Street Sense: After 20 years, no end to the mystery of Pittsburgh streets | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Street Sense: After 20 years, no end to the mystery of Pittsburgh streets

I get lost in places I know well. I can teach in the same classroom for weeks and still be unsure whether to turn left or right to find the exit. Say a friend has lived on the same street for 30 years. That doesn't mean I can find her house.

"Bad sense of direction" doesn't come close to describing it.

When we moved to Pittsburgh nearly 20 years ago, I told my kids: "Get ready for a lot of U-turns." What an understatement. For me the mysteries of Pittsburgh never end. My older daughter, Charlotte, thought my getting lost in familiar places was weird and idiotic. She's like a homing pigeon: The rare occasions when she gets turned around are adventures to her, puzzles, the way Scrabble is to me. My younger daughter, Rachel, also has a sense of direction. One night she pointed out the window of our car and said, "Max lives there." This amazed me: Rachel has developmental disabilities. She cannot name left or right. She is legally blind.

As a parent, you're expected to know where you're going, to pilot the craft, especially in stormy weather. I wasn't going to count on Rachel to help me with directions, and didn't want to lean on Charlotte. When she wasn't along for the ride, I taped detailed directions to my dashboard before I drove anywhere. I replaced them with reverse directions before returning home. Still, my journeys always involved frantic inquiries in gas stations and convenience stores, and pulling curbside to ask directions of dog-walkers or parents wheeling baby carriages, then trying mightily -- and unsuccessfully -- to figure out where they were pointing or remember the sequence of turns.

And then they moved: Charlotte to Brooklyn, and Rachel to a "community living arrangement" in Coraopolis.

The first time I used a GPS, I nearly wept. I felt as if I'd been hobbling all my life and had at last been given a prosthetic leg. Lulu, the name Rachel and I gave to "the lady" inside the box, did not snort when I missed my turn. She did not say, "How can you possibly get lost?" or "I don't believe it," but, always, with patience, "recalculating."

Rachel loved the GPS. "Where's the lady?" she asked when I picked her up after Special Olympics swimming in Squirrel Hill. "Why isn't the lady talking?" she asked when the sound was turned off.

A GPS is not foolproof. I tried not to depend on Lulu, the way I tried not to depend on my kids. Even after her arrival, I never drove someplace new without paper maps in the door pocket and Mapquest directions printed out.

One Sunday, I drove to Rachel's apartment, to take her shopping. I had not known that a bridge was closed for repairs, and neither did Lulu. She kept sending me down streets blocked off with giant detour signs. Every turn brought me to a dead end. I hated Lulu's cool advice to recalculate, her inability to reroute me. I pulled into the parking lot of a shuttered restaurant, hating myself, and her, and the world.

"We can't go," I told Rachel. "The bridge is closed. I don't know how to get there."

I was reprogramming the GPS when Rachel said, "It's this way." She pointed out her window.

"That doesn't seem right," I said irritably. She pointed out the window again.

Out of desperation, I turned the way she suggested. "Now what?" I said at the next intersection. I followed her next direction and then the next until we were out of the wilderness.

This may sound like the blind leading the blind, but it isn't. She knows how to get places, while my job is to sit back and reinvent myself. Cushioned by my maps and apps and Rachel, I can claim I'm an explorer, instead of a woman who's lost. I'm Queen of the U-turn. And I bet I've seen more Pittsburgh neighborhoods than you.

Disability Pride
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Disability Pride

By Mars Johnson