Whenever I am reading something and the author mentions a place, and then starts to describe the place, and it’s a real place: I have to look it up on a map. Putting a visual location to what I’m reading enhances the story for me.
Yesterday I was reading a book in which the author talked about living in a small apartment on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn. He described the street and what he could see from his apartment. I’ve never been to Brooklyn, so I had no frame of reference. I stopped reading and put the book down, then looked up Pineapple Street on Google maps. I zoomed out to give me perspective on where this guy lived. I zoomed in and looked at the street view of the place he was describing. All of a sudden, the rest of his story meant more to me. I could visualize it, I could see him walking the streets, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, and getting off the train at the Rockaway Avenue Station. I could see what he was seeing, I could smell what he was smelling, and I could hear the sounds he was hearing. The story became real to me, and I was right there with him in 1951.
I have always loved maps.
When I was a kid, we had a Rand McNally World Atlas. It had a red hardcover, and it was enormous. It was printed in 1956; I was born in 1968, so even when I was spending time with the book, it was already out of date. The atlas had been my father’s when he was a kid. When you opened the cover, there was a drawing of a city in blue with a plane flying over the city and in the corner of the page it said, “Little Tony”—my dad.
I spent hundreds of hours throughout my youth inside the pages of that atlas. I can still remember what it smelled like, felt like, and looked like. It was heavy, but it had the whole world inside its covers! The corners of the cover were worn and fraying. The binding was cracked and opened more easily to some pages than other. It had bright colors, each country or state depicted in its own chosen color.
What I loved most about the atlas was that it let you zoom in on places. That differs from a globe, which was great at giving you a view of where in the world a place was, like a good idea of really far into the Pacific Ocean Hawaii is, or how long the voyage from England to India was if you took a boat around the Cape of Good Hope in search of spices. In my atlas, I could travel to Australia, and then imagine what it was like to drive from Perth to Sydney. I could discover the coast of Maine and visit a lighthouse. I could travel all over Italy and imagine riding gondolas or swimming in the Mediterranean. The atlas was my escape and where I yearned and learned to be a traveler and historian.
I spent weeks in Florida, days in Japan, hours in New Zealand. I imagined the people who lived there, the homes they lived in, and where they shopped. I gave these people names and histories and futures. I loved that atlas.
That atlas honed my sense of direction (although my husband would probably beg to differ). I always have an idea of where I’m going and where I am. I will sometimes let myself get lost in order to discover something new. I love knowing where I am and how it fits into the bigger landscape, be it the neighborhood, the city, the state or country, and the world.
I haven’t seen that atlas in 30 years or more. I don’t know what happened to it. Maybe my dad has it; maybe it was lost or donated or thrown out. I wish I had it, if only to see how much the world has changed. Borders have changed, as have the name of countries. We have the world at our fingertips now, so we don’t need a big clunky atlas of the world.
I think I’m going to go spend some more time on Pineapple Street, Brooklyn, to see what else I can learn about this street. It looks like a pretty interesting place.