Written by: CHRISSANN NICKEL
There are many reasons why, if I ever found myself in some sort of wilderness survival situation, I would likely perish, never to be seen again. We’ve all clicked through those shows with the ominous titles that guarantee a harrowing, near-death experience with a victorious ending such as I Shouldn’t Be Alive. But for me, there would be no show, no outlandish story to share at cocktail parties of Christmas future, I simply wouldn’t be alive. I can’t start a fire from twigs, eat bugs out of necessity, nor can I handle the sight of my own blood without fainting. But perhaps my most relevant flaw, the one that would surely lead to my rapid demise, is the fact that I have absolutely no sense of direction. I’m one of those people for whom that oh-so-flattering phrase, “can’t find her way out of a paper bag”, was invented.
Up until I got my learner’s permit, I was under the impression that the street name that you were driving on changed every time you passed underneath one of the perpendicular overhead signs indicating a cross street. To me, they were giant welcome signs, as though you were passing under the Gates of Oz – Welcome to Mackinac Lane! – no matter that they were a mere block apart. While this explained a lot as to why I could never seem to give people accurate directions to our house, I don’t believe it offered my father any comfort at the prospect of sending me out in a car on my own. Thankfully, by the time I was old enough to be going on real life job interviews and the like, MapQuest had been invented and I would meticulously plan my trips ahead of time, printing out packets (this was way before smartphones) to get me from place to place.
When I first moved to St Thomas, I quickly realized that I was on uncharted territory. There was no GPS available and even the almighty MapQuest was coming up with straws. More concerning was the noticeable lack of street signs. If these roads had names it was anyone’s guess, as they felt no need to announce themselves in the same brazen fashion as their stateside counterparts. The only island maps I could find were the cartoonish ones created to appeal to tourists by making our island look like a charming wonderland covered in grass and hibiscus flowers. These maps used a rudimentary numbering system for some of the “major” roads, though how you were supposed to know what number you were on once you were actually driving on them was a mystery – there were no placards I could spot indicating the numbers and no local had any idea what you were referring to when you’d pull over to ask for help when you became inevitably lost.
Shortly after my arrival, a kindly co-worker invited me to a Thanksgiving party at his house. I distinctly remember the directions he gave me, as they included the phrase “used to be”, as in, “take a right at the white house where the big mango tree used to be“. He either didn’t remember that I had just arrived on-island a week ago or was giving me much more credit than I was due. But as I drove around that night in desperately lost circles, I began to realize that past knowledge of island landmarks and events would be crucial if I was to roll with the island punches.
Finding your way around the islands and being able to converse coherently with fellow islanders requires a working knowledge of current business names, their past incarnations, their owners, their past owners, and the notable things that may have happened there. Unable to remember an eatery’s current name, people will often invite you to meet them at “that restaurant that Bettina owned when it was a gay nightclub. You know, the one that Randy got arrested at”. It matters not if you were even born yet when it was a gay nightclub or if you have any idea who the hell Bettina or Randy is – the point is, you’re expected to know if you expect to live here. On a rock with limited real estate, there are only so many places for businesses to exist and they therefore tend to change hands frequently. It is not uncommon for people to refer to a business as the name it was 3+ changes ago. My boyfriend still refers to a restaurant on the North side by the name it was over 15 years ago. Whenever I mention it with its current name, he just looks at me, lost, unable to determine what I’m talking about before I succumb and just call it what he knows it as: Ferrari’s.
While challenging to catch onto at first, this shared cultural knowledge is one of the things I love most about living down here – we’re all in it together, a united front against reason and logic. I love that when I moved there in 2006, the US territory of St Thomas still had a “Gas n’ Grass” – a delightful petrol station where you could pull up to the pump and ask the attendant for “$10 in the tank and a 10 bag” and leave with a mind-altering souvenir. I love that now, even though it’s been 5+ years since I lived on St Thomas, there’s no need to concern myself with the names of any of the current establishments. When I visit friends, I can still make references to how things were when I was there (or long before my time, even). When I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the place I want to go to dinner at, I can just tell my friends to rendezvous at “that Italian place that was decorated in the chef’s art… the place that for some reason always gave us the vague impression of a dentist’s office. You know, where you’re heading down Cassie Hill, past the dumpster dogs and the wig place and just past the Gas n’ Grass. No, not the new Gas n’ Grass, the old one.” And we’ll all know exactly where I’m referring to.
For a girl as directionally challenged as I, an island just 31 square miles in size that you can traverse with ease once you commit its small, yet wacky, history to memory, is a dream. For who needs street names when you have a Gas n’ Grass and a dead mango tree no one can seem to forget?