Moving to a new city means relinquishing your card to the People Who Know Where They’re Going club. Because you don’t. Know where you’re going. Even with Google Maps, sometimes.
And now, a quick history lesson with creepy details:
Several hundred years ago, America’s forefathers formed a more perfect union. Around the same time, the urban planners of Washington, DC drew a circle around all that hot, democratic action and built a city around it. Washington is organized into four quadrants (NE, NW, SE, SW). To have a city divided like that, you have to have a central locus point. Are you ready to freak out?
The central locus of DC is a crypt.
Did you know that?! Turns out, to properly navigate your way through DC, you gotta pivot on a skeleton. Well, sort of. Here’s the deal: the Capitol Building has a rotunda, which is the inside of the big, beautiful Capitol dome (currently covered in scaffolding because it’s having some work done.) The Capitol crypt is located directly below the rotunda and was made to be the entrance to George Washington’s tomb, two levels down. I know!
George Washington politely declined to be entombed in the Capitol Building, however. Since he was dead when he expressed his wishes, he got whatever he wanted. (Just kidding; his wishes were in his last will.) Washington is actually buried in Mount Vernon, VA, on the family’s estate. But the crypt and tomb are still the smack-dab middle of DC and you can tour the place, which I’m going to do as soon as The Great Holiday Goof-Off officially ends. (I love The Great Holiday Goof-Off but it’s cutting into my DC museum time.)
From the crypt, the streets in DC are numbered going east, from 1st to 2nd, to 3rd, and so on. They are also numbered the same as they go west: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on, but these numbers are claimed by different quadrants. The same system goes for the north and south, but the city planners used letters instead of numbers or names. To go north of the crypt, you hit A, B, C, etc.; heading south, you do the same thing, but — and I know you’re getting this, students — you’re in a different quadrant. To go to 4th and F Street, you need to know which 4th and which F Street you need. Because there are two of those.
This system makes a lot of sense as long as know which way is north. If you get turned around, you’ll end up on the other side of town pretty quickly. (Ask me how I know.) Then there’s the matter of all the state-named diagonals that cut through the grid. Thinking of those right now gives me a headache. I slightly hate Massachusetts Avenue; it has foiled several of my expeditions. It goes down but it heads west! It’s… I can’t talk about it.
One of my favorite writers died of cancer a few years ago. He made the comment that the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bromide with essentially zero truth behind it. If you’re in a car accident and walk away without a scratch, you might have a little swagger. If you learn from mistakes that were painful, you may become wiser. But chemotherapy, round after round, doesn’t make anyone stronger: it makes you weaker. If you have surgery after surgery on your abdomen (ahem) your abdomen is not stronger, suddenly; it’s fragile. It’s delicate. It’s at risk.
I’ve been wondering if that thinking might apply to having to frequently figure out the layouts of new cities. It’s something that I’ve had to do a lot in the past eight months. Does it help my sense of direction to be constantly thrown into a new place? Or are my navigational skills compromised because, for example, I just figured out which streets in Manhattan have bike lanes and no longer need that information but I must learn quickly whether the Glenmont Red Line train heads to the NE quadrant of town or the NW quadrant. Am I strengthening my brain or scrambling it?
Have map, will use brain cells. Because I need groceries.