The other day I was poking about downtown to take the measure and mood of local commerce and test the patience of busy merchants. Few things chafe the shopkeeper more than someone who happens in for a visit, especially when invoices are going out, or payroll taxes are due, or inventory is under way, or just as two buses from Toledo have disgorged four dozen eager browsers.
The merchants are always cordial, smiling, ever welcoming. Their eyes, though, can at times betray them (YOU again.).
As I started to jaywalk across Main, a man leaned from the window of his parked car and asked for directions to the Sandzén Gallery.
“You head that way, “I said, pointing north. “At the big white church, or as you come to the street this side of the church where there is a blonde brick wing attached to the church and a parking lot in front of that, turn right on the street just south and this side of that parking lot this side of the church and building.”
The man whispered to his wife, who was studying a pamphlet. She said something to him. He then looked up at me. “You want us to turn east on Olsson Street?”
“I think so. Probably. If you get to the park I think you’ve gone too far,” I said.
“Do you live here?” the man asked. “Yes ‒ seventeen years,” I said.
The man narrowed his eyes, then turned to his wife, muttering as he backed the car into the street.
Live in a small town long enough, and you acquire a talent for getting around without having to remember the names of streets. In Lindsborg they are clearly marked with legible signs at every intersection, but there are just enough of them – signs and streets – to be more than the memory can handle. The central grid can be challenging even to new arrivals. Approaching downtown westbound on Lincoln, Second Street comes right after First, but the driver must pass two paved alleys and two more streets (Main and Washington) before what should be Seventh Street is announced as Third. Along Main north from Lincoln are State and Saline; south-bound, it’s Grant and Union, intimations of past presidents, what they were about.
In other places I’ve lived, the rationale behind street naming has often been a mystery. In Hutchinson, east-west avenues are mostly by the number; First, Second and so forth go north from downtown until you are into the country with 56th. North and southbound streets are more the challenge. From Main west, navigators must know their presidents in order: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and so forth.
From Main east, a new challenge, trees: Walnut, Poplar, Maple and so forth. The whys and wherefores are left to history, or speculation that the tree-naming came from a railroad conductor who had spent too much time between trains in a speakeasy at the Bisonte Hotel.
Salina promises logic if you remember that Santa Fe, the main drag downtown, is actually 6th Street; westward you have 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th. Eastward from Santa Fe are 5th and 4th, with 3rd and 2nd petering out among paved loops and the moist ditch of the Smoky Hill winding through the parks, Oakdale and Kenwood. Through there and out of there is up to the Almighty and GPS.
In our small city, the veteran motorist faces no challenge to memorize the order of presidents or an arbor catalogue. Nor is a vehicle apt to run out of gas while navigating the linguini knots of pavement through a city park. In no time, Lindsborg habits shove memory out of the way, and instinct takes over. You get from the Sandzén to the Old Mill or from Villa Roe to the Middle School without thinking about it.
But if someone asks, the head goes sketchy. No amount of thinking will bring out the names on those street signs between, say, the Verdons’ and the Kessingers’, or from Dauer Welding to the Red Barn Museum. Once at Christmas time I was in Scott’s parking lot and a man from out of town asked for directions to the Middle School.
In a flash I saw myself on a movie set in the role of bump-kin, giving instructions like “You know the Kettle place? Not far from Elmer’s shop…”
No street names came quickly to mind. So, I sent him onto the old highway around town to Burma Road. I remembered Burma Road. “Head north and after a few blocks you can see the school from there, off to your right.” I had failed to mention, as the man drove away, that he would see the high school from the road, but not the middle school. There is a difference – not much, but enough.
Last Tuesday, Aug. 7, we left the house at mid-afternoon for the ¾-mile trip to our polling station, a community room at Bethany Home Cottages. We have been voting there for years, but this time I was not driving. When I am at the wheel I make the trip downtown to get my bearings, then head east on Lincoln to an intersection a block of two this side Marty Hardy’s old place; then I’d turn right (north) and follow my nose.
But from home, and not at the wheel and under pressure, I was lost. Ten minutes into our trip it seemed quite a trick, being unable to find the old polling station where I had marked ballots for years. Up one street and down the next, into a couple of alleys, then downtown to restart the bearings. Five more minutes and we were there, a tolerant driver with her deflated navigator who had promised a “short cut” – a curious notion in Lindsborg.
It all seemed fitting for that election day – two voters, one of them lost in a small place while riding shotgun, insisting he knew where they should be but couldn’t quite say how to get there.