Friday, September 11, 2009

Signs

Years ago, Richard Kopperdahl wrote some remarkable articles for The Village Voice. In them, he offered vivid accounts of years spent traveling along the Bowery under the influence of alcohol and mental illness.

(Those articles are old enough not to appear online, but you can get the flavor of his writing if you scroll down to the “On the Bowery” item in this New York Times blog.)

Two things have long remained in my memory from those articles—and I say this with the usual disclaimer that I haven’t reread them, so I might be wrong.

One was the boozing Richard’s habit of picking up old bottles and taking a swig in the hope that some last droplets of liquor might have pooled in the bottom and might now be drunk. I think he called this “collecting the corners.”

The other was his story of days spent walking the trails secretly marked on sidewalks by fallen cigarette butts. If they bent to the left, he turned the corner. And if they pointed straight, that’s where he went.

He was following the signs.

Lately, I’ve been doing much the same thing. All across this country, the routes for organized bike rides are marked with spray-painted symbols and arrows on the roadways.

A few weeks ago, I was upstate and following the green arrows for a 62-mile route—and then, unbenownst to me, something went awry. First there weren’t any signs, but then there were new, thicker green arrows, and finally those stopped.

I’d gotten blasé about following the cue sheet, and beyond that I’d forgotten to bring a road map, so I was lost. I began waving down drivers. They told me I was miles from the town I was aiming for—but they weren’t sure how to get there, either, at least not on the back roads.

Happily, soon after this I had a flat. My problem was solved when I walked into a plant nursery and asked them to call me a taxi, and happily both the shopkeepers and the driver knew where they were. It occurred to me later that I’d lost one bike trail and inadvertently picked up another—but who knows where that one was leading?

It happened again last week, when I went off on my own and attempted to follow the markers for the New York City Century—a trail of C’s with arrows. This time I had a street map, but no cue sheet. It all went very well for hours, and then it didn’t. I wound up riding along the access roads to the LIE and trying to find a subway.

Fortunately, it all worked out. I’ve been very lucky.

Still, it makes me think about the fragility inherent in our lives—as well as how miraculous it is that things so often go as we expect. How easy it would be to alter the signs and send us all off into the chaos of misdirection.

I follow spray-painted arrows and believe I am sane, but I might feel equally secure striding from one street to the next according to the instructions from cigarette butts—and it seems my confidence would be mistaken.

How do we know which signs are the right ones? It’s so often a matter of trust, or even faith—in our collective willingness to guide each other safely toward our destinations, if nothing else, and that seems like no small thing.

1 comment:

Joan said...

A new form of collecting the corners, maybe.

Gem of an essay and fine snapshots accompanying.