East Is East and West Is West

Even if they do meet right in the middle

I was once friendly with a woman who got lost going for a walk around the block. Literally. Around the block. Three left turns and she was lost.

Now, thanks to the stroke, I am that woman.

That became painfully clear yesterday when CF and I drove down to Portland (Oregon, that is) to pick up her sister at the airport. That’s one of the tricks of living in Olywa: visitors can fly in to Portland (Oregon) if the airfare is cheaper than it is in to Seattle, even though the drive home is a bit longer.

By the way, it annoys me that the city in Oregon is the better-known Portland, since it takes its name from the more idyllic place in Maine. The Columbian place won its name on a coin toss, and would have been otherwise known as Boston but for the flip. Boston, Oregon? Don’t think so. They’d compost the Green Monster out here.

It became painfully clear yesterday that I am lost in space because we left home very early so we would have lots of time to visit a bookstore we have wanted to visit since we moved out here many years ago: Powell’s City of Books, the largest bookstore in the world, occupying an entire city block in Portland. I’d been reading their ads for decades, and we had come close to visiting several times.

We had pages of MapQuest maps to get us there, and I was the navigator, a role I had successfully filled for hundreds of trips. CF turned on NPR to keep her company while I confidently snuggled in for my usual 30-minute nap, blankie and eye mask in place.

When it became time to call out the first non-highway turn, I did my best, but no matter what piece of paper I tried to read, nothing made sense. As near as I could tell, we were supposed to turn onto Steel Bridge Road, but there was no such road. Well, there were signs for it, and there appeared to be something that looked like a steel bridge, but there did not appear to be a turn for it, and instead we turned onto what appeared to be a macadam bridge, or perhaps an iron bridge, or maybe a concrete bridge, I really don’t remember at this point, because CF was rather frustrated.

You see, she has historically been the one without the sense of direction, and I have always been the one who has confidently said, “It’s O.K., all we have to do is go around the block.” I’m the one who has never needed a map. I’m the one who could just sniff the breeze and say, “This way is north.” I’m the one who could glance at the sun and turn for home.

Now I couldn’t find a simple right turn.

So what does CF do? She wings it.

“This looks like it,” she says. And off she goes. All I can do is gasp.

“Oh, look,” she says, “Burnside Street.” And darned if it isn’t. Somehow, against all odds, she has found the very street that Powell’s Books is on. I look at the directions again. There were three or four more turns we were supposed to make. Somehow she has accomplished it all in a few magical swoops.

It didn’t seem to matter to her that it was Burnside St. East when we needed Burnside St. West. She assured me that it would turn into Burnside St. West at some point. How she knew that I do not know. And she said that if it didn’t, we would just turn around and go back the other way to find the west end. How she knew that I don’t know.

I no longer knew where I was. All I knew is that I wanted the books.

All of my life, I have been surrounded by books. My mother gave me my first one to explain why the doctor was cutting my umbilical cord. She had me enrolled in book clubs all through childhood, and I was always several grade levels ahead of myself.

I still remember the day I was allowed into the adult library in West Caldwell, N.J. It was called the Julia H. Potwin Memorial Library, and it was upstairs from the children’s library. You reached it by climbing an iron staircase and opening a wooden door. It was all very mysterious the first time. The children’s library was full of the usual drek, and I had exhausted its supply of Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, etc., and was desperate for something more substantial.

That first day, I climbed that staircase and opened the door and viewed the high stacks surrounding me. I was in awe. I turned to take in the whole picture and vowed I would read every single book. It was heaven.

And until yesterday, I was never cowed by a room full of books.

But Powell’s did me in.

The essential map of Powell's

The essential map of Powell’s

It’s the only bookstore I know of that has to publish a map of its layout. It’s the only bookstore I know of that names its rooms. We were there for two hours. I barely got through one-tenth of it. Barely, hardly, scratched it.

And then it was back into the car to get lost again, to watch CF pull off another magic maneuver to get to the airport to pick up Peggy. I mean she just about pitched the MapQuest directions out the window. She had me read them to her, then muttered something to herself about “going back the way we came,” which meant nothing to me, since the way we came was a few magical swoops as near as I could tell.

The streets in this part of Portland (Ore.) evidently were modeled after the streets in Portland (Maine), in that they are narrow, except flat (the ones in Maine pitch hill-wise and cobble-wise), so I had to close my eyes as CF maneuvered the magical arcs. The next thing I knew, she uttered a triumphant cry at the sight of a sign for the airport, and we pulled in just in time to greet Peggy.

And, I am happy to report, Peggy did indeed toss down her carry-on bag, give me a hug, and tell me I look great. Even if I did lose my way between the parking garage and baggage pickup trying to find her.

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11 thoughts on “East Is East and West Is West

  1. Thank you for your description that transports me instantly back into West Caldwell’s library of our youth, which was a magical place for me too. And thanks for your gifted writing!

  2. I just found your site. You know how? Looking for info on the Julia Powell Library 🙂 And I’m still only two miles from it 🙂 I loved that library, and you describe it so well!

    My mom has had a stroke, is doing good. But I understand.

    • You mean the Julia Potwin Library in West Caldwell, N.J.? It was a great little library. I still have a postcard of it on my bulletin board. I grew up on Central Ave., about as far out on it as you can get and still be in West Caldwell.

      • yes, thank, I was looking for Julia Powell, though 🙂 couldn’t remember the last name…she was actually a Crane…it seems like a lot of people back then (1912?) had little parks for people to remember them by put into their wills 🙂

        were you close to north caldwell? near Notre Dame? take care

  3. We were about three houses from North Caldwell on Central Ave. We played in Notre Dame as they built it. As you leave Notre Dame, you go past Boxwood Drive and then Central Ave takes a rather big curve to the left. The house I grew up in is #306 on the left. Don’t have a clue who lives there now. I think it’s changed quite a bit–in fact, I think they tore down the house and rebuilt.

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