Every once in a while, some random event in my life makes me remember an encounter from, wow, over 20 years ago now. It sits indelibly in my mind as do those things that must certainly be of some radical importance, and it only remains upon me to gain the understanding of what this importance must be.
A friend, whom I shall simply call, “Wendy,” since that is coincidentally her name, and I were attempting to visit a discount outlet in Syracuse. I had never been, and Wendy was fairly sure she could remember how to get there. I will totally ruin the literary foreshadowing by keeping this story very far out of the realm of literature, and besides that simply by saying we got lost as you expected, but don’t feel too clever with yourself since no one tells a story about traveling straight to their destination without incident.
After eventually determining this without much doubt (the lost bit, I mean,) we decided to go ahead and ask directions. Since we were in a quiet and semi-residential section of the city, it took a couple of minutes before we finally located someone within easy calling distance on the sidewalk, so Wendy rolled down the window and hailed him.
He was an elderly man, dressed in rumpled clothes and bearing an umbrella, who I might possibly describe as “African-American” except that I have no idea whether either of these terms is accurate, so I will settle for “black” instead. Having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I had developed an affinity for the older black gentlemen and their distinctive manner of speech and storytelling, something I won’t try to emulate here because I simply cannot do it justice. Suffice to say that it doesn’t matter what the story might be, the value is all in the delivery. He stopped when called, stooped slightly, and when challenged by Wendy to provide us with direction to Ra-Lin’s, he pondered for a moment, peering off down the street ahead of us as if recalling the ancient legends.
“Head straight on up this road,” he began, emphasizing the directions with dramatic movements of his hands as if he was willing his golf ball towards the cup, “and turn left at the light. Stay straight, through maybe three, four stop signs, straight, straight, straight,” chopping the air to keep us from veering to either side, “and go under the bridge,” with a swoop that indicated we might actually have to burrow. “Head on up to the light, and then just… follow t’ crou’!”
Now, this isn’t an attempt at his dialect, because if I were doing that the entire passage above would be written very differently. Instead, this is my rendering of the words he appeared to use. Neither of us was sure if he was actually saying, “Follow the crowd,” or not, and asking him produced only the assurance that we had heard him correctly. Wendy thanked him, and I started to put the car in gear.
“Wait!” he bade us, suddenly reconsidering. “You go up this road, and turn left at the light, the stoplight,” he said, perhaps thinking we would get confused with some other electric filament along the way and crash through a bank or something. “Stay right along that road, straight on, straight on, and go under the bridge…” emphasized because vaulting the 690 overpass with my peppy little Datsun 200SX was certainly a distinct possibility – this is not long past the era of The Dukes of Hazzard, after all. “Get to the light, then… follow t’ crou’!”
It wasn’t lost on either Wendy or I that he had actually repeated his previous directions, and had reiterated the last vague part exactly as he had before, making it no clearer the third time around. We thanked him, and once again I was putting the car in gear as he stopped us again, excitedly.
“I am going to San Francisco!” he told us loudly and exuberantly, despite the fact that he was facing East. He whipped the umbrella around his head in a gesture that would have decapitated anyone within four feet. “Around the world in eighty days!” And then, he bent low to bring his face to our level sitting in the car, perhaps to allow a straighter air path for his next expulsion, rather than requiring his breath to make that tricky right-angle turn at the back of the throat. “I… AM… GOING… TO… AFRICAAAAAAA!”
The sheer defiance of this statement was unquestionable, and he was certainly quite happy to inform us of these plans, perhaps daring us to suggest a swimsuit along with the umbrella. Wendy, at that time working for the airlines and thus requiring the type of always-cheerful plastic demeanor that you find nowadays only in Human Resources, wore a smile you couldn’t shift with a brick. I did my best to emulate her, nodding appreciatively at the gentleman’s gleeful grin and murmuring through clenched teeth, in a way I would describe as sotto voce except I don’t speak French, “Roll the window up, Wendy. Roll the fucking window up, Wend…”
We bade him goodbye and moved on without incident or further travel plans, as he waved happily to us with a huge grin that suggested he knew exactly the effect he had provided. We made the next turn and I pulled over into a parking lot so we could laugh ourselves sick without risking other traffic, occasionally repeating his itinerary to one another through the tears. Eventually, we drove on, and followed his directions (indeed, remaining under the bridge despite temptation) until they’d petered out with the enigmatic “crou'” to be followed. Sitting at a light and wondering, “What now?” we spotted our destination half a block away to the right. It bears mentioning that we’d gotten to this point by driving along Crouse Ave, and the place was very crowded when we got there, so either way he was accurate.
Even now, twenty-some years later, I can look at the map and know almost exactly where this helpful gentleman was, and also that I can get back to Ra-Lin’s effortlessly. Given that, I certainly hoped he enjoyed San Francisco and Africa, because he undoubtedly got there.