & gone to Hell!

Helga said...

O, my, what a character your Father was! I can imagine he would be fascinating to those who didn't put up with him on a daily basis! Being punhed for my attention, however, would have resulted ina few stand up fights........!!!
I'm pretty good as a navigator, I think. You'd have to ask G. I love maps, and can just dribble over them for ages, so really enjoy plotting my route when going somewhere new.
But I must confess to being TERRIBLE at giving directions verbally!

Goody said...


There's NO way I could ever drive in Nepal. I remember being freaked out driving through the mountains in upstate New York-no way I could handle it. A compass is a wonderful thing to have, and understand how to use. When they first started showing up in new cars, I thought it was the best automobile improvement I'd seen in a while.

Yeah, he was terrible but he was also BIG so I just had to put up with him. There's no offensive moves when you're a kid.