The Pleasures Of Providing Directions To The Lost

A short while ago, as I alighted at the New York City’s Herald Square subway station, I was approached by a Chinese gentleman seeking directions to Penn Station; he needed to catch a New Jersey Transit train to, well, New Jersey. I was already ‘late’ for my weekly Tuesday stint at the library, but I stopped and gave him explicit and detailed directions. He listened eagerly and attentively and then sallied forth; I slapped him on the back as he left, calling out ‘good luck’ as I did so. As I strode off to the library–where I am now writing this post–I had a smile on my face. The beneficiary of my directions had been bewildered and disoriented; now, hopefully, he wasn’t any more.

Once, some twenty years or so ago, while walking up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, I had spotted an elderly Sikh gentleman clutching at the hands of passersby, imploring them for something; I crossed the street, and heard him asking for directions in extremely broken English. I sidled up to him and spoke in Punjabi, “Sir, what are you looking for?” (Rather, I called him ‘padshah,’ a colloquial term that literally means ’emperor’ but doubles as a respectful term of address.) His expression changed dramatically from confusion to the broadest of smiles; he grasped my hand and squeezed it with some feeling. A minute or so later, I was heading off again, to the same library as I was headed to today, once again smiling from ear to ear.

There is something deeply satisfying about providing directions to the lost, to the bemused, to those cast adrift in strange environs. I have not yet descended into the realm of the symbolic or the metaphoric, and I don’t need to; getting lost, even if only temporarily, is a disconcerting experience. The fear of being so informs every step of mine in the great outdoors; it has prevented me, until this past summer, from ever going hiking solo. I can empathize effortlessly with the lost, with those temporarily ‘unsure of their position.’ I have ‘been there,’ I have ‘done that’; and I didn’t like it. (This act has special resonance for me in New York City, my first port of call in the US some thirty years ago; back then I was often too scared to ask for directions, intimidated by the city’s reputation and by the supposed dangers of being mistaken for a tourist.)

For that hopefully brief period of time when we are not sure which way to turn, we are overcome by a panoply of emotions, novel and archaic: frustration, irritation, impatience, anxiety, these all surge to the fore; we worry about missed appointments; we curse our inability to magically walk on the straight path home; men fret about whether their masculinity faces its most rigorous challenge yet; the GPS rises in our esteem as the greatest blessing of this technological age. To apply a healing balm to these myriad afflictions is Good Work; we should not shirk it.  And I don’t.

2 comments on “The Pleasures Of Providing Directions To The Lost

  1. Mary Cerreto says:

    Samir, Just reading your post gives me good feelings and a smile on my face. But I think what you experienced in giving directions to the lost is evident any time we help. In addition is the aspect of giving directions because you were experienced in the travel and knew what to do to help the person. Reminds me of the Kitty Genoese case in New York where researchers decided that it was not the amoral feelings of people not wanting to aid her but rather that everyone expected someone else to do it. The larger a group around the person who needs help, the less likely the person will be helped. Emphasizes the importance of letting people know exactly what you need, e.g., yelling “rape” instead of just “help.” As you can tell, your piece brought up a wide range of thoughts for me, just what I expect you want in writing. Thank you. Mary

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Mary, thanks for your comment; you are entirely right. It is the simplest of pleasures and the most rewarding; helping when we can, when someone needs us. I believe it to be a deep instinct of ours, and we should nurture it. Your wider references are also true; we should not count on others to come to aid, and we should be direct and specific in asking for help. As an immigrant, I could not have survived without relying on the aid provided by others.

      best,
      Samir

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