GPS Blues


I’m not sure whether this piece is about the challenges of urban life, the sometime unreliability of the GPS or the problems of DWA, Driving While Aging. Let me tell you where the story starts and we’ll see where it takes us.

This past weekend we made a date with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law to have dinner in an outdoor Greek restaurant. (We still eat only in restaurants that have an outdoor eating option.) We enjoyed eating in another branch of this restaurant, so this new iteration sounded appealing. I also enjoy being in the company of Ralph and Rona, Rosellen’s brother and his wife, and we had a large number of agenda items to discuss, so I was really looking forward to this date.

We started out with a lot of time to spare. When we put the address into our GPS, it indicated that we would arrive ahead of our appointment time. As we got closer, the GPS started spewing out directions that seemed to defy common sense, but we had just made a four hour drive out of state for which we slavishly followed its commands, so we weren’t inclined to challenge the genii for such a short excursion.

Unfortunately, the meanderings began eating into the extra margin of time we had allotted for getting to the restaurant, so I was beginning to feel a bit frantic. We were being led around in a circle, traversing the same streets that had already failed to produce a clear route to our destination. At one point we both had our GPSs on at an intersection with one telling us to turn left and the other calling for a right turn. We called Ralph who was already at the restaurant, having wisely decided not to drive himself but to take a cab. He thought he could guide us to our destination, and he told us later that various waiters and patrons were also eager to assist. Apparently, we were not the first aspiring patrons who had trouble finding this destination.

Ralph’s instructions required making U-turns in several places where we were not in the right lane to do safely execute one. “This is the kind of situation where you can get yourself killed,” I said to my wife at this point. We were already past our reservation time and the restaurant had a two-hour occupancy limit for each table. We still had no clear sense of how to get where we were going, but we were willing to give it one last shot and attempt one more U-turn.

That’s when the blue light went on behind us. It became clear that not only were we not going to make our dinner date, but we were about to be hit with a hefty ticket. Then came the only good moment in this harrowing ordeal. When I rolled down my window, the cop said immediately, “I’m not going to give you a ticket, just a warning.” Somewhat relieved, I handed over my driver’s license, so that he could check to be sure I wasn’t wanted in multiple states. Meanwhile we sat there, completely drained by the whole experience but also fully aware of how differently this scenario would have unfolded if we were a different color.

When he returned my license, the officer said something about wanting to make sure we were safe, probably a reaction to seeing our erratic driving in the futile search for our destination. By now we were in no condition to resume that search. Even if we managed to find our way, we would not have been engaging company. Instead, we headed home to eat a frozen pizza and stare at the TV as we tried to settle our frayed nerves. Definitely not the evening we had anticipated or wished for.

The whole experience reminded me of another urban tangle that defied the powers of the GPS. Houston, like LA and other “newer” cities, is a car city. That required creating a spaghetti of intersecting highways with multiple on and off ramps and transfer points from one strand to another. Once, I was scheduled to attend a meeting at a suburban hotel which sat at the crossroads of three major highways. As I approached, I could see the hotel in the midst of the tangle but try as I might I could not reach it. I tried many combinations of exits and entrances from one highway to another, all to no avail. No electronic guidance system could possibly master this puzzle. As the clock ticked past the start time of the meeting, my frustration mounted and, just as in the recent caper, I gave up and headed home, frazzled and unfulfilled.

One more story that extends the problem beyond the urban borders of my first two tales. We were in New Hampshire trying to get to the home of a friend who lived in a rural area. The GPS led us to the edge of a dense forest where one could discern what might be a footpath – or maybe not. Rosellen said, “You can’t drive in there. We’ll never get out!” It was hard to shake my abiding faith in the Gospel according to GPS, but of course Rosellen was right, and we backtracked to the main road, and after stopping at various gas stations and calling out to people in their yards we finally reached our destination, our nerves jangling just as they were in our urban failures.

We’ve shared these stories with many friends and discovered that almost everyone has stories of GPS betrayals and/or having gotten colossally lost and abandoning hope. So, what’s the moral? One should always carry a good old-fashioned paper map. The other lesson is that human common sense still trumps machine information, so when your GPS leads you to the edge of a cliff, as has been reported in news stories, TURN AROUND!

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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