Monday, November 14, 2011

Lost in the Urban Jungle: City Sense

We went to New Orleans last week for my brother-in-law's (Danno's brother) wedding. The couple have lived in The Big Easy for a few years now and absolutely love the city. I went to New Orleans several years ago and hated it. I was uncomfortable with sellers hawking their wares to everyone and anyone who passed by on the street, the inebriated people walking around and, I'm sorry if I sound like a snob, but the number of homeless people wandering around and sitting in groups on doorways put me on edge. Plus, knowing the crime rate was high didn't help my comfort level.  Needless to say I wasn't exactly looking forward to being in the city again, but promised myself I would be open minded. I was a little older, wiser, and fond of my brother-in-law and his fiancee.

We arrived late Wednesday night and Thursday morning I got up and decided to hit one of the coffee shops for some local coffee and beignets. We were staying in the French Quarter and there were several cafes around. How hard could it be to find a place close to the hotel?

I made a big mistake thinking I could easily walk in a strange city when I had not even walked in the downtown districts of my own town. Apparently there is a "city sense", a kind of familiarity people acquire navigating through the maze of streets and tall buildings while walking among a crowd of strangers and impatient drivers. The location may be different, but the overall details are the same. I have the "nature sense". I feel at home on a dirt trail with trees towering above me or cutting through a swath of tall grasses. It doesn't matter the location, the sense is the same. I may get lost in the woods, but I have a generalized idea of where I'm going and know that I will eventually find my way back. Not so in the city.

The walk from the hotel wasn't too bad, it was actually pleasant. It was early in the morning so the vehicle and foot traffic was light. There were delivery trucks on the streets, shop owners pulling trashcans into alleys, people hosing down their portion of the sidewalk and construction workers setting up their equipment for the day. There were no drunk people ambling about, no peddlers out and very few menacing looking strangers lurking in doorways. Maybe this town wasn't so bad after all.

I had Navigation, a GPS application on my phone that I used as my guide and decided to go to Cafe Du Monde, which was near the French Market. I did have a little trouble using the map on the phone because Navigator was meant more for a vehicle and I think my slow progress was confusing the satellites. The GPS was showing my location a street over from where I actually was, so I was constantly shrinking the map to look at the streets in relation to where I was walking. But I found the cafe in a reasonable amount of time.

I was largely unimpressed with Cafe Du Monde. The cafe had a tiny building with tables and chairs more-or-less in the kitchen and a huge tented seating area. The flaps on the tent were down because it was a chilly morning and the bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling provided dingy lighting. It was a seat-yourself establishment and the waitresses, who sat in chairs near the entrance of the tent, only got up to serve their assigned tables. My waitress was obviously used to the large masses of people coming in and out of the restaurant and I was just another body at her table. She stood off to the side and not once did she look at me while we interacted. In fact, she rolled her eyes when I tried to pronounce Cafe au Late. But I shrugged off her rude demeanor and enjoyed my breakfast.

After hitting a few shops in the French Quarter, I decided to return to the hotel, and that's when the trouble began. I had a difficult time interpreting where I was in relation to where the GPS placed me on the map. And because it was later in the morning, not only did I have the challenge of finding my way back to the hotel, but now I was trying not to run into people as I stared at my phone, and dodge speeding cars as I crossed the streets. The street signs were confusing as well and I'm not sure if the street department or the rowdy public were to blame. Many times I would come to a street corner and while the sign of the street I was on would be present, the cross street sign would be bent or covered in graffiti. But more times than not, the cross street sign would be absent.

At one corner there was a couple with suitcases looking around in bewilderment. It was the look of the lost.

"Excuse me" the man with the suitcase said to another man, "Do you know what this cross street is?"

"Sir I've only been here 12 hours. I have no idea." the other man replied.

I walked the streets with a growing sense of panic as I tried to remember whether or not I passed that building or recognized that sign. The battery on my phone went from yellow to red. I texted Danno and told him I was lost and trying not to freak out and I was going to have to turn my phone off because it was almost out of power.

There were more strange people out and about now. People with dirty clothes, greasy hair and tattoos and piercings on nearly every inch of skin. They were standing in the middle of sidewalks, hunched in doorways and walking on the curbs. I was going to get mugged. I just knew it. Danno appeared on Bourbon Street and I almost cried in relief. Apparently he had been tracking me tech style ala Google Latitude on his phone to find and rescue me. Thank God.

I do not have city sense and do not foresee myself acquiring this ability any time soon. I don't have the comfort level to be around crowds of strange people, nor do I have the tolerance to have my personal space constantly invaded or the patience to interact with people who talk to me when I did not initiate the conversation. If this makes me a crabby, mean or snobby person, then so be it. I do not like the big city habitat. I love the space and quiet of a small town.  There isn't an endless maze of streets in a small town, and there is no bumper to bumper traffic. I'll take the slow pace of a small town any day.


  1. I heartily agree. I was tensing up just reading that. Now I'm humming the Green Acres theme song.

  2. Hillbilly Mom, just wait until you read what happened to me on Saturday...